When Legendary Pictures, the film finance company behind Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, bolted from Warner Bros. to Universal in 2014, everything seemed rosy. The CEOs released pleasant-sounding statements. Legendary’s Thomas Tull said, “We are delighted to be in business with this exceptional team and look forward to a successful partnership.” Universal’s Ron Meyer was particularly hopeful about what this meant for the studio’s theme parks, “We couldn’t be more thrilled to embrace the challenges and changing marketplace with Thomas and his team, and we are also excited about what opportunities this will bring to our theme parks around the world.”
However, now we are in year two of this corporate marriage and suddenly they’re talking about having an open relationship. Sure, Legendary signed a five-year deal with Universal, but if it wants to hook up with its ex (i.e., WB) that’s cool. Go ahead. Knock yourself out. Take that King Kong prequel (Skull Island) over to WB and work out a three picture deal which will culminate with some variation on Godzilla Vs. King Kong. Really. It’s fine. Legendary made the first Godzilla movie with WB. It should just go make a King Kong movie, a Godzilla sequel and then a team-up at WB as well, as long as that’s what will make it happy.
It’s the type of concession that would have seemed stunning in 2014, but back then Legendary hadn’t dragged Universal down with box office bombs like Blackhat and Seventh Son and a relative disappointment like Dracula Untold. The only positives from the relationship so far have been Jurassic World and Straight Outta Compton (Legendary funded 25% of the former and 50% of the latter), and since those two have grossed over $2 billion worldwide that would seem like more than enough to offset the losses.
However, as measured by combined box office gross Universal is currently having the best year for any film studio in history. It has earned the right to be selective, and something about Skull Island just seems a bit off right now. It’s changed titles (new one: Kong: Skull Island) and had its release date pushed back (from November 4, 2016 to March 10, 2017). The story sounds a bit vague, with Legendary promising to “fully immerse audiences in the mysterious and dangerous home of the iconic ape as a team of explorers ventures deep inside the treacherous, primordial island.” Among the original actors cast, only Tom Hiddleston remains; Michael Keaton and J.K. Simmons both bolted due to “scheduling conflicts” after the production was pushed back. There was good news in June when Brie Larson landed the female lead, and perhaps we now know why the whole thing has hit its rough patches – Legendary wanted Universal to kick in some of the budget, but the studio said no.
That might seem surprising, especially since after Jurassic World surely Universal would not only be flush with cash but also highly motivated to get another CGI animal/monster movie out there. An insider quoted by The Hollywood Reporter observed, “When you’re taking a big swing like that, you’d better have your shit together.”
Wow. That’s so logical, bordering on a common sense “Well duh” assessment of how to make movies. If you invest a lot into something you better make sure you know what you’re doing. Duh. However, since when has a lack of preparedness stopped studios from making big movies? A lot of times, it works out. There are many famous movies where the script was still being written while they were filming (e.g., Jaws, Iron Man). More often than not, though, the result is a dud tailor-made to be mocked on podcasts like How Did This Get Made? and We Hate Movies. Where Kong: Skull Island falls on that spectrum remains to be seen.
The positive here is that Universal decided it didn’t believe in this project and cut it loose, not content to throw good money after bad. It may turn out to be a huge mistake, but at the moment it seems like the right one for Universal just as WB jumping at the chance to build a shared Godzilla/King Kong universe makes sense for them. In the past two years, Universal has been riding a wave of strong decisions, and now in 2015 the studio has seven different movies which have grossed over $100m domestically (Jurassic World, Furious 7, Minions, Pitch Perfect 2, Straight Outta Compton, Fifty Shades of Grey and Trainwreck). Warner Bros. only has three (American Sniper, San Andreas, Mad Max: Fury Road), and its future is mostly dependent on DC superheroes, LEGO and Harry Potter spin-offs. Universal has the luxury to diversify and doesn’t need to take a risk on Skull Island if Legendary hasn’t locked down the right story yet. That’s the type of decision a studio makes when it looks back at 47 Ronin and remembers what it felt like to take a swing on a project that never had its shit together.