A Radical Strategy for Critical Times

The filmmakers behind THE MATRIX and V FOR VENDETTA have teamed with the German art house director of RUN LOLA RUN and PERFUME to independently finance a project that is so hard to classify they’ve released a five and a half minute trailer AND a two and a half minute directors’ introduction to help market it. The film is called CLOUD ATLAS, and it’s based on David Mitchell‘s Bookman Prize winning novel of the same name.

This is the first film from the Wachowskis since 2008’s SPEED RACER, a campy and possibly unfairly maligned adaptation of Tatsuo Yoshida‘s popular anime series. Because of the diminishing returns on their films since MATRIX RELOADED and the indisputably noncommercial plot flow of Mitchell’s book, the creators of one of the most popular and profitable sci-fi franchises of all time were refused backing by every studio who would take a meeting with them. As the filmmakers explain in their video introduction to the trailer, practically everything about the project was met with suspicion: studio bosses shook their heads at the idea of three directors at the helm; marketing directors shrugged at the concept of multiple actors of varying racial heritage cast in the same roles; sales execs fretted a script that combined not just one or two genres, but seemingly all genres.

Risky? Sure. But it’s not like they entered these meetings with nothing.

For one, they had a script endorsed by the novelist of an award winning best seller. They also had a dream cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and established box office champs including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving.
Still, no backing.

Emboldened to persevere, the filmmakers scraped together one hundred million dollars in independent funding and convinced Warner Brothers to agree to a partial distribution deal for the finished film. At the time of this writing, CLOUD ATLAS is set to open in 20 countries in the space between October 26th and March 22nd, and the success or failure of this film will cause shock waves in the front offices of Hollywood for years to come. I, for one, hope it succeeds.

Aside from the track record established by Terrence Malick‘s successful TREE OF LIFE, there are other dream projects that became wildly profitable when the filmmaker’s vision met at the intersection of popular opinion and critical acclaim. Francis Ford Coppola‘s APOCALYPSE NOW springs to mind. But there are many high quality films that challenged the accepted norms of cinema only to be met with crickets, so to speak. Darren Aronofsky‘s THE FOUNTAIN is only among the most recent examples of a highly concepted, richly acted and lavishly produced metaphysical epic to fail at the box office, despite all it had going for it. Even Ridley Scott‘s BLADERUNNER was considered a flop in its day.

But it would be nice if the audience for this film actually showed up opening night to see it, because a sold box office performance would send a message to the powers that be that sci-fi fandom wants thought-provoking material. How are we going to escape bad sequels and hastily written scripts if we keep rewarding the studios that produce them with box office dollars? They’ll certainly not get the message if we don’t show up for the good films. The only thing that studio bosses understand is formula. The purchase, production and marketing budgets are dictated by projections, and projections are based on recent track records of comparable titles. I say we make their jobs more difficult by staying away from formulaic fodder and supporting originality. Maybe that will compel them to consider quality an asset. How’s that for radical?