Making a movie has always been a difficult undertaking. Millions of dollars and hundreds of people are thrown behind an idea, with way too much potential for something to go wrong. That's not surprising, considering the amount of time between the film's conception and release date. Issues could crop up two weeks, two months, or even two years into the process, and the results can reflect that.
Look no further than last year's Fantastic Four, a movie known more for its faults than its merits. Even prior to its release, it felt like the movie simply couldn't generate positive buzz. Maybe it was a fist fight during the production. Maybe it was the director's dogs tearing up a rented house. Or maybe it was my personal favorite, the director slamming his own movie on the eve of its release. The biggest takeaway from these examples shouldn't be the "what," but the "when."
All of this drama unfolded before the movie even made it to theaters. The negative attention wasn't caused by legions of angry fans, nor was it prompted by them. It's simply what happened. So with that in mind, read on to see why the stages before a movie's release are crucial to its success — and what can happen if something goes wrong.
The pre-production stage of a movie is like a massive filter. The "machine" (a.k.a. studio executives and creative heads for the movie) will take in any idea and "filter" it out as a cost effective, reasonable compromise. Pre-production of a movie essentially plans the whole thing out. The script is written, concept art is rejected, costumes are designed, and potential sequels are planned.
A great example of a troubled pre-production is Spider-Man 3. The previous entries in the franchise were met with a warm response from fans and critics alike, so the announcement of Venom, New Goblin, and Sandman's inclusion had fans extremely excited.
That excitement was replaced with anger once the movie came out, failing to do any of the characters justice and ultimately butchering the movie. After the release, director Sam Raimi attempted to continue the franchise with Spider-Man 4 and 5. When conflict between Sony execs and Raimi looked like it could affect the 2011 release date for the fourth installment, everything changed.
Raimi left the franchise, a reboot was announced, and brutally honest interviews became the norm for the director. The biggest takeaway from all of them was the same: Sony was to blame. While he says he had a competent script, Sony came barging in, ham-fisting Venom into the story.
While that's obviously Raimi's side of the story, let's not forget that this is the same studio that turned The Amazing Spider-Man 2 into a shared universe trailer by — you guessed it —ham-fisting characters into the story. Studio meddling at this point in a film's creation could be a death sentence, and while Spider-Man 3 wasn't a box office bomb, it was privy to the law of diminishing returns and turned many fans against the franchise (or what was left of it).
When news slips out about pre-production troubles, it sparks worry among the audience, and that worry turns into hostility. This kind of information coming out doesn't help create any positive buzz, and audience members are stuck in that same negative mindset up to and past the release.
Spider-Man 3 Facts:
- Directed By: Sam Raimi
- Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard
- Production Budget: $258 million
- Domestic Box Office: $336.5 million
- Total Global Box Office: $890.8 million
After pre-production is complete, movies roll into the meat of filmmaking: Principal photography. The cast assembles as actors and actresses fly in from around the world, ready to fill their contractual obligations. Studio lots and chunks of cities find themselves home to frantic crew members and equipment that costs more than their houses.
Sets are assembled and disassembled in mere hours, with props being carted from one end of the filming location to the other. Needless to say, it's hectic under normal weather conditions. But under the extremities of Mother Nature, it's not a very pleasant process. And I'm sure anyone on the cast or crew of Mad Max: Fury Road can attest to that.
Considering the troubled principal photography the movie went through, it's viewed as nothing short of a miracle how well received it was. With a high Rotten Tomatoes score, decent box office run, and a massive 10 Oscar haul, it's easy to forget all the problems that arose prior to its release. For starters, its issues ran well through the pre-production, but not where you'd think. The storyboards were completed and concise, the script followed them, and the movie was to be shot in sequential order. But the commencement of filming was constantly delayed due to foreign wars and plummeting finance rates. The day did eventually come when the cameras started rolling, only to be slapped left, right, and center with numerous other issues.
The first was the endless weather issues in Namibia — the African country serving as the filming location. It was cold when it was supposed to be hot, it was hot when it was supposed to be cold, and it was raining when it was supposed to be dry. So you skip one day of filming, no big deal. And then it happens the next day. And the next. You get to film for one day, and then you're back to twiddling your thumbs. The volatile climate caused the movie to fall off its tight schedule. It fell so far behind that Warner Bros. was forced to send in an executive to oversee the filming. Even when the movie was chugging along just fine, there was always a mindful eye kept on the checkbooks.
