Warner Bros had two more films lined up with director Joel Schumacher – but Batman & Robin’s box office disappointment changed its plans.
Warner Bros for many decades was a studio that inked good deals with its filmmaking talent. Not for nothing did filmmakers such as Richard Donner, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson regularly return to the studio to make their features there. And prized amongst the Warner Bros talent pool in the 1990s was director Joel Schumacher.
After making Flatliners for Columbia in 1990, and Dying Young for Fox in 1991, he jumped to Warner Bros for his next project: Falling Down. The story of that movie is one we’ve told in one of our podcasts, and its success would give Schumacher some of the best reviews of his career, along with controversy, and a solid box office hit.
Here’s the podcast…
Falling Down would also be the first in a run of five films in a row he’d make for Warner Bros, as he spent the next half decade alternating between two of its most valuable properties.
Firstly came his adaptation of John Grisham’s novel, The Client. This was the time when Grisham was at the height of his own commercial powers, and following the huge success of the first movie based around one of his books – 1993’s The Firm – studios raced to bring other adaptations to the screen. Warner Bros thus set Alan J Pakula to direct The Pelican Brief, and Schumacher was offered The Client.
To this day, I’d argue that The Client is the finest screen adaptation of a Grisham novel, but by the time it came to release, Schumacher had landed one of the biggest jobs in the movies: he was going to direct the next Batman film. Burned by the response to Batman Returns, Warner Bros wanted a lighter reboot of the Dark Knight franchise. Tim Burton didn’t want to make another Batman film, Warner Bros didn’t want him to, and an approach was made to Schumacher.
Batman Forever was the result, and it was a bigger hit than its forerunner. Warner Bros was happy, and wanted to keep Schumacher on an alternating cycle of Batman and John Grisham films. Grisham himself, satisfied with how The Client turned out, personally wanted him to make the screen version of his first novel, A Time To Kill. And Schumacher duly went straight from Gotham City to that project, which again earned strong reviews, and good box office too.
Schumacher’s next priority, then, was another Batman movie, and two further projects were lined up beyond that, which would keep him busy until the end of the decade.
Batman & Robin, though, stopped the plans in their tracks. You don’t need another article bemoaning the state of Schumacher’s final trip to Gotham, but it’s worth exploring the ramifications of its release.
The first project to be affected was the next Grisham film. Next on the slate was a big screen take on The Runaway Jury, which at the time the author had very recently released. Had the project gone ahead, then Schumacher would have had – for five years running – a big Warner Bros movie in cinemas each year.
Yet when the reviews came in for Batman & Robin, Schumacher was stung. Then the box office fell dramatically, after a decent opening weekend. The Batman franchise was in trouble, and after a far better run of success than he was really given credit for, its director was carrying the can.
Within two months of Batman & Robin’s release, The Runaway Jury was in trouble. Sean Connery, who had been tapped to star in the film, dropped out in July 1997. Schumacher followed a week or two later. The official line was that Connery was interested in making two different films at that moment, whilst Schumacher was exhausted after a punishing schedule with barely a break.
Warner Bros had paid $8m for the rights to make The Runaway Jury, and for a while was pressing ahead with the film, having interested Edward Norton in a role in the movie. But it ultimately admitted defeat, and the rights reverted to Grisham. It’d eventually make it to the screen in 2003, with Gene Hackman, John Cusack, Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman in front of the camera, and Gary Fleder behind it. 20th Century Fox backed the movie, not Warners.
And then, shortly after, Batman Triumphant – one of the names the project was known as – collapsed too. This was set to be Schumacher’s third Batman film. Mark Protosevich had been hired to write a script, and the central trio – George Clooney, Alicia Silverstone and Chris O’Donnell – were signed up to return.
Nicolas Cage had been sounded out about the role of The Scarecrow, meanwhile, and Harley Quinn would have been a part of the story too. Schumacher wanted a movie that would also bring back earlier villains, and tie up what would have been a run of five movies. It was shaping up to be an expensive beast.
But it was also shaping up to be a film Warner Bros no longer wanted to make. Batman Forever was hardly the most acclaimed blockbuster of the decade, but it did such good business, it made the greenlighting of the next a no-brainer. Had Batman & Robin done similar business, in spite of the hostile reviews, the studio may still have been tempted to go for the next.
Yet Batman & Robin had not just hit the studio in the critics’ columns, it’d hit it in the pocket. Nobody seemed to like the film, and Schumacher departed the project, which Warner Bros shut down. Which came first is unclear.
Afterwards, Schumacher would go back to smaller, more economic movies, arguing with some justification that he never really saw himself as a blockbuster movie guy. Films such as 8mm (with Nicolas Cage), Flawless, Tigerland and Phone Booth followed instead.
Warner Bros, meanwhile, got out of the John Grisham business, whilst it started the long journey to rebooting Batman by first hiring Darren Aronofsky to develop what was set to be Batman: Year One, before bringing in Christopher Nolan for what would become Batman Begins.
But it was some run Schumacher went on, and it’s hard to think of any other director of his era who, for five consecutive years, delivered a movie that would each prove to be a sizeable commercial attraction. Schumacher did just that. And who knows: had the decision not been made to go with nipples on the Batsuit, he may have gone on to do seven…
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