How The Perfect Storm helped quietly change blockbuster cinema

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The Perfect Storm proved a pivotal film in Warner Bros’ approach to blockbuster cinema – and it had ramifications for Disney too.

Examine the box office chart for the year 2000, and high up the list you’ll find the second movie project to bring together George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. Coming off the back of the excellent Three Kings, the pair were soon working together to bring the story of The Perfect Storm to the screen.

You may recall this one. It’s a telling of a true story, in this case adapting Sebastian Junger’s book. It relays the tale of a commercial fishing vessel by the name of the Andrea Gail, that found itself in significant trouble at sea. In particular, it found itself caught in gigantic waves, its small crew struggling to keep their modest boat going in the choppiest of waters.

The film came with pedigree.

Alongside Clooney and Wahlberg were Diane Lane, William Fichtner, Karen Allen, Bob Gunton, Michael Ironside, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and John C Reilly. Behind the camera, meanwhile, was director Wolfgang Petersen, then enjoying his purple patch of Hollywood hits, following In The Line Of Fire, Outbreak and Air Force One.

However, there’s a sporting chance you may not recall much of that, because certainly when it came to the selling of the film, none of that ultimately came to the fore. Sure, George Clooney was shuttled in the UK up to Birmingham to open the-then Warner Bros cinema around the time of the film’s release. Sure, the film’s two stars did the junket circuit, and gave copious interviews. And sure, their names were at the top of the poster.

Yet in a sign of the changing times, their faces weren’t on it. Instead, what the poster sold was the film’s biggest special effect.

By this time in Hollywood, the message was getting through. 1993’s Jurassic Park was perhaps an even bigger watermark than 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day where visual effects were concerned, because the former didn’t have the movie star collateral of the latter. In the case of Jurassic Park, the special effects were the movie star where the promotional campaign was concerned. Independence Day built on this, notwithstanding the fact that Will Smith’s career was firmly on the rise at that point. It focused its promotional campaign on the infamous White House explosion shot, and a huge spaceship, rather than its cast.

Yet The Perfect Storm was, quietly, the sign of a changing strategy at Warner Bros. To that point, the studio had been a star magnet. Throughout the 90s, the likes of Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Richard Donner and Clint Eastwood called the studio their home. Warner Bros was quick with the chequebook when a star needed to be lured, attracting pretty much every big movie name to the studio’s films across the decade..

However, in 1999 Warner Bros appointed a man called Alan Horn as its president and chief operating officer. Horn, to that point, had served as president of 20th Century Fox, and he inherited a Warner Bros that in the summer of 1999 was both at the cutting edge of blockbuster cinema – The Matrix – yet also reliant on the kind of star vehicles it always made (Wild Wild West being a prime example).

The first summer slate at Warner Bros that Horn could influence was in 2000, where he inherited, alongside The Perfect Storm, the likes of Battlefield Earth, The Replacements and Space Cowboys. He quickly figured that The Perfect Storm was his best chance of a big hit.

The $120m movie was scheduled for the end of June 2000, and Horn was drawn to the story. He was a little concerned that neither Clooney nor Wahlberg was regarded as a big box office draw at the time, in spite of the success of Three Kings. But he also figured he had a storm to play with here.

Not that the early prototype trailers for the film reflected that. They were zeroing in more on the human beings, on Clooney and Wahlberg. Notably missing was the storm itself, which occurs towards the end of the film.

Horn wanted to know why, and approved a sizeable budget to generate a marketing campaign based around the film’s key special effect. He, crucially, authorised an extra $500,000 for a new shot, of the boat caught in the midst of said storm. And that’s what you see as the star of the poster, and the culmination of the trailer.

Horn and his team then fashioned a campaign that turned The Perfect Storm into an event movie at a point where Warner Bros had previously sold its biggest films primarily off the back of star talent. As many franchises discovered since, effects have a universal box office appeal that movie stars oftentimes don’t, and the campaign for The Perfect Storm was groundbreaking in its own way for the studio.

Sure, it had cost a lot of money, on top of the bill for the movie itself. But Horn saw that by buying an expensive movie, and then an expensive marketing campaign for that expensive movie, he had a far better chance of a profitable hit than making lots of smaller films with lots of different smaller marketing campaigns. Huge bets were the way forward.

The Perfect Storm would hit big. Whilst the Warner Bros releases around it struggled, The Perfect Storm would generate $182m in the US and – importantly – a further $146m overseas. It was a film that the studio could sell in most core markets around the world, and it duly did.

It took a while for Horn to fashion the Warner Bros slate around what would become his big bets strategy, although the Harry Potter series was one of the first beneficiaries. But as he pulled back the number of movies the studio was making and focused more on tentpole blockbusters, so the success followed. For years afterwards, the studio had at least one huge hit, usually more, each year.

Unsurprisingly the rest of Hollywood took notice, and Horn himself was lured elsewhere. That said, Warner Bros let him go first, a decision in hindsight that looks short-sighted. At the start of the 2010s, Warner Bros pushed him to retirement to bring through new, younger faces to run the studio. And Disney pounced: in 2012, it talked Horn out of retirement. Disney was in the midst of a bumpy run of films that would ultimately TRON: Legacy, Tomorrowland and John Carter. But within years, Horn – as chairman of Walt Disney Studios – had helped apply what he learned at Warner Bros. Far fewer films, much bigger bets, far greater rewards.

The ramifications, therefore, of that The Perfect Storm strategy continue to be strongly felt throughout Hollywood. If anything, what Horn helped fashion has become the model that everybody now seems to be chasing. And arguably in a further sign of how things were, in some cases, going to go, that the film at the heart of all of this turned out to be nothing special was almost an irrelevance…

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