Most blockbusters tend to have a ballooning budget, which is something director George Miller is known for. His animated venture Happy Feet (and its sequel) also found itself going over the allotted budget. On top of that, the Namibian government was becoming concerned with the environmental damage caused by the large scale of the film. But budgetary concerns, annoyed governments, and weather delays are minor issues compared to the biggest problem: The on-set animosity between the co-stars.
The constant fighting between Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy has been well publicized, and often chalked up as an effect of the blistering work conditions. Though they maintain a level of respect for each other, their on-set tension got to the point where they wouldn't even speak to one another. Neither party sees it as a purely antagonistic relationship, but it's certainly an interesting one.
Production troubles are often worse than the other two stages, as the information is coming from various people. Unlike with pre and post-production, where the only sources are those deeply involved with the movie, rumors during filming can come from anyone. The actors, locals who happen to see something, and crew members always dish what they come upon (usually with some twist on the truth).
Whenever trouble arises, dozens of sites will hop on to that news and point to it as evidence that the movie is "doomed." So when every site you go on tries to tell you about what a shitty production a movie's going through, it's hard not to get sucked in and think the worst. Even regular news outlets tend to pick up on stories from filming because they find it to be accessible to a broader audience. The information hops from social media to TV to the newspaper, and eventually the whole world knows about the issues a movie is facing.
Of course, they haven't seen the end result. Half the time they don't even know the plot. All they know is that there was a hiccup during filming, which means the movie has gone to hell. It's like junk food — once you see what goes on when it's made, the end result isn't great — no matter how delicious or entertaining it is.
Mad Max: Fury Road Facts:
- Directed By: George Miller
- Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravtiz
- Production Budget: $150 million
- Domestic Box Office: $153.6 million
- Total Global Box Office: $378.4 million
Post-production is exactly what it sounds like: The work done after production. And there's a lot of it. Scenes are deleted, CGI is added, entire subplots are removed, and the dreaded reshoots are ordered. If this stage has issues in any way, it gets out.
Depending on the size of the problem, whatever comes out usually stays among movie aficionados — the general audience doesn't really care about reshoots. But this point in a movie can make or break it. And that rests solely on the team in charge. Of course, that changes when there's more than one team in charge. Or worse, two teams and worried executives.
For instance, Suicide Squad is a mess. It's poorly paced, the editing is choppy, and the deleted scenes are a tragedy. That didn't stop me from loving it, but it did for critics. Look, when the movie was filming 40 minutes away from me in Toronto, there was never a concern. There were no reports of hostility between actors, David Ayer seemed to have everything he needed and wanted, and Warner Bros. execs seemed pleased with what they had. There was no news, local or otherwise, that trashed the film. Everything that came out of the set generated hype: Jared Leto's Joker antics; the Batmobile driving down Yonge Street; Will Smith dressed as Deadshot rappelling down a building. It was all newsworthy.
So when the entire cast showed up at SDCC 2015, halfway through filming, the trailer they brought was a surprisingly amazing gift. It showed a dark, gritty movie about psychotic villains without a neon light in sight. It gained a lot of attention as a leak and was released officially shortly after. The general reaction was positive, and Warner Bros. was eager to keep pleasing the crowd.
January 2016 saw the release of the first trailer for the movie, and it was loved even more despite being wildly different from the first. Gone was the grubby grey/brown/black atmosphere, replaced with garish colors, neon text, and a song that screamed "We can be fun too!" This was before Batman v Superman was criticized for its over-darkness, proving that Suicide Squad was always going to be lighter than its two predecessors. March saw the release of BvS, and was criticized for its bland, dark tone. That's when Suicide Squad hit its first publicized bump.
In early April, Warner Bros. called for reshoots on Suicide Squad. Being the internet, reports were published hypothesizing what the reshoots were for. Were they to add more humor in the wake of BvS? Was it to add in more DCEU connections? Was it, as David Ayer said, a gift from Warner to add in what he felt the movie needed? We never really found out, but that same month brought us a brand new trailer. This one carried the same loud, bombastic tone from the January one, and featured some intriguing snippets.
