Whether you saw it as Le Mans 66 or Ford V Ferrari, the 2019 blockbuster is the last of its ilk we’re likely to see for a long time.
Appreciating that the current situation around the planet is asking all kinds of questions as to the future of cinema, it was nonetheless clear even before the Covid era that the plates of big screen movies had shifted.
Look at the ambitious Warner Bros slate of 2019. That was when the studio was willing to gamble on more ‘grown-up’, mid-budget fare. Yet films such as The Good Liar, The Goldfinch and Motherless Brooklyn failed to ignite (a fate not all of them deserved). Each were risky investments into films that were going a little against the current grain, that left the studio with a lot of red ink.
Meanwhile, major franchises cleaned up.
This isn’t a piece to knock the big films either. It’s easy to take potshots at the Marvel Cinematic Universe for instance, and its dominance over blockbuster cinema. Yet the MCU earned its position through good films, and plenty of them.
Yet it’s hard to overlook the side effect of its success, and the success of the Disney model of fewer, bigger bets (ironically, a strategy that Warner Bros first deployed at the start of the 2000s). That the oxygen is now pulled away from riskier releases. That also, the number of studios willing to spend $100m on a major film that doesn’t have sequel or franchise potential had dwindled notably by the end of 2019. In fact, with Disney swallowing up 20th Century Fox, there’s a sense that the last studio willing to do that may have gone.
Back with Fox still in existence, Le Mans 66 – or Ford V Ferrari in some places around the world – had been the kind of expensive film that had lived in development hell for many years. Michael Mann came closest to making it originally, but it eventually came to the attention of James Mangold.
Mangold in turn saw this tiny, shrinking window. Without wishing to sound too dramatic, he had one shot to get the film made.
He took it.
Even then, he had to cut metaphorical and visual corners to get it made. It was already well known as Le Mans 66 headed towards production that the days of Fox as an independent studio were coming to an end. Big bets were off the table.
Fox’s then-owner Rupert Murdoch after all was short of a few quid, so decided to cash out. It was a move that would cost 6,000 people around the world their jobs, but boost his bank account by over $70bn.
To get the resultant film up and running, Mangold had to trim the budget down to below $100m. That was the condition, the only way Fox executives could justify it. He just about did it, in part by cutting one of the race sequences out of the movie’s script, replaced by a scene where Christian Bale’s character listens to the race in question on the radio instead. All while drinking some Typhoo Tea. A cuppa is a bit cheaper to film than cars hurtling around a track, and that single choice may have been the final catalyst to actually getting the greenlight. The trimming of the scene to meet the budget, not the brand of tea.
It’s worth noting too that if Mangold was the man who was able to kick a project in limbo firmly into life, it was a comic book movie that gave him the currency to do so. There was something a little bit old fashioned about that, too.
After all, in days of old, if you had a hit for a studio they wanted you back. What did you want to make next? Can we get involved? Are you interested in a longer-term deal with the studio? Those sort of questions tended to be asked.
There’s little evidence that’s still the case at the major traditional studios, but there was just a little bit of that ethos left a few years back. And as it happened, Mangold had just made the finest comic book movie of the decade.
That’d be 2017’s Logan, starring Hugh Jackman.
In spite of that particular movie having an against-the-grain R-rating, it earned huge critical acclaim and Oscar nominations.
It also, helpfully, grossed over $600m at the global box office. Fox was naturally open to whatever Mangold – who’d delivered a hit too with The Wolverine beforehand – wanted to do next.
He had his moment, although there’s little doubt he’d earned it. He’d fashioned an individual comic book movie within the boundaries of a major franchise.
Even so, that era where a director scores a big hit and gets to choose what they want to do next feels all but over. Had Christopher Nolan broken through ten years later, would he have fashioned the same opportunities, of such scale?
Mangold being able to get the film going is perhaps the last example of its type then, and it may yet be a while before a studio backs a filmmaker to the tune of nine figures in the way Fox did here.
But even more than that, I’d argue the chances of us seeing another film like Le Mans 66 on the big screen again, on this kind of scale, are all but over.
I’m a huge fan of the movie. It’s a broad, mainstream, compelling telling of a story that I confess to not being that aware of first time I watched it.
It’s long too, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours. Furthermore, it doesn’t feel like natural awards-bait either. There are plenty of factors here against getting it made. I commend enormously Sam Mendes being able to get 1917 going around the same time, but I’d also suggest that always had awards as part of its metaphorical gold at the end of its particular rainbow. Rightly so, too.
Le Mans 66 feels something more akin to The Right Stuff, though. A really good story, really well told. People tend to be snobbish about such things, but I find that a huge skill. No huge narrative riddles, no zipping all over the place. Even in the way Mangold frames the films, he steadfastly doesn’t get in the way of the narrative.
Instead, he focuses on telling a really good story, really well. Furthermore, a story afforded the canvas and scale it needs to really make it work, clearly made with a lot of old fashioned craft and stunt work.
To complete the almost quaint feel to it, it’s a movie boasting two movie stars with their names above the title. In this case Christian Bale and his West Midlands accent (as a West Midlander myself, I’ve been asking for a lot of fizzy pop since I heard Bale capture the nuance of that particular request), and Matt Damon. Both are excellent (Damon particularly, I’d argue).
Crucially, once the film had been made and readied, it was pushed hard as a major motion picture.
It’s easy to already overlook how good Fox was at this. Could you imagine movies such as Bohemian Rhapsody and The Greatest Showman making their way through any other studio at the time, and being the hits they were? Fox had precious few franchises, so tended to fight hard for its ambitious swings. This was one of them. Its last gamble.
And it hit.
Le Mans 66 would find its audience, grossing over $220m at the global box office. Not comic book movie numbers, but I’d wager it’s the kind of film that’ll still be selling and being watched in 25 years.
It’ll repay that investment many times over, just perhaps not when it’s being instantly assessed on a quarterly balance sheet.
And I struggle to see another film like it enjoying such big screen success in the next decade at least. Even before Covid, the studio and big screen environment had already changed a lot.
Now? Even if a studio thought about backing such a project, the likelihood is it’d be sold to streamers before it was done.
In fact (and obviously I can’t speak for him) I doubt if Mangold – next to tackle Indiana Jones 5 – had another film story of this ilk on his slate, he’d even consider taking it to Fox’s new owners with a cinema release in mind. The window simply isn’t there anymore at a traditional studio.
Ironically, there’s probably a greater chance of the movie getting made and financed, but far less chance – again, even pre-current times – of it getting a proper cinema release. Instead, Le Mans 66 would be more Netflix or Disney+ catnip. Possibly not even a film, with a miniseries instead.
I think that’s a shame. It’s not a slight to streamers, who have been gambling on some really interesting productions over the past few years that otherwise simply wouldn’t get made. But I’m that boring old nerd that thinks the big screen is the perfect place for stories such as Le Mans 66.
I saw it twice at the cinema in the end, a wonderful cocktail of a huge screen, amazing surround sound, some fizzy pop and an utterly absorbing mainstream story, told by people with the tools, resources and talent to tell it.
I hope I’m wrong, but I went back a second time for two reasons. One, I loved the film. Two, I didn’t know how long it’d be before I’d see anything of its like on the big screen again.
My current guess? A very long time…
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