Here comes that sinking feeling again. In a flash, it suddenly looks like Warner Brothers’ efforts to have calm and positive rollout of Tarzan have just taken a significant hit with the appearance of a bellweather Hollywood Reporter article by Kim Masters jam-packed with negativity, starting with the “news” that David Yates has moved on to his next project leaving Tarzan unfinished, and including reference to a $180M budget which is 50% higher than anything mentioned previously, and finally including the “news” that early test screenings have not gone well. Oh my . . . . have we seen this movie before? Feels like Deja Thoris….er…deja vu all over again.
Where do I begin?
Here’s the article. “Warner Bros. Faces ‘Tarzan’ Trouble as Director is Double-Booked.”
The headline appears above the absurdly denigrating photograph you see at the top of this piece with the caption: ” Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie are relatively unknown leads for a summer tentpole.”
And that’s just the beginning. The article then goes on to make the following points:
- WB is “still reeling” from the “epic flop” Pan, which will cost them $150M
- David Yates is missing in action from Tarzan post production at a time when the picture desperately needs its helmer becuase the effects aren’t finished and the film didn’t screen well in test screenings.
- According to an unnamed “source close to the production” — the budget is a whopping $180m which, by implication, raises the bar.
- Yates’ absence was planned, but the same source laments: “”Why would you ever crowd a director into starting a movie before his other movie is properly finished?”
- Wall Street analyst Harold Vogel has concerns about the Warners slate in general. “The whole strategy over the last two years has been to emulate Disney and Marvel,” he says. “It shows a possible exhaustion of ideas.” He points to the studio’s attempt to invigorate DC, which begins in earnest with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (March 25), as well as making such fantasy fare as Pan, Tarzan, King Arthur and a live-action Jungle Book set for 2017, more than a year after Disney’s Jon Favreau-directed version of the Rudyard Kipling novel opens. Still, Vogel says he doesn’t expect the studio’s issues to affect Time Warner’s stock price at this point.
So what is one to think about all this?
Let’s start with the ridiculous image that accompanies the article. Why are they using such an image? Well, for starters, because WARNER BROTHERS HASN’T PROVIDED A SINGLE IMAGE OF THE FILM for the to use — and so they go out and end up with something as negative as that photo. The image communicates as much in a single moment as the rest of the article does in all its detail. It screams “WB’s foolish for making this movie which will tank.”
Secondly, this was forseeable. WB knew very well that if Yates was going to go off on another project while Tarzan was in post, somebody like Kim Masters was going to pounce on that fact at the first opportunity — and Pan tanking provided just that opportunity. What should have happened is that WB should have gotten out ahead of this story by seeding its own stories with its own spin on the issue of Yates having double duty at this point. They could have mixed that info into with the release of some stills from the movie, and some other positive information, and taken the teeth out of this kind of negative.
Thirdly — no way can the budget be $180M. The movie was originally budgeted at $150M and was then put on hold until they got it down to $120M. It was made with an experienced producer in Weintraub, and an experienced Director in Yates, and there was never any indication that it went over schedule or over budget. So how does it now have a budget of $180M? I’m not saying that cannot be. I’m praying that that cannot be. Of course anythings possible. But being fiscally responsible has been a constant with this project, at least in terms of how it’s been portrayed until now. For the budget to jump to $180m is, if true, the worst aspect tof this whole article because it raises the bar for a sequely by about $120M, and geratly decreases the probability that the film will be successful. Moreover, just by having this number floated out there, the schadenfreude haters are licking their chops and sharpening their knives.
What is the Impact and What should WB Do?
First of all, the mipact of this story cannot be underestimated. By tonight it will have been picked up and repeated throughout the web on all the “influencer” entertainment sites that cover movies on the way to release. Watch for it to turn up in all these places, and more: Movies.com, Hit Fix, MovieWeb, MTV Movies Blog, Slashfilm, i09, Ain’t It Cool News, ComingSoon.net, Filmsite.com, Collider.com,Badass Digest, Joblo.com, Empire Online, Total Film, ScreenRant, Hollywood.com, MovieWeb, Movieline, Indiewire/The Playlist,Dark Horizons,ToplessRobot, Fused Film,Den of Geek,Film School Rejects, HeyUGuys.com,FirstShowing.net, Cinema Spy, Digital Spy, The Geek Files, GeekTyrant, Comic Book Movie, Reelz Channel, Cinema Blend, WhatCulture.com — and more. So it’s not just one article — it’s a whole rash of articles based on the first one.
The result: Anybody who follows the progress of unreleased films will know about it, and the entire set for the film, which was neutral until now, will suddenly become negative. There will be great skepticism….and the whispers of “what were they thinking” will start. “What were they thinking to spend $180m on a Tarzan movie?” “What were they thinking to let the director leave?” Plus the other whispers ….” the test screenings didn’t go well”….”the effects aren’t complete”….”no one’s minding the store”…..and finally — “this film is in big trouble.”
And there you have it.
Just like that, a narrative is established.
Now, if WB behaves like Disney, they’ll do nothing. They’ll take the position that this doesn’t matter–the trailer will come out, it will be good, their promotional machine will crank up, and everything will have a happy ending.
Only if they do nothing, and if the ngativity “sets” like I think it will, by the time the trailer comes out — there will be a pre-ordained narrative of failure waiting for it and you’ll hear howls of self-fulfilling negativity when the trailer comes out and the promo begins.
So what should they do?
For starters, they need to recognize that this is a significant event that needs a strategic response. It represents a genuine threat to the prospects of the film. Not because it’s just one article — it’s because it’s a trend-setting article, a narrative-setting article, a watershed article.
They need to counter it.
Well for starters if the budget is not in fact $180m, they need to refute that. They need to tamp that issue down immediately because it becomes a prism through which everything is viewed from here on out. With John Carter, the news that the budget was $250m came out in August of 2011 and you can trace the negativity to that moment. Prior to then, the narrative of the film had been largely neutral. From that moment on, it was negative and it only got worse. WB needs to fix this if at all possible. Previously the word was $120M. Has that changed?
Secondly, they need to kill the idea that the film is neglected and ignored. If Jerry Weintraub were still alive this would be easier to do, but he died tragically in July. So who’s in charge? How is the work getting done? I’m not sure they can offer a good, buzzworthy answer to this.
If they can’t … then the next best thing is to find a way to release something — stills, concept art, somethign to change the conversation and at least get some neutral press.
But in truth, it’s not an easy situation to remedy. The real remedy would have been to pre-empt it before it happened. But now that it’s happened, and now that the “narrative of negativity” has been set, we’ll have to just wait and see whether this becomes the dominant storyline from here to the end, as it was with John Carter — or whether WB marketing proves itself to be more adept and switched on than Disney was.
Meanwhile I’m going to blatantly plug John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood in the dim hope that someone from WB marketing will read it and learn from Disney’s mistakes. It’s all there on the page . . . and this moment is a crucial moment that mirrors what happened to John Carter. Will the rest of this play out the same way? Or will WB come up with marketing countermeasures and regain control of the narrative?