John Hughes made much-loved films, and wasn’t always regarded as the easiest person to work with – as his two Universal deals suggest.
As much as the late, great John Hughes is rightly and richly revered for a collection of 80s and early 90s movies – that mean an awful lot to a generation of people – it’s also relatively well known that he wasn’t always the easiest man to work with. Across his incredible career, at various times he had deals in place with Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox, but in most instances, said deals would end with suggestions that it hadn’t been the easiest of times for all concerned.
In particular, and for the purposes of this article, there were two times that John Hughes signed his production company to deals with Universal Pictures. And on both occasions, those deals ended early, with neither side particularly happy (although the audience generally was).
Universal first signed him up to a deal in the early 1980s. The catalysts for this were the screenplays he’d written for a pair of notable hits: Mr Mom, starring Michael Keaton, and National Lampoon’s Vacation, which had been sizeable box office successes. Notwithstanding the fact that Hughes’ work for Mr Mom had been chewed up through the development process, his name was now attached as screenwriter to two very successful movies.
Hollywood, thus, wanted more.
In 1983 therefore, Universal offered him a three-year contract, that could have been worth as much as $30m all in. Hughes was, as is well known, a prolific screenwriter, and thus Universal was likely to get quite a lot of movies for its investment. As it turned out, the deal went sour after the second: a small movie known as The Breakfast Club.
Firstly, though, there was 1984’s Sixteen Candles – pictured above – a film that cost $6.5m to make and returned over three times that amount. It was Hughes’ directorial debut, and was the film that saw Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy enter his orbit, with Sheedy ultimately not getting a role, but landing one in the production that followed.
The Breakfast Club was that movie of course, and was one of two films that Hughes wrote and directed that were released in the same year – 1985 – both for Universal. Weird Science would be the other. But by the time the latter production came out, things weren’t going well between him and the studio. In particular,. Hughes wasn’t happy at all with Universal over The Breakfast Club. The studio hadn’t been keen on him directing the film in the first place, given that he was at that point a novice director. He was able to persuade them because it was such an economical, single-location production.
Yet when he screened a rough cut of the movie for executives of the studio, they weren’t particular impressed. Furthermore, the studio reportedly ordered Hughes to complete editing the movie in Los Angeles, rather than far away from Universal HQ in Chicago as Hughes argued had been agreed.
Hughes wanted out of the deal, and the studio too had found him quite hard work. It was open to cutting it losses. When Hughes thus hired a law firm to bring the deal to a premature close, things came together quickly, and by the end of 1985 – in spite of having two Universal releases that year – Hughes and his production company had inked a deal at Paramount Pictures instead.
That one didn’t last too long either, as it happened, although it did go on for a little longer. Hughes was with Paramount for three years in all, making films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (above) and She’s Having A Baby during his time there. But it was, again, a bumpy ride. Premiere magazine, in May 1991, reported that one issue between Hughes and Paramount was the $750,000 bill for renovating his offices.
By 1988, then, Hughes wanted out of Paramount as well, and surprisingly, he re-signed with Universal for a second time. It wasn’t an exclusive deal – and notably, Fox would take on Home Alone whilst Hughes had his Universal deal in place (after Warner Bros had turned the movie down). But the catalyst for troubles this time around was the film Uncle Buck.
The 1989 movie was the biggest success under the new Universal deal, and as it turned out, the only one. Things went sour soon after its release, when Universal sold the television rights to the movie, without informing Hughes first. The studio wasn’t aware that Hughes had been considering a sequel, but relations were such that it didn’t even inform him on the TV spin-off anyway. There’s more on that story in the second half of this podcast…
In the aftermath of Uncle Buck, Hughes would put together a film called Career Opportunities, that then became the cause of further problems. The problem here was that here was a movie that neither Hughes nor the studio was best happy with. Even though he didn’t direct (having penned the script), Hughes would become involved with reshoots on the picture, but still wasn’t satisfied. He wanted Universal to bury the movie, but when it did eventually release the film, it tried to trade – to Hughes’ annoyance – on the success of the late 1990 release of Home Alone. An approach that didn’t work anyway.
By the time the film was finally released, though, Hughes had already scooted. Universal had passed on the film Only The Lonely, which Fox had duly snapped up. And Fox had also given Hughes an incredible deal worth $35m for seven movies. Discussions had been had with Universal about a renewal of the deal there, but after the Uncle Buck saga, as Premiere noted, “Hughes packed up and left the studio without telling a soul”. It wasn’t going to happen.
At Fox – his last studio deal – he’d have mixed fortunes. The first Home Alone sequel was a huge success, but there were varying returns across features such as Dennis, Dutch, Baby’s Day Out and Miracle On 34th Street. And after those films, he’d pull back from the movie industry, with just a few credits, not all under his own name. The Fox deal would peter out.
Appreciating this may read as a downbeat piece, Hughes was an excellent, and much-missed filmmaker. Like many creative people, he had short shrift with corporate machinations, and there’s a sense of difficulties on both sides in the many arguments he had. Sure, he had lots of them. But the outpouring of love when he was taken from us at the age of just 59 back in 2009 tells a story of its own. Hughes clearly fought his corner, and won lots of crucial fights. And his work very much lives on to tell the story. He remains very much missed.
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