In 1974, Philippe Petit pulled off what essentially amounted to guerrilla daredevilry, relying on a team of a collaborators to help him walk on a high-wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center without any official permission to do so. There were pretty much no safety precautions. He easily could have slipped and fallen to a truly brutal death, the type that would turn a solid into a liquid. He did it because he was following his dream.
The story serves as a particularly apt metaphor for any collaborative artistic endeavor. At a certain point, even with all the help from your friends it’s going to just be you up on there on the wire knowing that while most of the onlookers want you to succeed some are just there to see you fall. Robert Zemeckis particularly connected with that idea, and in his hands the movie which dramatizes Petit’s historic stunt, The Walk, is a celebration of the human drive to create art. To Petit, high-wire work is art and walking between the Twin Towers his masterpiece, and there are those who regard The Walk as being a near masterpiece for Zemeckis, no small task for the director responsible for Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump and Cast Away. At the very least, the actual high-wire walk portion of The Walk is spectacle filmmaking at its absolute best.
And audiences just couldn’t care less. After a 9-day exclusive engagement in IMAX theaters, The Walk expanded wide this past weekend, grossing a meager $3.8 million domestic, not even good enough to crack the box office top 10. Its 12-day domestic total now stands at $6.4 million, which it has only slightly bettered with $7.1 million from limited international release in countries like Australia, Brazil and Denmark. The studio, Sony, is said to be stunned and discouraged, understandably preferring to toot their own horn (Hotel Transylvania 2 is a bonafide hit!) than concede defeat (The Walk is d.o.a. in America…for now).
If The Walk does end up becoming a financial failure, at least from its theatrical run, it should be considered a noble failure.
Zemeckis got the idea for the movie 10 years ago when he encountered a children’s book which illustrated Petit’s walk. He was in film school at the time of Petit’s stunt, too busy to notice any news stories covering the exploits of a peculiar Frenchman who went for a leisurely stroll 1,350 feet above the ground. It was the children’s book which got his attention decades after the fact, and the 2008 Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire helped get the ball rolling financially. Zemeckis developed the movie at Disney for several years, during which time he co-wrote the script and created a computer pre-visualization of the movie.
When Disney soured, he shopped the pre-viz around town, and Fox Chairman Tom Rothman loved it even though it terrified him. As he told KCRW’s The Treatment, “I was too chicken to make it because it’s bold. What scared me about it is everything I loved about it. It breaks every rule in the business.” Rothman had history with Zemeckis, going back to Cast Away and What Lies Beneath, and after he was ousted from Fox he grew bolder in his next gig running Sony’s TriStar Pictures label, acquiring The Walk in early 2013 as the first big move in his new job. He’s since been promoted to run the entirety of Sony Pictures, getting to blame failures like Pixels on his predecessor but having to take all responsibility/blame for 2015 TriStar-branded releases like Ricki and the Flash and The Walk.
In 2013, the industry trades loved everything about Rothman’s move to buy The Walk, with Deadline arguing, “Matching Philippe Petit’s story with technological advances and there is an opportunity to create a film that, like Avatar, Life Of Pi and Gravity, uses 3D to get the audience immersed in a strong story. It is also the kind of creatively ambitious movie you’d like to see a Hollywood studio make, and one that has to be seen in a theater.”
Ever the trailblazer, Zemeckis had arguably become too enamored with technology in the new century, building his own production company that specialized in 3D motion capture computer-animation. Beowulf, Disney’s A Christmas Carol and The Polar Express came out of this phase of his career, but when Mars Needs Moms, which Zemeckis merely produced, turned into one of the biggest box office bombs of all time it was time to return to live-action movies again. 2012’s The Flight was a step in the right direction, and The Walk promised to be the perfect vehicle to combine Zemeckis’ heart, technological innovations and love for filmmaking.
Rothman and Zemeckis wanted to make a movie which demanded to be seen in theaters, where you could hear the collective gasp in the audience the moment Petit steps on the wire in the third act for the first time. They wanted to use 3D and IMAX technology to truly make us feel like we’re up on that wire with Petit just as seeing Gravity in IMAX made you feel like we were floating in space with Sandra Bullock. To channel Martin Landaou’s kindly old theater owner character in The Majestic for a moment, they wanted to convince audiences that the collaborative moviegoing experience means “the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it.”
It’s actually getting the people out to see it that’s been the hard part, but as the studio head behind Titanic, Avatar, Life of PI and now The Walk Rothman has a long history of trying to give audiences things they’ve never truly seen before. As far as he’s concerned, that’s a necessity for survival in the modern film industry, “I think the bar is being raised. It has to be more cinematic. It has to be more worthy. We have a saying now at work, ‘Good isn’t good enough.’ I think the competitive bar has been raised.”
Sadly, “good” most definitely hasn’t been good enough for The Walk at the box office.
We cannot abandon originality. Bob [Zemeckis] is interested in it as an artist, and I’m actually a believer in it as a businessman. I think if we do not underestimate the audience they will not disappoint us. It’s harder – it’s harder to market it. It’s harder – this movie is doing something unusual. It’s platforming on IMAX screens for 10 days before it goes wide in theaters everywhere so that the word of mouth, so that people can talk about it. It takes original strategies to put out original stuff, but I think the rewards of it are outsized.
As has been profiled elsewhere, many other filmmakers of Robert Zemeckis’ generation have now abandoned film for TV or retirement, refusing to go backwards and make movies on shoestring budgets after having already climbed the mountain. Zemeckis isn’t following them just yet. He ultimately made The Walk for around $35 million, slightly more than his budget on Flight but a third the size of what Cast Away got in 2000. Convincing Zemeckis to make this movie for that money was obviously a shrewd move on Rothman’s part:
There’s a cost to everything, and one of the things that remarkable and unique to Bob’s gift is that he was willing and able to make the movie for a price that allowed us to dare. He was fiscally responsible so that he could be creatively reckless.
Sony took a small bet on The Walk, and it might not pay off. The reasons for that vary, i.e., the IMAX-only release created the wrong impression, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not a box office draw and his French accent sounded dodgy in the trailers, there’s already an excellent documentary about this which people can watch on Netflix for free, etc. It might come down to the fact that three movies all tried to be the next Gravity at almost the exact same time in theaters, and among the three – Walk, Everest, The Martian – the one with Matt Damon looked better and didn’t try to make itself out to be anything more than just a good movie.
When Zemeckis talked to KCRW to promote the movie he seemed philosophical about it:
I chafe under the idea that so many movies today are designed by spreadsheets. That really never works. There’s this thing called alchemy that’s always been part of this business. When I go back and I read biographies of the directors making movies before I was born or biographies of directors who were making movies when I was a kid in the 1960s they all tell the exact same story – it’s always been this way. It’s unique to this art form. It’s a personal artistic form that costs a ton of money. It’s in the collision of those two things – it’s amazing that it’s existed for all years – those two things are what make it so nerve-wracking and exhilarating at the same time.
Tom Rothman agreed, “Bob said it beautifully, which is those of us in my end try to figure out, you try to calculate and be responsible, but ultimately it’s alchemy. You have to back stories that you believe are going to move people, and artists who you believe can bring those to life.”
For whatever reason, that alchemy just hasn’t been there for The Walk at the domestic box office (not yet at least). That happens sometimes, but here’s hoping Rotham keeps making such well-intentioned bets.
Source: KCRW’s The Treatment