Once Captain America: Civil War bowed out of the picture and the summer movie season was dying down, Squad's marketing kicked it into high gear. TV spots. Billboards. Bus advertisements. Character posters, character trailers, character tracks, it was all there. The general audience was just as hyped as the hardcore fans, and everyone eagerly awaited its August 5 release date. Until the reviews started pouring in. Critics weren't having it, and the little praise they afforded the movie went towards the cast. But there's a reason a movie that looked so promising turned into a disaster.
Warner Bros. did it again! After Batman v Superman seemed to be modeled from the criticism aimed at Man of Steel’s climactic battle, they did the same thing with Suicide Squad and the critcism for Batman v Superman’s dark tone. Its plot, tone, and characterization were a direct result of the previous movie.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, SS was practically a finished movie when critics took a dump on the Zack Snyder film. Panicked executives called in the company that made the trailers and asked them to create a cut of the movie, while Ayer would still create his own version. Rather than going with one version of the movie like any sane worried management team, they decided to blend the two cuts. Yup, they mixed a dark and character driven cut with a flashy, choppy, trailer-style version of the same movie. Then they were shocked when it was called a catastrophe.
On top of that, subplots and scenes were hacked away. The infamous abusive relationship between Joker and Harley was turned into a mopey love story. Joker pushing her out of a helicopter was edited to look like him saving her. Harley being backhanded by him during a confrontation was removed entirely. Hell, Jared Leto's "supporting role" was turned into an extended cameo. Ultimately, Suicide Squad was a victim of poor post-production. Sure some ideas were bad right off the bat (looking at you, Enchantress), but the movie only turned into the disappointment it became through bad decisions after the filming wrapped up.
This is just one of many movies that were butchered after filming. Batman v Superman's Ultimate Edition, which many see as an improvement on the theatrical cut, was trimmed down in fear of releasing a long movie. To reiterate, Warner Bros. cut out relevant and explanatory scenes, opting to send out a limp, borderline incoherent version of the same movie. The problem is that studios intentionally withhold details on the status of the theatrical cut as a way of keeping it a surprise, directors don't say anything negative about the process in fear of hurting its box office, and the actors are kept out of the loop entirely.
Fans are left scrambling for an answer, and will gobble up whatever report sounds the most confident. Chances are, that report will be negative, which means that the fans will likely absorb and regurgitate that "bad news." The reports will always cite an "inside source," which is usually completely bogus. But until there's a confirmation (which usually doesn't come before the release), that non-sensical article will be taken as gospel and reiterated on hundreds of other websites.
Basically, studios keep secrets from the viewers. It's always been like this. In today's movie landscape, however, fans are more entitled than they've ever been, so it's hard to accept not knowing. To seem like we do know, we jump aboard whatever makes the tiniest bit of sense. Maybe I disagree with that claim. Someone else could justify it, and I could still refute it. The problem with this nowadays is that some fans can't accept other fans having differing opinions. If they read online that Suicide Squad is doing reshoots to alleviate the tone, they can't accept other people thinking that the reshoots are just to include more action scenes. Surprise! Uniform thinking has never, will never, and should never exist in the movie going community.
Suicide Squad Facts:
- Directed By: David Ayer
- Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Common, Joel Kinnaman, Cara Delevingne
- Production Budget: $175 million
- Domestic Box Office: $300.8 million
- Total Global Box Office: $678.9 million
The success of a movie doesn't just hinge on what it generates after being carted off to theaters, but before too. Now more than ever, considering what an active role the audience plays thanks to social media. Their reaction to the news that trickles out of sets could generate exactly what's needed for a movie to break some records — but also what's needed to make it fail.
And in the state of Hollywood right now, a movie not succeeding isn't an isolated issue. It's the cancellation of a franchise, a marketing team's failure, and a toy line quickly put on clearance shelves. What I'm saying is, the audience is affected by the movie, but the movie is affected even more by the audience.
What's your take on the importance of the events and controversy that surround a movie compared to the quality of a movie itself?