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Probing a Box-Office Crash

Universal's Working Title Films went into unfamiliar territory with the big-budget 'Thunderbirds'

August 15, 2004|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

What were they thinking?

Many in Hollywood wondered just that when the producers of such low-cost, grown-up hits as "Fargo," "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" decided to make a big-budget, special-effects-driven adventure movie for kids.

Now that "Thunderbirds," their $65-million version of a quirky British 1960s television series has crash-landed at the box office -- grossing $6 million in the U.S. since its July 30 opening -- longtime partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of London-based Working Title Films are wondering the same thing.

"Of course, we'll go through the painstaking process of figuring out what went wrong," said Bevan, who for years had championed the movie as a pet project and had high hopes for it. For now, he said, "you're left slightly scratching your head."

Some say it shouldn't be too hard for Bevan and Fellner to sort out what happened with "Thunderbirds," which was released and largely financed by Working Title's parent, Universal Pictures: The producers fell prey to an all-too-familiar Hollywood trap: veering from what they know best.

"They couldn't resist the siren call of a big-budget summer action flick," said Larry Gerbrandt, who heads the media and entertainment unit for Century City-based financial advisory group AlixPartners.

Gerbrandt said that although he understood the urge to "step up a career" by taking a big gamble, when filmmakers do that, "not only does the price of success go up, so does the cost of failure."

Bevan acknowledged that he and Fellner were largely on unfamiliar turf when they tried to attract young audiences with "Thunderbirds." Their only other similar attempt, with the $30-million family film "The Borrowers," flopped five years ago.

But the two producers are trying to keep "Thunderbirds" in perspective.

"When you make as many movies as we do, there's going to be a train wreck," Bevan said. "It's unfortunate it was on one that cost a lot of money."

Added Fellner, "You haven't been in the film business until you have something like this happen."

The producers and Universal executives said they believed unfortunate timing might have played a role in the movie's poor showing.

Directed by Jonathan Frakes and starring Ben Kingsley and Bill Paxton, "Thunderbirds" follows the perilous exploits of five brothers who make up the International Rescue brigade and embark on lifesaving missions aboard their fleet of souped-up spacecraft known as Thunderbirds.

Working Title bought the rights to "Thunderbirds" in the early 1990s -- long before the creation of Robert Rodriguez's hugely successful family movie franchise, "Spy Kids," about a brother and a sister who use an array of futuristic contraptions to save the day.

By the time "Thunderbirds" made it to the big screen, the similarity between the two movies wasn't lost on film critics who largely panned it as a wannabe. Young audiences also thought it looked like a poor man's "Spy Kids" and stayed away in droves.

"Ours was not sufficiently original and fresh enough to get parents and kids in to see it," Bevan conceded.

For Universal, the film's poor showing compounds what has been a rough summer. The General Electric Co.-owned studio's other misses have included "The Chronicles of Riddick" (which cost $110 million to make and has taken in $57 million at the U.S. box office) and "Van Helsing" (which cost $160 million and grossed $120 million domestically).

Universal Chairwoman Stacey Snider, who gave "Thunderbirds" the green light, acknowledged that audiences perceived the film as derivative.

"It looked very much like movies that have come before," Snider said.

The studio chief added that everyone involved made the wrong assumption that the film would not only draw 10-year-old boys but also appeal to the coveted teen audience.

"It didn't get the cool young teenager group," Snider said.

Bevan also believes that a "fatal error" was made in releasing the film during a summer that featured two mega-budgeted, effects-driven family films: " Spider-Man 2" and "Shrek 2." Both were instant blockbusters here and overseas.

What's more, some industry insiders said, Universal was aware that it had a dud on its hands -- so it decided not to put much marketing muscle behind it. Consequently, there was little audience awareness or anticipation created before the movie opened.

"The studio knew it had a dog," Gerbrandt said. "The ad campaign was a short burst."

Universal spokesman Paul Pflug disputed that the studio abandoned "Thunderbirds," though he declined to disclose how much it laid out for advertising to support the film's opening on more than 2,000 screens.

"The marketing spent was absolutely appropriate for the number of screens we opened this picture on," Pflug said.

Snider said that although Bevan and Fellner were clearly "operating outside their wheelhouse" on "Thunderbirds," she didn't hesitate signing off on the project because of the producers' strong track record. Universal acquired their company in 1999.

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