When executives at Universal huddled in 2008 to mull over the story, they envisioned "Lord of the Rings" set in the East circa the 1700s. An early treatment of the script was jam-packed with dazzling sword fights. And the material seemed like a potential home run for the U.S. and the lucrative Asian market (where the similarly themed Tom Cruise vehicle "The Last Samurai" had generated disproportionately large grosses in 2003). It was one of the first projects greenlit by studio chair Adam Fogelson, who was pushed out of his perch in September.
The 3D martial arts project turned out to be a disappointment on many fronts. After months of bad buzz and two postponed release dates, "47 Ronin" finally bowed on Christmas in the U.S. and grossed only $20.6 million in its first five days at the domestic box office. Overseas, it's fared even worse -- with $2.8 million in its home turf of Japan since its Dec. 6 debut. The film's gargantuan budget of $175 million (it cost even more before tax breaks) means it could lose the studio $120 to $150 million, especially once marketing is factored in.
Universal took the unusual step of announcing prior to the film's domestic opening that it had already taken an unspecified writedown on the project. It was meant to signal to Comcast shareholders that executives knew they had baked a holiday turkey.
What went wrong?
Several sources close to the project say the ambitious undertaking never found its footing. The story kept changing through rewrites and post-production, as the studio and first-time director Carl Rinsch couldn't find a balance between the classic Eastern tale and the more Western touches like a CGI dragon and the addition of an American star, Reeves, in a mostly Japanese cast.
The first draft of the script by Chris Morgan, who has written five of the seven "Fast and the Furious" movies, showed promise. It was slick enough to land on 2008's Black List of best unproduced work. (A stage direction for a ninja attack read: "It's like the ambush out of 'Aliens,'" a clear influence.)
Universal suits were drawn to the idea of creating a unique fantasy world like that of "Avatar" or Peter Jackson's Middle-earth. The Morgan script made notable additions to the traditional story, including mysterious ogres, doses of black magic and Reeves' character, a half-breed warrior named Kai.
Fogelson, co-chair Donna Langley and Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, the studio's production president, who was a champion of the project since inception (and handled the day-to-day interference), interviewed Rinsch for the directing job. He won them over after he pitched impressively detailed storyboards of the historic samurai backdrops.
Even though he had never directed a feature before, he was a hot name based on his commercial work and a short film, "The Gift," involving a frenzied robot chase. "He's pretty amazing in a room," says a source involved in the making of the film. "He's very smart and passionate and can make you believe his ambition."
Though unusual, assigning a novice director to a project so large and complicated is hardly unprecedented, with Disney's "Tron: Legacy" (directed by Joseph Kosinski) and Universal's own "Snow White and the Huntsman" (directed by Rupert Sanders) among recent examples.
But "Ronin's"s tone grew more muddled as the project barreled forward. One point of conflict was that Rinsch kept wanting to make the film more Japanese, almost like an arthouse samurai movie. The studio, understandably, was nervous. The picture needed to play to mainstream audiences across the world in order to break even. It already had a cast made up entirely of Japanese actors like Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki and Tadanobu Asano. (At one point, Japanese-American actors had been considered.)
Reeves, who hasn't opened a box office blockbuster since the 2008 remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," expressed interest in playing Kai, but he had his own concerns. He was worried that the character wouldn't feel integrated into the main arc of the story.
Scribe Hossein Amini ("Drive," "Snow White and the Huntsman") was brought in for rewrites to broaden Reeves' character and to simplify some of the dialogue. It turned out that the Japanese actors, who weren't fluent in English, were having trouble delivering their lines and had to learn them phonetically.
To help them along, Rinsch had his actors say all of their lines in Japanese first and then in English right after -- a puzzling decision in an age when such major hits as "District 9," "Inglourious Basterds" and even the "Fast and the Furious" movies have elected to have their "foreign" characters speak in their native languages, with the dialogue then subtitled in English. And there were more drafts after that: The story added a wicked, shape-shifting sorceress (Rinko Kikuchi) right out of a horror movie.
The budget wasn't so monstrous until Universal, influenced by Hollywood's latest obsession, decided to shoot the film in 3D. That's when "47 Ronin" became the Titanic of samurai movies. The creative team scouted Japan, New Zealand and Australia before deciding that none of those regions looked ancient enough. The film was eventually shot in England and Hungary, with a design team constructing 150,000 square feet of samurai villages for all those close-up 3D shots.
By all accounts, the post-production process was fraught with tension. When Universal executives saw an early cut in 2011, they had concerns about the story and started ordering changes. Another week of shooting was slated so that Reeves could be made more integral to the finale. A 2012 article from the Wrap reported Langley kicked Rinsch out of the editing room, but two highly placed sources deny that happened.
Another source with knowledge of the situation said that in post-production, Universal decided to take the film in a different direction. Rinsch then sought the help of the DGA to ensure his contractual rights were being honored.
A revolving door of crew members came and left. Multiple editors worked on the film, including Gore Verbinski's longtime editor, Craig Wood. But legendary fix-it guy Stuart Baird ("Skyfall") took the lone editing credit. To this day, members of the creative team have not seen a final cut of the film, including executive producer Stuber. Variety has learned Stuber departed over creative differences after he helped land Reeves as the star and never made it to the production stages.
Universal hosted a world premiere of the film in Japan -- it needed support from the region, where the cast was well recognized. But it never gained traction there, despite being released in an alternate edit specifically designed for Japanese audiences. Market research showed the key demographic of young men didn't buy enough tickets.
U.S. critics were allowed to preview the film only a few days before it opened. The reviews, embargoed until 36 hours before the American release, were not kind. Universal didn't spend lavishly on an advertising campaign. By then, the box office prospects for "47 Ronin" were grim.
"47 Ronin" is just one of several risky tentpoles (see "The Lone Ranger" and "R.I.P.D.") that flopped in 2013. But if those expensive failures raise questions about the viability of mega-budget movies that aren't sequels, don't count them out yet. While some executives may now be warier of taking $175 million gambles on unproven talent and material, there's also the fear that, by doing so, a studio may miss out on the next big thing. Which, to put things in samurai terms, is a fate worse than death.