Universal Picture’s 1998 slate had Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, George Clooney and a pair of sequels – but the studio would struggle to find a hit.

On May 23rd 1997, Universal Pictures was riding high. Two months earlier, the Jim Carrey-headlined Liar Liar had been a hugely profitable hit for the studio, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park had just opened to stellar business. I’d imagine plans for the Christmas party might have been allowed to start a little earlier in than usual.

Little did it know that, in spite of having a promising slate of movies ahead, the studio was now 22 releases away from another big hit. Some of the films that it would release in the ensuing 18 months were good, some weren’t. But, to the studio’s disappointment, none of them really brought home the box office bacon.  Oftentimes Hollywood studios are perceived as a place of glamour: but this particular run goes to the other side of that. The pressure of having to consistently succeed in order to keep everyone in a job.

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The warning signs of what would be a very difficult 1998 for the studio were laid bare in the back end of 1997. After the Jurassic Park sequel, Universal was already struggling to buy another hit. Bruce Willis and Richard Gere lent star power to The Jackal, and that was as good as it got. A $159m global box office return off a $60m negative cost was decent, albeit a little below expectations.

Other 1997 projects such as Kull The Conquerer, The Boxer (starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Jim Sheridan), Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley in For Richer Or Poorer, TV adaptation Leave It To Beaver and family flick A Simple Wish came and went, with the coffers hardly swelling.

Still, no worries. 1998 saw the studio line up a new Brad Pitt movie, a George Clooney project, a new Bruce Willis thriller, an adaptation of a much-sought after book, a sequel to a catalogue favourite, and the follow-up to the biggest family movie surprise of the decade. What could go wrong?

This was, as you’ve probably guessed, the era where studios were routinely lining up around 20 projects each for cinema release each year. They’d continue to do so until the turn of the millennium, when Warner Bros deployed the strategy of making fewer movies, just more bigger ones. But for now, Universal’s slate looked strong.

Its first three US releases of 1998 give it some quick stings though.

January’s Half Baked had been put in a graveyard release slot for a reason, dumped into a period for non-Oscar-bait to die a quiet death. The stoner comedy, headlined by Dave Chappelle (who co-wrote the script), just about broke even, but the studio hadn’t been expecting anything else (it certainly didn’t seem to anticipate its eventual cult movie success).

Romcom Kissing A Fool was the studio’s second February release, a relative low cost attempt to see if David Schwimmer could carry across the audience of Friends to a big screen release. The answer? Not really. It returned a quarter of its budget at the US box office. Again, worth a punt though.

The first February release? Blues Brothers 2000.

There had, in fairness, been concerns when this one was announced. Without the charisma of the late John Belushi, it was always going to be an uphill battle to recapture what made the first work (and even the original The Blues Brothers only covered its costs on its original release, becoming a hit over time). The cast and cameos though were impressive, John Landis was behind the camera, and there was no skimping on the music. It’d been a will-they-won’t-they make it sequel for years. By the time the box office trickled in well below budget, the studio probably wished it’d given this one a miss.

March, though, looked more promising. The book Primary Colors had shot up the bestseller list a year or two before, a fictionalized account of the Bill Clinton story (allegedly). Universal scored a coup by landing the project, and then getting acclaimed director Mike Nichols to steer the film. John Travolta and Emma Thompson led the cast, and the resultant film is a good one. But just with the movie heading to release, Clinton found himself in the middle of a real-life sex scandal. Suddenly, audiences didn’t seem so keen to go to the cinema to watch what they basically could on television news. Primary Colors spluttered.

Just behind it was April’s Bruce Willis vehicle, Mercury Rising. There are hints in this one of the Willis that’d power The Sixth Sense just over a year later (Willis co-starring with a youngster). But Mercury Rising was no The Sixth Sense. Grumbly reviews didn’t help, and the $60m movie to make (before marketing and distribution costs) brought in a worldwide take of just over $90m. Another strike.

The May slate didn’t look too promising either, and so it came to pass. The late Patrick Swayze headlined action flick Black Dog, from Kevin Hooks, who’d scored a minor hit with Passenger 57. Savaged by critics, and only recently redeemed to a degree by audiences, it came and went in double quick time.

Terry Gilliam’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was next, a co-production that mitigated the studio’s financial exposure. It too did precious little business. On the plus side, it’d be the start of a mini-run of well received films, albeit ones that still struggled to find an audience.

Because next, in June, was Steven Soderbergh’s terrific Out Of Sight, starring Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney.

This one’s a cracker, and of all the films that didn’t click for the studio in 1998, this one must have stung as much as any of them. It cost around $50m to make, and the $77m box office take worldwide didn’t get it into profit (although subsequent home releases and such like will have moved it into the green). It was the one big star-driven movie Universal had in its summer locker, and whilst loved by critics, it was another for the list.

The same can be said for Joe Dante’s family adventure Small Soldiers (pictured below)that Universal co-financed with DreamWorks. Costing $40m to make, the returns for this one were just shy of $90m, and more’s the pity it didn’t go on to be a smash summer hit. Not least because the brilliant Dante’s not been given a sandbox as big to play in since.

