The passion project is as old as Hollywood itself.
Film icons like Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg have all cashed in chits, mortgaged their prestige and wrung their last ounces of influence to bring their visions to the big screen. The results are often mixed, both artistically and commercially. For every “Dances With Wolves” that a driven actor like Kevin Costner can get made at the zenith of his power, raking in riches and Oscar glory in the process, there’s a “Waterworld” or “The Postman” that brings an actor’s star crashing back to earth.
Through it all, the calculus of “one for them and one for me” continues to guide many actors. Someone like Robert Downey Jr. will play Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes into retirement home age if it means getting to stretch his acting muscles in a talky drama like “The Judge.”
That exchange may no longer be financially viable. Take the box office carnage that transpired over Halloween, when “Our Brand is Crisis” and “Burnt” collapsed at the box office despite having Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper’s names above the titles. Both were described by the studios that backed them as “passion projects” for the actors and filmmakers involved, and each shows how difficult it will be to get these kinds of pictures made at a time when it’s difficult for anything not featuring a superhero to draw a crowd.
“This is a direct reflection of living in the golden age of television,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “There’s no reason to spend twelve bucks on a film like ‘Burnt’ when you can stay home and watch a whole season of a show on Netflix or HBO that is much better.”
HBO and Netflix may be the future home of such projects. Actors like Frances McDormand (“Olive Kitteridge”) and Brad Pitt (“War Machine”), as well as filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh (“Behind the Candelabra”) and Cary Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation”) have already turned to these platforms to release projects that defy an easy marketing pitch. It’s easy to see the attraction. Both channels have a reputation for quality, access to healthy budgets and adhere to business models that don’t lean heavily on opening weekends.
That’s a good thing. When “Beasts of No Nation” debuted in 31 theaters, it made $51,000. That meagre result would have been catastrophic for a traditional studio. Outwardly, however, Netflix seemed sanguine about paying $12 million for a child soldier drama without commercial appeal. The company’s content chief Ted Sarandos said the film is popular with Netflix members, and the allure of exclusive content was enough to justify turning a theatrical run into a tax write-off.
“Burnt” and “Our Brand is Crisis” might have fared better had they depended on streams instead of ticket sales. In an earlier era, Bullock or Cooper’s names above the title might have been enough to guarantee a solid debut, but Hollywood has grown less star-driven over the last decade. Special effects and masked avengers are the main attraction, not Oscar winners and fashion figures. But in the right project, Bullock and Cooper are still invaluable, and should be credited with the popularity of films like “Gravity” or “American Sniper,” that might have been difficult sells without their involvement. It’s just that finding those projects is becoming increasingly difficult.
Clearly, neither “Burnt” nor “Our Brand is Crisis” were the right fits. Bullock lobbied producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov to turn “Crisis'” morally-compromised strategist into a woman, and Cooper was intimately involved in the production of “Burnt,” but the actors’ energies would have been better directed elsewhere.
These films were too wonky, too niche, and as critics were quick to note, not very good. “Burnt,” which centers on a culinary superstar plotting a comeback, was too similar to Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” which managed to make a profit last year thanks to solid reviews and strong word-of-mouth. And “Our Brand is Crisis,” which centers on a spin-doctor trying to manipulate a Bolivian presidential election, joins “Primary Colors,” “Bulworth,” and “Frost/Nixon” in a long line of politically charged films that bombed. Why pay to go see a political carnival-barker when you can see Donald Trump eat up cable news airtime for free?
“This is esoteric subject matter,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “You don’t just plug in a star and get a hit. There’s no sea change in these actors’ careers. Both of them will do huge movies again.”
If they’re serious about finding their next blockbuster, they might do well to avoid movies geared at older audiences. This fall has been brutal for films looking to score with adult crowds. Only “The Martian” and “Bridge of Spies” have found significant riches by pitching their films at this demographic, while the likes of “Steve Jobs,” “Truth,” and “The Walk” have all competed against each other with little to show for it.
“The marketplace is just crowded,” said Erik Lomis, distribution chief at the Weinstein Company, the studio behind “Burnt.” “Maybe they’re looking for lighter fare, but we haven’t hit the right cord with serious adult moviegoers.”
The headlines this weekend will focus on Cooper and Bullock’s failures, but come Monday, both actors will still be in demand. In fact, Warner Bros., which stands to lose millions on “Our Brand is Crisis,” took the rare move of releasing a statement taking full responsibility for the film’s failure.
“The film was truly a collaboration between the studio and the filmmakers, and Sandy’s performance is terrific in this film. We cherish our relationship with her. Ultimately, neither the concept of the story nor our campaign connected with moviegoers,” said Sue Kroll, Warner Bros. president of worldwide marketing and distribution.
In a town and an industry that loves a scapegoat, such candor is unprecedented. It’s also a sign of the influence Bullock still wields. Better for Warner Bros. to take the blame than miss out on the next “Blind Side.” If that’s not power, what is?