The Wachowskis: Incomparable for the Wrong Reason

Does anyone else get three strikes?

by ARTHUR YEUNG ON February 23, 2015

I had never fallen asleep in a movie theater until this weekend. My friend, for the sake of anonymity and SEO we’ll refer to him as Mike Trout, already made plans to go see Kingsman: The Secret Service, so off we went to a late showing of Jupiter Ascending. While my expectations were dirt low, I didn’t totally mind Cloud Atlas, and appreciated the idea of filmmakers as ambitious as the Wachowskis when it comes to the building of fantastical worlds.

That ambition had a cost. To realize their world of albino wolf soldiers and immortal heirs to an arbitrary space kingdom, the Wachowskis were handed a $176 million production budget (originally it was $136 million, and then everyone realized that the movie was garbage and threw more money to “fix” it, the same way you’d use a glass of water to put out a house fire), $30 million more than actual Mike Trout will get over six seasons of being the world’s best baseball player. You don’t need me to tell you that Jupiter Ascending was not the world’s best anything. The handful of you who watched the movie can probably pinpoint that exact moment of the film when you realized your own hubris, thinking you could get through this movie without your brain going into forced hibernation (mine was when Mila Kunis said something like “this kidnapping is in direct violation of tax addendum 3765, keystroke 7B” with a straight face). It was bad in every way a film could possibly aspire to be. Needless to say, the box office receipts are super fucking dire and it would be a major coup if the domestic gross even covers the marketing costs spent on bus shelter ads.

Crushing financial  loss is not a deviation from the norm for the Wachowskis. Ever since The Matrix Trilogy, they’ve been bleeding goodwill. Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and now Jupiter Ascending all lost enormous swaths of money. They’ve disappointed both critically and commercially. The rot already began to show at The Matrix Revolutions, which made significantly less money than The Matrix Reloaded, and the profit it did make almost certainly all came from its foreign gross. Japan really, really, loved The Matrix.  

Look at that. Look at those budgets! Arguably, the Wachowskis were, if not a poisoned, then certainly a tarnished brand after The Matrix Revolutions wrapped up with Colonel Sanders enjoying a sunset or whatever. After Speed Racer lost enough money to reinvigorate the economy of Detroit, the Wachowskis should have been toxic. However, they managed to convince financiers to twice more shell out nine-figure budgets for equally insanely opulent and unprofitable films.

People are saying that Jupiter Ascending’s Chernobylian disaster is the Wachowskis “third strike”. At the very least, with their biggest supporters at Warner Brothers are gone, the siblings are beginning their much deserved movie exile on Netflix with Sense8. However, this isn’t fucking baseball. Directors shouldn’t get the chance to make three straight bombs, much less bombs with budgets the size of the New York Yankees payroll.

How many directors have been afforded the opportunities that the Wachowskis have to make movies with a budget of $100 million+  after $100 million+ budgeted disasters? Observe!

This is a list of all the movies with a budget over $100 million that failed to make back its estimated total budget (including marketing costs, etc.). There are probably more, as a bunch of films that failed miserably domestically just barely eked out a profit with ridiculous foreign grosses, the validity of which is often spotty. But whatever, for the sake of keeping this list reasonably sized, these are the films that definitely blew it. Unsurprisingly, these movies are almost all terrible, with the exception of Hugo maybe.

The Wachowskis are not completely alone. There are a few other repeat offenders on this list. Michael Mann shows up twice for Ali and Miami Vice. He avoided his symbolic “third strike” as Public Enemies just squeaked into profitability. Arguably, Tony Scott could have two films on this list as well, although budget figures for Unstoppable vary between Box Office Mojo and The Numbers. If you go with the former, both Unstoppable and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 make the cut.

What you might be able to glean from this is that financiers are willing to keep paying for a director’s past performances. The Wachowskis obviously made Warner Brothers a whole pile of money for The Matrix Trilogy. Michael Mann made Heat. Tony Scott made Top Gun. In fact, a lot of the directors on this list have helmed at least something substantial, critically or commercially, in the past. Gore Verbinski directed the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Brian Singer made the two pre-Jennifer Lawrence X-Men movies that didn’t stink out loud. Out of all these misfires, only a handful were really left in the hands of some overwhelmed director.

Now, considering the first point, were these directors ever trusted again with a similar budget?

The answer is not conclusive. Some guys immediately got handed a briefcase full of Benjis. Bryan Singer went back to well-established bread and butter brand with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Joe Johnston somehow went from The Wolfman to Captain America: The First Avenger. Martin Scorsese made The Wolf on Wall Street with roughly $100 million because, what, are you going to tell Marty he can’t spend a shit ton of money on his movie about American greed? These were all basically layups. X-Men is going to keep making money so long as Jennifer Lawrence wants to be in it. Captain America could have just ridden the coattails of the Marvel brand and made money.Thor: The Dark World made tons of money and it’s, well, Thor: The Dark World. These are films that are going to be a pretty safe investment barring a real catastrophe.

Then there are directors who have a history of boring, moderate success who get handed a huge budget for the first time, failed spectacularly, and are sent to movie jail, do not pass Go. Frank Oz, who had more or less been a capable director for almost two decades, is one such fellow. He made a bunch of forgettable but reasonably profitable films like Indian in the Cupboard and In & Out, then got a $100 million budget to make Stepford Wives. It bombed, and for his next venture MGM handed him $8 million for the original British version of Death at a Funeral. Tom Shadyac, who made his bones directing Jim Carey movies, never got another decent directing gig again after the bomb that was Evan Almighty.

Finally, there are the fun ones, where a director basically has no track record whatsoever and is suddenly given a ridiculous budget. I’m sure there are reasons behind these appointments, but I’m equally sure that the reasons are super sketchy. Breck Eisner, son of the former CEO of Disney Michael Eisner, whose previous experience was a direct-to-video film called Thoughtcrimes, was suddenly handed a $160 million budget for Sahara. At that budget, nothing less than a culture-exploding success would have turned a profit, and since Steve Zahn isn’t a thing, we can assume that that was not the case. Another fun case involves the man known only as Pitof, who worked primarily as a special effects man before helming Catwoman and driving the film and his career into the unforgiving depths of the ocean.

As I previously mentioned, the closest comparable to The Wachowskis career in terms of repeatedly receiving insanely optimistic production budgets is Michael Mann, who along with the expensive bombs he had, also made cheap failures in Blackhat and The Insider. However, the differences between their directing careers are glaring. Michael Mann has made excellent movies in the past. Everyone remembers Heat as one of the great crime movies. He also made The Last of the Living Mohicans, Collateral, along with The Insider which while it was a financial mess was still critically lauded. It also wasn’t the same studio making the same insane bet on him every film like WB was with The Wachowskis. Until he made his last three movies for Universal, Mann was basically a mercenary for hire, working with pretty much every major studio.

So really isn’t a comparable situation to the one the Wachowskis enjoyed this past decade and a half. They haven’t released an even moderately-budgeted film since The Matrix, which was essentially their first film of any note (they released Bound three years before, which only became notable after they released The Matrix). Since then, they’ve released five $100 million budget movies which ran the gamut of “thoroughly underwhelming” to “catastrophic”. The faith that Warner Brothers’ decision-makers had in the directing duo didn’t just border on fanatical. It was a capital city nestled deep in the heart of crazy country, with a giant monument of Neo built to tower above all its citizens. And now it lies in ruins, a monument for travellers from antique lands.