Netflix’s 11th hour purchase of “Mowgli” has been hailed as a coming-of-age moment for the streaming service and as a sign that changing tastes have left some big-budget studio films struggling to justify a traditional theatrical release.
But it’s also an acknowledgement that a certain kind of franchise hunting has only resulted in diminishing returns. For a time, Warner Bros., the studio that sold off “Mowgli,” had banked heavily on exploiting intellectual property that had drifted into the public domain. The hope was that classic fantasy stories could be re-imagined for modern audiences, inspiring epic films that could lead to sequels and that would hit multiplexes with built-in “brand awareness.” They also had the added benefit of having creators that were long dead. That meant that studios wouldn’t have to engage in elaborate author appeasement (see: E.L. James) or become embroiled in long-standing litigation over rights (see: the Tolkien estate).
At Warners, this approach yielded some hits, such as a bro-y version of “Sherlock Holmes” that featured a brawling Robert Downey Jr. as Baker Street’s most famous denizen, but it also led to some costly misses. Guy Ritchie’s gonadal “King Arthur,” Joe Wright’s steampunk “Pan,” and Bryan Singer’s dramatically inert “Jack the Giant Slayer” all flamed out, costing the studio hundreds of millions in the process. Only “The Legend of Tarzan,” David Yates’s attempt to recapture the boy’s adventure spirit of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, managed to will itself into the black. Though with $356.7 million globally, it barely recouped its $180 million production cost. A return to the jungle seems unlikely.
At one point, Warner Bros. had a version of “Beauty & the Beast” in development, but that got killed long before Disney launched its own 2017 remake. It should be said that many of these films were initiated under a different regime, one in which Greg Silverman ran production and Sue Kroll headed marketing and distribution. Both have left the studio. Current studio chief Toby Emmerich seems less enamored of elves and trolls-style cinema, perhaps because he was burned by “Jack the Giant Slayer,” a film he oversaw as the former head of New Line.
Nor was Warner Bros. alone in raiding the fantasy vaults. Universal backed the hit “Snow White & the Huntsman,” refashioning its heroine into an armor-clad warrior, and Relativity countered with “Mirror,” Mirror,” a less successful version of the fairy tale that appeared to have been production designed by Liberace’s interior decorator. “Snow White” was a big enough hit to lead to a 2016 sequel, “The Huntsman Winter’s War,” but not beloved enough to prevent that film from flopping and leading to a steep write-down.
One problem with this strategy is that in recent years Walt Disney Studios has been busy churning out live-action versions of its animated classics. Many of these animated films were adaptations of this same treasure trove of fairy tales and adventure stories that other studios had hoped to mine. “Mowgli,” for instance, had the unenviable task of following up Disney’s own live action version of “The Jungle Book” — a film that garnered critical raves and nearly $1 billion at the box office. Was the world of Rudyard Kipling so rich that audiences would return for more just two years after they’d plunked down $15 to see “The Jungle Book”?
The answer appears to be no. Warner Bros. tried to differentiate its “Mowgli” by pushing it as a grimmer take on the “man cub” fable. At CinemaCon, director Andy Serkis promoted the the film as a “darker retelling” and an “epic story of a child becoming a warrior.” Internally, staffers at Warner Bros. seemed less confident, privately conceding that they faced an uphill climb getting people to see the film in theaters when it opened in October. The decision last Friday to sell the film to Netflix seemed to be a bit of white flag waving, though why “Mowgli” was ever made is a puzzlement.
The Netflix sale is also an acknowledgement that finding compelling stories that can justify a big-screen release is a tricky business. It requires more than just a deep dive into Brothers Grimm or Kipling.
It takes luck.