The final film of Universal’s summer was a lower cost gamble, but again it didn’t pay off.

Bringing in Trey Parker and Matt Stone off the back of their exploding success with South Park seemed smart. Adding in Naked Gun director David Zucker didn’t hurt. But whilst BASEketball still has its fair share of fans, they weren’t about at the time. $23m to make, $7m at the north American box office, the film wouldn’t even get a cinema release in the UK.

Into autumn, and brilliant director Carl Franklin couldn’t turn the tide with drama One True Thing. It was a film that barely interested awards bodies (Streep got an Oscar nomination, its sole Academy Award recognition), and audiences didn’t really flock in either. The box office fell a few million short of the $30m production budget.

There was a glimmer of light in October. Bride Of Chucky proved to be not just a film that turned a profit – $50m in cinemas, even more at home – it also rebooted the entire franchise particularly well. Not megabucks in the scheme of things and not a full-on smash hit, but a long term profitable venture.

The same month, Reach The Rock came out. Interesting backstory to this one: penned by John Hughes, he offered the project to Chris Columbus as one of two possible projects for him to helm. Columbus opted for Hughes’ Home Alone instead, and Reach The Rock would sneak out to cinemas all this time later, not even topping $5,000 (not a typo) at the US box office. It had a muted release that stank of contractual obligation on the part of the studio.

November, though, was the month Universal had reserved for its big guns: its two biggest projects of the year.

Firstly, Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins were lured to Meet Joe Black, the new film from Martin Brest.

A glossy remake of 1934 romantic drama Death Takes A Holiday, it’s still staggering that Meet Joe Black more than doubled the original’s 79 minute running time. Weighing in at a bloated 181 minutes, the bizarrely long running time limited how many showings could be booked a day by cinemas. That hadn’t been a problem for James Cameron’s Titanic the year before, but it certainly was for Meet Joe Black.

The $90m movie took in a disappointing $142m when monies were totted up. It was comfortably outgrossed by the $23m Adam Sandler comedy The Waterboy. Oscar voters were interested in neither film.

Still, there was always Babe: Pig In The City. This one couldn’t fail. The original was a huge video hit, a box office success, and a Best Picture Oscar nominee. The sequel was directed by George Miller (he was a driving force behind the force, but handed over directing to Chris Noonan), and Universal was hands off with the film.

The story goes that it only saw a cut by the time it was too late to do much about it. More than one person remarked that Miller had made more of a sequel to his Mad Max series than Babe, and I distinctly remember the screening I went to on opening day being accompanied by young audience members in tears around me. Animals on screen were dragged within inches of their death, and many families were horrified. Universal wasn’t best chuffed either.

Some, it should be noted, loved the film: Siskel & Ebert both rated it highly in the US. Most critics slammed the film though and what’d looked like a shoo-in hit failed to even recoup its $90m budget in cinemas. It fell a long, long way short of expectations, and there was no Best Picture Oscar nomination this time around.

It’d been a grim year. Universal’s December kicked off little better with Gus Van Sant’s derided-before-it-started-filming almost shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (pictured). This one made a loss on its cinema release too, and few could puzzle out just what the point of the film was.

Still, finally, things were about to turn.

Universal only had a small distribution stake in its next release, Shakespeare In Love, but at least it had something where the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner was concerned. This was more a Miramax film though, but a profitable and hugely successful one.

Yet the movie that finally broke the Universal run of bad luck landed on December 25th 1998. And boy, would it be a turnaround.

I rewatched Patch Adams a few weeks ago. Its heart is in somewhere around the right place, but it’s not a high point I’d suggest for Robin Williams. Still, the film – directed by Tom Shadyac, who’d also helmed Liar Liar – caught fire and to the relief of Universal executives, it struck gold.

It hasn’t been cheap to make, mind. $90m for the negative included Williams’ salary, but the global take of $202.3m was a breathe out moment. A silver lining at the end of a very tricky year.

I started digging into this story in large part because of what happened next. A Variety report in 2000 opened with the line ‘in 1998, when Universal was releasing “Babe: Pig in the City,” “Meet Joe Black,” and “Psycho,” executives may have said to themselves, “Someday we’ll look back on all this and laugh”’.

That’s what initially led me looking backwards.

Because for the studio, far happier times were around the corner. In a sign as to just what a rollercoaster the movie business can be, by July of the following year, Universal would have three big hits to its name: The Mummy, Notting Hill and American Pie (two of which would ignite or reignite franchises that were still going as of a few years back).

It still had bumps, sure, but certainly a film hitting as big as The Mummy has a habit of wiping away a lot of red ink. The year after that, Universal would win Christmas with The Grinch, starring Jim Carrey. It’d had to go through a difficult run to get there, and would do so again.

But the lesson of 1998? It’s amazing the difference finding a ‘win’ somewhere can make…

Lead image: BigStock

 

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