Updates were made to this story on Oct. 24
The tagline for one of Geostorm‘s billboards: “Some Things Were Never Meant to Be Controlled.”
You might think that saying refers to the disaster movie’s exorbitant estimated $120M-$140M budget, or its three-year production cycle, or even its horrendous domestic box office start of $13.3M.
However, when it came to bringing this troubled Dean Devlin-directed feature to the market, Warner Bros., Skydance Media and Jerry Bruckheimer Films did everything in their power to harness and correct what was initially an “unwatchable” disaster movie, per one source, before Geostorm went into $15M of re-shoots last December.
The recent headlines about natural disasters in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico come as a handy excuse for Geostorm‘s studio partners when explaining what went wrong. However, this disaster pic’s problems were quite clear before it opened. Geostorm is a sub-genre that moviegoers have seen before all too often, and it’s from a blockbuster producer-turned-first-time-director who largely went unsupervised during production.
If anything, time hasn’t been on Geostorm’s side, and if there’s one takeaway here, it’s that production delays and an extensive lengthy time between greenlight and release –in this case, three years – can spell doom for an intended event film. Audiences’ tastes in the social era can turn at the drop of a hat, and if there’s one genre that’s been a casualty of this recently, it’s been broad raunchy comedies like Rough Night, Neighbors 2, and The House. Geostorm was originally scheduled to open on March 25, 2016. That release date would get pushed three more times to Oct. 21, 2016, then the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend of Jan. 13, and finally Oct. 20.
So putting the notion of ‘time’ in perspective, when Warner Bros. welcomed the Skydance pitch for Geostorm after Paramount passed, with Devlin directing and global Olympus Has Fallen star Gerard Butler attached, it was because the Burbank, CA. lot wanted to make a B-disaster film that had the potential to stoke a global audience. Geostorm centered around an international space station that is tasked with stopping a weather satellite meltdown as it causes deathly weather patterns around the globe (deserts freeze, tidal waves take out cities). At the time Warner Bros. agreed to Geostorm in the fall of 2014, it was moments before Devlin and Roland Emmerich agreed to make the sequel Independence Day: Resurgence at Fox, and it was roughly eight months prior to the release of New Line’s San Andreas, which turned out to be a notable success, with a $474M global B.O. and an $88M profit. The town’s mindset was that disaster films weren’t necessarily dead yet.
Typically, the easy go-to excuse for any studio is to blame a current bomb on a former studio chief. Despite the fact that Geostorm occurred under WB President of Creative Development and Worldwide Production Greg Silverman’s watch, truth be told, greenlight decisions at Warner Bros. aren’t made in a vacuum by one almighty lord. It takes a village, and there’s a number of departments who have their say. Silverman, together with Skydance chief and Geostorm producer David Ellison, aimed to resuscitate Geostorm by calling in Jerry Bruckheimer for re-shoots. After the $175M costly King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, Geostorm is Warner’s second disaster this year. However, the studio is absolutely fine, as it leads all majors at the domestic B.O. with over $1.7 billion (+9% over the same Jan.-October 2016 period). In all fairness, Silverman can also share in the studio’s annual B.O. success, as he was involved in Warner’s blockbusters like Wonder Woman and Dunkirk, as well as its misses.
Riding herd over Devlin wasn’t in the cards for Warner Bros. during production. Given that Skydance walked Geostorm in the door and had equity in the project, it was more appropriate to have them oversee Devlin. In sum, the general thinking among several executives at the time: Why even babysit Devlin? As a producer, he had an excellent track record delivering disaster genre films and event pictures directed by Roland Emmerich. Ellison and Devlin go way back: Devlin first cast Ellison a notable break as Eddie Beagle in the 2006 World War I pilot film Flyboys. Now Ellison in turn was producing Devlin’s latest VFX spectacle. During Geostorm‘s production, Skydance was also busy with other projects like Terminator: Genisys and Star Trek Beyond. But even the best directors need sounding boards, and some sources tell us that Devlin was in over his head. It’s akin to another story we heard on why Universal’s The Mummy went sideways, which was a case of blockbuster screenwriter Alex Kurtzman getting bogged down with the directing reins on his first $100M-plus budgeted event film. In the case of Geostorm‘s unbuckling, we hear that Devlin was rushing to meet a deadline so the film could hit its first release date of March 25, 2016. There are others who contend that in the end, putting the onus on Devlin is completely uncalled for: It wasn’t his movie in the end, rather a mess conjured up by too many cooks in the kitchen. Devlin did not have control over the characters who were cut out, those who were put in.
