Studio Killers and Box Office Bombs, Part II: 5 More Flops Worth Another Look

It wouldn’t be hard to make a case for Michael Mann as one of the most consistently excellent American filmmakers of the last forty years. Manhunter (1986), Thief (1981), Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), and The Last of the Mohicans (1992) would each be the best film on almost any director’s resume. Unfortunately, general audiences don’t recognize his name as a box office draw in the same way as a Scorsese and a Tarantino. The sad fact is that since the New Hollywood days of the 1970s directors have trended downward as a marketable asset.

Through no fault of his own, Mann’s name appears multiple times on lists of major box office disasters. 2001’s Muhammed Ali bio-pic Ali, which garnered acting Oscar nominations for Will Smith and Jon Voight, wound up putting Columbia Pictures (who backed the film with a major Christmas marketing campaign) 100 million in the red. As a film that received plenty of critical accolades and two Academy nominations, it shouldn’t really need a public relations boost. Instead, I wanted to turn everyone’s attentions to Mann’s other box office blight – Blackhat (2015).

In January of 2015, Deadline ran a story by Anthony D’Allesandro called “Legendary’s Michael Mann Pic ‘Blackhat’: What the Hell Happened?” Even after Ali (which, to be fair, was outside the director’s special oeuvre), no one expected a failure of this magnitude from Mann. With the benefit of some hindsight, however, we can put together a clear path to the film’s financial deficit. American Sniper dominated the box office while Blackhat, with its big-name star and director, floundered on opening weekend. The film, about a cyber-criminal (Chris Hemsworth) released from prison to help American and Chinese authorities track down a dangerous hacker that had run amuck in trading markets and Chinese power grids, didn’t find its audience… or any audience for that matter.

D’Allesandro points fingers at the Universal marketing team, which chose to embellish the film’s nominal sex, guns, and explosions because they couldn’t find an alluring angle for a thoughtful, twisty thriller about a hi-tech manhunt. Mann’s greatest asset as a filmmaker is his poignant exploration of professional (often criminal) minutiae. In Blackhat, he turned that focused attention to the pursuit of cyber-anarchists, which undoubtedly seemed like an impossible sell for its studio.

Foregrounding sexy times and action would be a reasonable enticement to get butts in theater seats, but in a show business economy that over-relies on a big opening box office and fickle Cinema Scores (the survey of exiting filmgoers on opening night) to gauge future success, these bait-and-switch tactics often have long-lasting ramifications. The disappointed audience pulled into the theater for pulp titillation contributed to the film’s C-Cinema Score. The adult viewers that would have appreciated the more mature, analytical tone of the film ignored Blackhat while Universal chased a young audience by misdirecting the marketing campaign and flaunting Chris “Thor” Hemsworth’s Marvel caché.

With its opening weekend dominated by the success of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Blackhat desperately needed word-of-mouth to ignite viewer interest during its subsequent weeks. The viewers that would have recommended Blackhat didn’t see it, thus leaving Michael Mann’s excellent film without an audience, a final tally of only $ 20 million, and the unfair stigma of being the biggest box office debacle of 2015. Some films take time to become a success story. After seven years, it’s time Blackhat sussed out its redemption.

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