June 16, 2017
‘The Book of Henry’ and the Question of Hollywood’s Sunk Costs
Why Hollywood’s obsession with hype may be causing studios to lose control of their franchises’ narratives.
If you’ve kept even half an eye on social media this past week — and as luck would have it, ‘half an eye’ is exactly the amount of eye I’ve kept — then you know Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry isn’t exactly going over very well with audiences and critics. One respected reviewer has even gone as far as saying that The Book of Henry is destined to play alongside The Room as a midnight classic. And since Trevorrow is committed to directing the final installment in the Star Wars sequel trilogy — write and direct — this has led many critics to openly question the future of the series. When is Book of Henry just a bad film, and when is it a harbinger of doom for the end of one of Hollywood’s most lucrative franchises?
There’s been plenty of handwringing over the years about Disney’s penchant for snapping up filmmakers years in advance of their major releases. I won’t bother to rehash those points here — you can find them with only a few seconds of dedicated Googling — but while most of these articles have focused on the question of independent filmmakers in the blockbuster world, there’s another side of the equation as well. What happens when a major studio commits to a filmmaker three or four years down the line and their intervening movies flop? It’s a question a lot of people have been asking this summer, with Guy Ritchie’s disastrous (though not un-fun)
It’s a question a lot of people have been asking this summer, with Guy Ritchie’s disastrous (though not un-fun) King Arthur: Legend of the Sword raising red flags about his fitness for a live-action Aladdin. Now, more than ever, the hype cycle leaves Hollywood exposed to these kinds of PR nightmares.
Sure, directors being fired or walking away from blockbuster projects isn’t exactly a new thing. Comb through the archives of any major movie site and you’ll find listicles about directors who were either shitcanned early in the production process or who were originally attached to a blockbuster film but walked away due to creative differences. But most of these films predate the contemporary Hollywood marketing cycle, where filmmakers are publicly announced for fixed release dates years in advance.
Guy Ritchie was named as the director of Aladdin in October 2016, despite that film not being scheduled to finish production until January 2018. Trevorrow’s situation is even more unique: the director was officially named as the director of Star Wars: Episode IX in August 2015 despite an expected release date of May 2019. This isn’t like Roland Emmerich’s Stargate reboot, which was effectively shelved after Independence Day: Resurgence flopped at the box office. Typically, flops put projects in questions, but nobody doubts for a moment that Aladdin and Star Wars: Episode IX are happening. It’s the directors we’re all uncertain about.
We know that Warner Bros. is/was prepared to lose nearly $150 million on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and while the budget for The Book of Henry is only $10 million, Disney has to be feeling the pressure with Star Wars: Episode IX at stake. So what’s the right call? One bad film doesn’t mean that Trevorrow or Ritchie are incapable of making a good blockbuster movie; as the links in the first paragraph show, plenty of directors have taken on studio films and slogged their way through creative differences in search of their next project.
But Ritchie and Trevorrow were specifically trumpeted by Disney as visionary directors, not just tradesmen, and the critical and box office rejection of their movies has to make some producers at The Mouse a little nervous. LucasFilm and Marvel have climbed to the top of the charts by creating a string of impenetrable hits, movies immune to the kind of negative pre-release controversy or criticism that can turn away average moviegoers. Even if it’s just from a PR perspective, they may not enjoy the prospect of press junkets focused on the negativity of their directors’ earlier films.
This may not be for everyone, but I’ve always enjoyed reading business theory as a way of understanding some of Hollywood’s decision-making. You may be familiar with the concept of sunk costs, but it’s always interesting to see the logic that prevents otherwise rational organizations from cutting the ties with a disappointing project. They’ve already devoted development and marketing time to selling audiences on a specific project; there’s likely some set of circumstances that they can correct leading into the next iteration; studios have already committed themselves to a course of action, and they might as well see it through to its conclusion.
These are all common logic traps that companies — even those who seem outwardly ruthless in pursuit of profit margins — can sometimes fall into, and it’s worth treating the creative component of the industry as an extension of any other bit of logic. Sometimes when you throw good money after bad, you end up with George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. The rest of the time? You’ve committed yourself to scores of Universal Monsters films despite the box office not supporting your investment.
I don’t mean to single out Ritchie and Trevorrow in this article. I happen to enjoy both King Arthur and Man From U.N.C.L.E. a fair amount, and as for Trevorrow, well, Jurassic World is one of my wife’s favorite movies, so we’re cool as far as I’m concerned. But the downside of advance buzz is not being able to control the narrative, and Disney cannot be too thrilled that their movies were constantly being thrust into the conversations about King Arthur and Book of Henry. I cannot help but feel that whatever happens next will set a precedent for how studios approach this issue in the years to come.