Sources tell Deadline that the first cut shown to Warner Bros. studio executives was “unwatchable.” Geostorm spent 61 weeks in post, went through two composers, and was previewed three-to-four times before Silverman and Ellison phoned up Bruckheimer for help. Before Bruckheimer’s team stepped in to clear up Geostorm, they reportedly wanted to make sure that Devlin was OK with their participation, given their respect for him. Devlin was scheduled to continue on to his next directorial, the thriller Bad Samaritan. Devlin welcomed Bruckheimer’s help, and was privy to all the changes being made, including Danny Cannon’s direction and Laeta Kalogridis’ rewrites.
So what changed during Geostorm‘s reshoots? Dropping out expensive VFX scenes or adding them in wasn’t on the table. Geostorm‘s problems were generally about storyline clarity, plot credibility, and characters’ motivations. These were script problems that were hard to spot initially for Devlin’s team, as they were in the weeds editing according to some. During the final edit, some characters dropped out. In earlier cuts prior to Bruckheimer, there would be situations where there was a dramatic scene in the film, but it was spoiled by a comedic score playing underneath. In addition to re-shoots and correcting music, Bruckheimer’s team assisted in setting the film’s color tone and finishing the VFX. Test scores shot up 15-20 points across various demos in the final edit. Silverman had already left Warner Bros. before the final cut was ready.
Still, disaster movies are on the wane at the box office. Similar to Fox with Independence Day: Resurgence, Warner Bros. shielded Geostorm from critics, so that any poor Rotten Tomatoes score wouldn’t immediately impact word-of-mouth or tracking. In the past, studios like Paramount implemented such critic- sidestepping maneuvers to ensure solid openings for Cloverfield ($40M) and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra ($54.7M). However, that’s a challenging B.O. feat to pull off in these social media times. Resurgence‘s $41M start can be attributed to the fact that it wasn’t original IP. The Rotten Tomatoes for Geostorm was 13%, lower than Resurgence‘s 31% Rotten, and other disaster pics like 2012 (39%). RelishMix already noticed the negative chatter about Geostorm in advance of its opening on social reporting: “Convo for Geostorm is decidedly mixed, tilting negative. Most moviegoers who took the time to comment compare the movie to other disaster films like Armageddon and Day After Tomorrow — even Independence Day.” Anecdotally, watching Geostorm, the VFX disaster scenes are actually the best part and are all-too- few. There’s more talking going on as the characters strain to solve their problem. There’s an attempt in the movie to hammer out a promising story between brothers (Butler and Jim Sturgess).”
Our finance experts believe that WB curbed on its global P&A spend with Geostorm, shelling out less than the typical $140M to launch an event film (San Andreas cost an estimated $110M in theatrical P&A). Our sources believe cash break-even for Geostorm is around $360M worldwide B.O., but insiders say it’s less than $300M. With a $36.4M overseas weekend in 50 territories, and close to $64M worldwide to date, Geostorm won’t profit and is bound to lose in excess of $100M, per our finance sources. Even if Geostorm rallies in China (Independence Day: Resurgence made $75M there), only 25% of the B.O. is coming to the states. Geostorm‘s red ink will be spread around to Skydance, WB and RatPac. The last time Skydance was in this financial and production pickle was with Paramount’s World War Z, but they were able to save that movie, and get it to a half billion worldwide and near breakeven.
Geostorm over-indexed in the Southwest, which includes the Texas market, but under-indexed in the Southeast region, which includes Florida. In regard to under-indexed business in Houston — keep in mind that the Astros won the ALCS last night in a fierce game 7 against the New York Yankees, and are now on their way to the World Series. The west coast and Canada were Geostorm‘s best places of performance. It’s funny, but the evidence was already out there for 14 years that Geostorm wouldn’t click with audiences. In 2003, Paramount had the disaster movie The Core, starring Hilary Swank, Stanley Tucci, and Aaron Eckhart, with an uncredible plot that sounds a lot like Geostorm‘s. In the movie, an earthquake weapon device built by the U.S. government malfunctions and starts taking out cities. The earth’s core stops spinning, thus causing radiation, and the only way to save it is for a team to drill down and restart the center of the earth with 1,000 megatons of nuclear weapons.
The Core opened during the final weekend of March that year to $12M — and there weren’t any major natural disasters in the headlines.