Movies open every weekend. Some soar, some fail. Every once in a while a flop comes along that is so unexpected and devastating that everyone in town is left saying, “How the hell did that happen?” Recent examples include John Carter, The Lone Ranger and maybe even Pompeii or The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, even if the latter two sank without making much of a ripple. The $100 million Transcendence, the Johnny Depp-Morgan Freeman starrer that marked the directing debut of Chris Nolan’s vaunted cinematographer Wally Pfister, is one of those what-the-hell-happened films. Consider it grossed just $10.8 million domestic for its opening weekend, about half of Heaven Is For Real, a starless movie whose $12 million budget was likely less than Depp’s Transcendence salary. Heaven If For Real has grossed $30 million so far domestically and looks like a breakout sleeper hit.
So what the hell happened? There is blame to go around, including at Alcon Entertainment, which with its offshore partners fully financed the Warner Bros-distributed flop. Talking to numerous parties, I believe this was a movie that probably never should have been made because the script was complex, derivative, and hard to market, and it was not easy to discern who the audience should have been. It also is a case where yet again it was a mistake to give a first-time director the keys to a movie with complex subject matter that required meshing with the high maintenance of a big movie star and a giant budget. Transcendence seems similar in some ways to John Carter, where first-time live-action director Andrew Stanton had the endorsement of Pixar’s John Lasseter that led Disney execs to give him a lot of rope, and he proved out of his depth despite having directed so many animated hits. Here, Pfister got the job after standing aside Nolan as cinematographer, and proving himself a gifted visual artist on such films as The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. Nolan, who made the film Insomnia at Alcon, endorsed his protege there and encouraged him to start on the kind of big canvas on which Nolan creates his masterpieces. But just because Pfister stands next to Nolan doesn’t mean he is Nolan, or has his ability for making the most complex storytelling palatable for the masses, like he did on Inception. The shoot was rough. Pfister and Alcon certainly put in the work here, and got the test scores to an acceptable level, but critics just hated the movie. Audiences felt the same, with the film getting a 19% rating on RottenTomatoes. And Johnny Depp, mostly seen as a computer image on a computer screen, didn’t open it the way that highly paid movie stars are supposed to.
I was thinking about this as I watched Locke, the Steven Knight-directed drama that stars Tom Hardy as a construction boss who gets in a car, begins driving and we watch his life fall apart. All of it takes place while he’s on the car phone. It is such a difficult level of execution, but Knight, a great writer, penned a script and pulled this off with Hardy in a most entertaining way, for a paltry budget. I don’t know how big the audience is, but they did something exceptional, in my opinion. While first timers who come from other areas routinely get jobs helming huge movies that risk hobbling fledgling directing careers, I wonder if Nolan could have handled Transcendence as his first film. I saw him waxing on at Slamdance in January and explaining that he hung posters for his $6,000 debut movie Following and was sparked by a Variety critic’s slam, because it meant someone has actually watched his movie. Memento also was made on the cheap. What’s wrong with starting on a smaller canvas and learning how to tell a story onscreen before stepping up to a big complex film? Not everybody is Sam Mendes, who debuted on the Best Picture winner American Beauty, or Orson Welles, who, after making three shorts, made his directing debut with Citizen Kane. In fact, those guys are the exception. Why are aspiring directors today in such a hurry, when a flop like Transcendence can do great harm to their helming careers?
So where does this leave Alcon? I’ve heard rumors this film could lose $100 million, and that it might change the risk-taking strategy of Alcon, the shingle started with financing from FedEx’s Fred Smith and run forever by Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson. It certainly hurts Depp’s place in the movie-star pantheon; placed alongside The Lone Ranger, Transcendence shows Depp is no longer a bona fide bankable movie star outside of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I’ve heard that Alcon will lose big, but that its loss might be limited to $30 million to $35 million, including the indignity of having to repay Warner Bros for P&A minimums because the film performed so badly here. The key will be to see if Depp’s name gives the film life overseas, as happened with another domestic underperformer, 2010’s The Tourist. If Transcendence grosses $100 million offshore (which would be Depp’s lowest total in almost two decades) the losses won’t be that bad. But there’s no way around it, Transcendence is a big loser, and a lot of Alcon’s suppliers are going to suffer — and that makes it harder to go back to the well next time. I reached out to Alcon principal Kosove, who always has shot straight with me. He denied that the company will lose its nerve, and he declined to place blame. But he wasn’t about to sugarcoat what happened this past weekend.
“Alcon takes responsibility for its successes and failures, and Warner Bros worked hard on the distribution and marketing,” Kosove said. “It is a big, big disappointment to us, a horrible outcome, but we learn and move on.”
He acknowledged it was a pretty lousy day in the office today, but Alcon does have past winnings to rely on and movies coming up that look pretty good. The recent successes include the recent Denis Villeneuve-directed Prisoners, The Book Of Eli, The Blind Side, Dolphin Tale and P.S. I Love You. They have an upcoming Dolphin Tale sequel and Point Break reboot to look forward to. But today really stings.