The film bomb is almost a genre in itself. To qualify, a film doesn’t have to be an actual box office bust. It merely has to create a swirl of rumors and bad press during production. A premise ripe for disaster also helps: a $300 million movie about one of the greatest disasters in the history of technology, a film plot derived entirely from the lyrics of Beatle songs, Mel Gibson recreating the pre-Columbian Americas, Tom Cruise playing a vampire, Tom Cruise playing a Nazi.
Genuine box office disasters–big-budget, high-profile films that fail spectacularly in theatrical release–are actually relatively rare. Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Bonfire of the Vanities, Show Girls, and Waterworld are the most famous examples, and the last one actually made money overseas. Despite widespread snark before their releases, Titanic, Interview with the Vampire, Apocalypto, and Across the Universe were successful to some degree or another–the first two spectacularly so.
One could argue that these near miss disasters are the result of a rumor mill made all the more febrile by the Internet. This is certainly true, but films also get bad pre-release publicity because of something deeper in the way Hollywood works as a industry. Take the example of Valkyrie, a Tom Cruise vehicle being produced by the storied United Artists studio. Much of the Valkyrie est mort
talk is just industry gossip about a project not going smoothly. Bloggers have noted that several scenes have yet to be shot, but that’s not as big of a deal as it might appear; it’s certainly not as bad as scenes that have to be re-shot.
Then there’s the eye patch. It may prove to be a visual that gets permanently stuck in the image repertoire that is Tom Cruise, alongside clips of him leaping on Oprah’s couch. I don’t think Cruise is a closet fascist, but he’s susceptible to totalitarian belief systems. Furthermore, in Valkyrie the real threatens to intrude onto the illusion upon which film, like any other entertainment medium, is built upon. The eye patch is Hollywood’s publicity machine gone haywire. Its whole language has suddenly broken down, revealing something unintended. The language of the pitch, intended to convey sure-fire success, sometimes contains its own undoing. The pitch for Titanic was like this, or so it seemed in the months before its release; so is the pitch for Valkyrie: "Tom Cruise plays a Nazi who tries to kill Hitler!" Cruise has long been known in Hollywood as a weirdo; wrapping an eye patch around his head and stuffing him into a Nazi uniform underlines his essential oddness, as well as Hollywood’s tolerance of it. The role itself is strange. It would take an actor with a more highly-developed sense of self-consciousness to play it properly, someone along the lines of Ralph Fiennes. Then again, who would have thought Cruise would make a credible vampire?
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One of the best books I’ve ever read was on this topic of Hollywood disasters is FILM FOLLIES: The Cinema Out of Order by Stuart Klawans. Check it out.