The press release, by itself, would not normally elicit a big reaction from the entertainment press. Viacom made the announcement for investors of a revised earnings-per-share amount, lowering previous projections. In a beautiful corporate euphemism, the company attributed the lowered stock payout to “a programming impairment charge.”
Investors saw the company incurring a write-down loss totaling $115 million from “the expected performance of an unreleased film.” The entertainment conglomerate, owner of Paramount Pictures, was absorbing a loss for the family-oriented title “Monster Trucks.” While certainly a stark figure, it is not uncommon for a studio to report revenue losses when one of its titles fails to go blockbuster.
What was different about this fiscal declaration was the timing and the particular film. The announcement focused on a movie that opens on January 13, and came four months before the movie’s release date.
Box office disasters are an infrequent but accepted reality in Dreamland, and it is not uncommon to see entertainment producers licking their fungible wounds. A studio often resorts to a stoic marketing effort for a sub-quality product, hoping to recoup some of the expenses. Other times they cut their losses. Rather than spend more on advertising and distribution, the studio will dispatch a title to the rental market. To behold a Hollywood major conceding defeat in this manner is indeed a rarity.
The Promise of Disappointment
Each year movie fans with affection for bad cinema note on the calendar the dates of releases that suggest a sublime viewing experience. Of the hundreds of titles Hollywood releases annually there are sure to be a handful that can deliver unintentional laughs. These may vary, depending on individual preferences and taste, of course—one’s garbage could always be another’s mirth.
Yet every so often a blatant misfire looms that appears obvious to all. It becomes an unavoidable event. In a way these films resemble one of those crass roadside attractions available once your car drives onto an off-ramp. Everyone just knows. This is evidenced by a conversation I had with writer Paul Young, from ScreenRant:
ME: So, “Monster Trucks” is coming.
PAUL: Oh, yeah, that’s been on my radar.
ME: I’ll be seeing it opening night!
PAUL: I have notifications set when advanced tickets on sale!
ME: I’m looking for it in 3D!
PAUL: Hope it’s at IMAX!
This is not a case of critics unfairly lobbying for a movie to fail. The plot line—a sea monster that is adept with tools and resides inside a pickup truck—would be enough to earn vitriol, but the story behind making the film set the expectations. Now the studio is admitting it has a cashflow bonfire on its hands.
The effort behind this in-the-ditch release began in 2013. It was announced Paramount Animation intended to launch a new family film franchise, ushered in by then-president Adam Goodman. The director of “Ice Age,” Chris Wedge, was given the reins. Established script writers Jonathon Abel and Glenn Berger (who teamed for “The SpongeBob Movie” and the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise) were hired to formulate the story into a screenplay. Along with bringing in proven talent, the studio granted a healthy budget for the production.
At issue, however, was the “concept.” The story derived not from a proven source material, nor the fertile trove of an imaginative writer; it came from a preschooler. Paramount was hurling a fortune in cash at a concept Goodman’s four-year-old son had hatched. What could go wrong? An answer: One hundred million things.
Shooting took place in various parts of Canada in spring 2014, and at one point additional writers were brought in to rework aspects of the script. Copious CGI work was needed in post-production to animate the monsters and vehicle effects. The movie was prepped for a May 2015 release, as Paramount plotted a summer blockbuster to launch the franchise. Then signs began to arrive the movie was being wheeled into the motor pool.
The studio announced they were shifting its debut to Christmas. This indicated that it needed work, but Paramount was still hoping it had a potential family hit. Then, near the original release date, Paramount announced another date shift to the lightly competitive schedule in March 2016. Six months later came yet another move, to its present premiere date, indicating the studio had given up. January is the traditional dumping ground for studio misfires.
Disaster in the Making
The question to ask in assessing how a film with an infantile premise became such a money sump is not “What went wrong?” The proper analysis here involves “How was this allowed to happen?” If an unreleased title is so obviously a failure, how was it not cut off earlier, before losing the equivalent of a third-world nation’s gross domestic product?
The largest factor: the conception took place when Paramount was still financially vibrant. 2013 was a flush year for the studio, with nearly $1 billion in receipts. Optimism buoyed hopes of creating a new film franchise with built-in toy and marketing product lines. As shooting began in May 2014 (prepping for summer 2015) Paramount was having an even better time, clearing more than $1 billion by year end.
The first sign of trouble was in January 2015, with the move to a Christmas release. The next month saw the departure of Goodwin, one year before his contract expired. His film, dubbed his “priority project for Paramount animation,” was now going through post-production without its executive backer.
In May it became clear the studio was struggling with the property, revealed by that second release date change. Next, in August Bob Bacon, lead executive of Paramount Animation, left the company. Rather than seeking a replacement, Paramount eliminated his position. By the Viacom earning report this past September, Paramount also saw interim CEO Tim Dooley leave, as well as the studio’s vice chairman, Robert Moore. “Monster Trucks” was now all but abandoned by the side of the road.
The Curse of the Fours
Viacom has been a conglomerate with upper management conflict lately, and the parent has also been looking for investors or buyers for its Paramount division. The exodus of big-name board members has been connected partially to sale rumors. Another factor: the drop in film revenues.
Despite those flush years Paramount was facing a rough economic road ahead. With the exception of “Transformers,” the company had few franchises with sustainable momentum. The 2015 film slate delivered about half of the previous year’s box office revenues. This year delivered a diminished “Star Trek” entry, a flagging “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sequel, and the outright bomb in the remake of “Ben Hur.” Adding in the projected loss from “Monster Trucks,” Paramount stands to lose $500 million in fiscal 2016.
The result of a flawed concept, executive flight, and unknown studio prospects snowballed this film’s production mess. Once the budget was allocated and the production underway, “Monster Trucks” lost its driving force in Goodman. Dissolving the animation division then saw the title towed to backlot calendar dates as new executives grappled with how to handle the older-model lemon of a movie.
That four-year-old’s inspiration seemed to set a curse. “Monster Trucks” has had four writers, four release dates, seen four major executives leave the studio, and after nearly four years its own studio predicted it will bomb—four months before it arrived in theaters. Paramount would rather forget it ever existed.