Monday, November 3, 2014

Newsploitation: The Phantom of the Box Office

Pardon the interruption in our continued H.P. Lovecraft film coverage, but we figured we’d take a day to remember another box office birthday. Rather than being something that set the ticket takers on fire, this is a film that came and went in a matter of weeks. But it is an important film in that it demonstrated several box office lessons for the producers (and me, at the time).  Namely, a hot property in another medium isn’t always a guaranteed success and just because a performer is popular as one character doesn’t mean it will translate to other projects.  So allow me to draw up the curtain on 1989’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which celebrates its 25th anniversary today.

This new version of Gaston Leroux’s novel was officially announced by Cannon at MIFED in October 1988.  No, that isn’t an error.  Cannon was the original backer/distributor for this film.  The following two-page slick advert from the October 19, 1988 Variety publicized the film and boasted the major casting coup for Golan/Globus as they had hired Robert Englund – horror’s hottest actor and Freddy Kreuger himself – to play the title role.

Original PHANTOM announcement
(click to enlarge)

If you clicked on the large version of the ad, you probably noticed a few things.  First, a promised start date of November 28, 1988 was listed.  Second, the screenplay was credited solely to Gerry O’Hara.  Third, John Hough was listed as the director.  A lot of changes would go down before the cameras eventually started rolling.

Perhaps the biggest change was Cannon going bankrupt.  Menahem Golan split and quickly moved on to the newly reconstituted 21st Century Film Corporation.  Most folks know he took both the Marvel titles Cannon owned (Spider-Man and Captain America) with him.  He also took the Englund vehicle, which was to be produced by Harry Alan Towers, and groomed it to be 21st Century’s first theatrical release.  Behind-the-scenes turmoil was abound as by the time December 1988 rolled around, the film’s listing in Variety’s “future productions” guide featured all new players. O’Hara was now credited with the earlier script and Duke Sandefur was now listed as the screenwriter.  I suspect lots of drama went on there as Sandefur’s script wasn’t even copyrighted until September 1989.  Also, director Hough was out and Dwight H. Little was in. Honestly, this change was probably for the best as Little was coming off the hit HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS (1988) while Hough – who was great in the 1970s – had just given the world THE HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE (1988).  Production start dates moved from January 1989 to February to eventually March, where filming started in Budapest.  It was a very tight schedule to meet their already planned fall release date.

To make matters worse, the MPAA originally slapped the film with an X-rating for the onscreen violence.  To date, the uncut version has never come out (and I’m sure it is tamer than anything we see on THE WALKING DEAD each week).  According to Variety on August 15, 1989, the film was cut down and received the desired R-rating.  This allowed the producers to go wide with their product and Golan told Variety in an October 18, 1989 article they were “choosing its theatrical releases carefully.” (Amusing, he also said in the same piece that he’d have his MACK THE KNIFE [1989] musical starring Raul Julia out in time for awards season; he missed that date…and the awards.)  Two weeks later, PHANTOM arrived on over 1,400 screens with a thud despite posters reminding everyone that this starred Freddy.  The film failed to even crack the top five its opening weekend, coming in with a paltry $2,050,000 in sixth place behind SECOND SIGHT (1989).  Yes, a film with Bronson Pinchot as a psychic beat this film out.  The grisly new take on the Phantom dropped faster than a chandelier and disappeared within two weeks with a final tally of just $3,953,745. The film also had the unfortunate distinction of being the lone nationwide theatrical release by 21st Century.

As I mentioned in the opening, this film’s failure was also a learning experience for yours truly.  When I heard Freddy Kreuger was going to play the Phantom of the Opera, I thought it would be a smashing success.  “Freddy is huge at the movies, Phantom of the Opera is huge on Broadway, this will be huge,” thought my huge-skewed 14-year-old brain.  Sadly, grown men with access to millions of dollars had the same thought process at the time. So confident was the studio of the film’s predestined success, they had already announced a sequel with Englund called TERROR OF MANHATTAN.  That film never got made.  The script was eventually rewritten and became DANCE MACABRE (1992) with Englund directed by Greydon Clark.

1 Reactions:

  1. I've always loved this splatter/slasher version of the Phantom. Used to rent it all the time until the nice lady at the video store offered to order one for me because I rented it so much! Can't believe its 25 years old! If I had to complain about one thing, I wish the entire film had taken place in modern times although I liked the way they transitioned into a period piece. Still holding out for the sequel.


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