Late last week we learned that Disney had pulled the plug on Wes Ball‘s $170 million adaptation of Mouse Guard just weeks before it was slated to start production — a move that came on the heels of the studio’s decision to put Fox 2000’s Tom Hanks movie News of the World and an adaptation of Angie Thomas‘ bestseller On the Come Up into turnaround. And now, yet another film may join that trio, as THR reports that Ted Melfi‘s dramedy Fruit Loops, which had been slated to star Woody Harrelson, is also expected to be put into turnaround.
“Turnaround,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is kind of like restricted free agency in sports. It describes a situation where a studio no longer wishes to develop a project, and puts it up for grabs, in a sense; though if another studio opts to pick it up out of turnaround, they typically have to reimburse the original studio for the development costs incurred, plus a sweetener. After all, the new studio is likely picking up the project because it thinks it could make money, and studios don’t just let go of projects for nothing. Turnaround can be risky, of course, because if the project becomes a hit, not only is it a win for the new studio, but it makes the head of the original studio look bad. That’s why so many studios simply choose to let many projects languish in what they call “development hell,” so long as they own the rights outright and the project hasn’t been optioned, since options expire after a set period of time.
Examining Disney’s moves more closely, I can’t really fault the studio for any of its decisions. At a reported budget of $170 million — which, to be fair, some insiders have disputed as being too high — Mouse Guard was simply too expensive a proposition for the Mouse House, even with Idris Elba among the cast. THR‘s sources chalk it up to being a non-franchise film, but I don’t know, I’ve seen Hollywood stretch to launch certain franchises, and I’m sure that if Mouse Guard was a hit, someone would be able to further explore that world. I don’t think that was it. I just think the project itself was a gamble. Now, Wes Ball is a talented director who made Fox a lot of money with the Maze Runner movies, but Game of Thrones with mice? And you basically have to gross $500 million worldwide just to break even? I just don’t see Disney putting that kind of money behind that kind of IP right now. The studio is so busy exploiting its library, it can use that $170 million (plus an enormous marketing budget, no doubt) to finance the next live-action remake, whether it’s Cruella or The Little Mermaid. Another studio — possibly Netflix? — could still swoop in to rescue Mouse Guard out of turnaround, but unless that budget is significantly reduced, I don’t see who it would make sense for. Maybe Apple? Maybe…
As for News of the World, it’s another project that just doesn’t fit what Disney is trying to do right now, especially with its Fox labels, which are seeking to establish their identity under new leadership now that Stacey Snider is no longer involved and Elizabeth Gabler‘s Fox 2000 label has been retired. Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles that was adapted by Luke Davies (Lion), News of the World is set in 1870 and follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a Texan who travels from town to town to read the news to locals who have no clue what is going on in the rest of the world. Joining Hanks on his journey across an inhospitable frontier en route to San Antonio is a young girl who was kidnapped by and recently rescued from an Indian tribe, though she didn’t want to leave.
Now, on one hand, this sounds kind of interesting — particularly to me, since I probably would’ve been that guy reading the news had I lived in 1870. But on the other hand, this reminds me of Road to Perdition a little, and yes, it’s probably because of Hanks, who we rarely see paired with child actors. I absolutely love Road to Perdition, but it grossed $190 million worldwide on an $80 million budget. The studio typically splits that $190 million with the theater, so on just theatrical, they made $95 million. Of course, when you make an $80 million movie, you have to spend more than $15 million to open it in the million of summer. So whether Road to Perdition broke even or made/lost a few million, it simply doesn’t represent the kind of big swings that Disney is focused on taking, and if you aren’t 100% committed to making this movie with Tom freakin’ Hanks, you might as well let him and his partners take the project elsewhere. Hanks has made Disney a ton of money over the years, and I’m not surprised they didn’t stand in his way when Universal offered to take the project off Disney’s hands.
Likewise, there was a happy ending for The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas, whose novel On the Come Up was picked up out of turnaround by Paramount, which could prove to be a smart move, since Paramount and MTV are under the same Viacom umbrella, and the studio could use the network to help market the movie. The book follows a young female rapper who channels her struggle into songs that become viral sensations. It’s apparently set in the same fictional universe as The Hate U Give… and therein lies the problem. That film was made on a very modest budget of $23 million, and yet it still managed to lose between $30 million and $40 million when you account for marketing costs. It doesn’t matter who you are, not many studios will be eager to finance your next project after that kind of return, which also failed to earn a single Oscar nomination. Stories like The Hate U Give and On the Come Up need to be told, but from a business perspective, I can’t blame Disney for letting this one move on, though I’m glad it found a new home.
The same can’t be said for Ted Melfi’s dramedy Fruit Loops — yet. Technically, the project is still at Disney via Fox, but apparently Melfi and his producers have been informed it’s unlikely to move forward, and thus, are trying to find it a new home. Fruit Loops is actually the movie that I, personally, was most looking forward to of this quartet. It’s basically a co-ed riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as it follows a group of mental patients who band together when their hospital suddenly sells. Harrelson had been cast as a Vietnam veteran who suffers from severe PTSD, but again, my understanding is that this film was expected to be as comedic as it was dramatic. Melfi is a fine filmmaker who has really impressed me between St. Vincent and Hidden Figures. He has a fall-back plan if no one picks up Fruit Loops, in that he’s also set to direct Harry’s All Night Hamburgers for Warner Bros., but I really hope some studio steps up to the plate here, whether it’s Amazon or A24 or Annapurna. Harrelson is a national treasure and any project that offers him a juicy lead role he can really sink his teeth into is worth saving, in my opinion. But again, it doesn’t take 20/20 vision to see why Disney isn’t planning to greenlight this project. Maybe if they were superheroes banding together to save the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters…
The truth is, there’s always fallout in a mega-merger, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more of Fox’s development titles surface at other studios around town. One producer told THR that Disney brass is “looking at everything,” and why wouldn’t they? 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight and Fox 2000 were developing dozens if not hundreds of projects between them, and now it’s time for tough decisions to be made. James Cameron‘s Avatar sequels are safe. If Clint Eastwood signs on to direct The Ballad of Richard Jewell, that film will be greenlit. Kenneth Branagh‘s Murder on the Orient Express sequel and the Ryan Reynolds action-comedy Free Guy are all but assured to start shooting in the fall. What’s interesting about that, by the way, is that Killing Eve star Jodie Comer has reportedly been cast in both of those projects. Obviously, she can only do one, and I’m told that she has chosen the female lead in Free Guy over the supporting role among the ensemble of Death on the Nile, though her exit from the latter project suggests that her summer slot remains open — possibly to accommodate Bond 25? We’ll find out tomorrow courtesy of… Good Morning America? Alrighty then!
As for the Fox movies that we know are moving forward, they include Matthew Vaughn‘s Kingsman prequel The Great Game, an adaptation of R.L. Stine‘s beloved Fear Street series, and Steven Spielberg‘s West Side Story, though Disney finds itself in a pickle given the director’s plan to show young characters smoking onscreen, which conflicts with the studio’s smoking policy. West Side Story is expected to light up the big screen in 2020. I can’t wait to see who wins that clash of industry titans… Spielberg or Bob Iger?