Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Jack the Giant Slayer
Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer was supposed to do a lot of things. For one thing, it was supposed to be the director’s big comeback after back-to-back box office disappointments. It was also supposed to establish its lead actor, Nicholas Hoult, as a bankable movie star. And of course, everyone involved was hoping the movie would be successful enough to launch a franchise. But Jack didn’t do any of those things. Instead, Warner Brothers took a loss of around $140 million dollars on the fantasy flick! To celebrate the movie’s fifth anniversary, we’ll examine why Jack couldn’t make it up this beanstalk.
The idea to make a movie based on the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale had been floating around for a few years. Screenwriter Darren Lemke pitched the idea for a live-action take on the story back in 2005. But the idea really gained traction five years later with the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. When that movie grossed over $300 million in 2010, contemporized fairy tales became a trend. Alice was followed by copycats like Beastly and Red Riding Hood in 2011, Snow White and the Huntsman in 2012 and Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013.
Singer claimed to be unaware of the proliferation of similarly themed movies. “When I came on, I was not aware of any fairy-tale movie existing. I thought I’d do what I did with the comic-book movies. I’ll be the first guy to create a big cinematic version of a fairy tale.” Of course it didn’t work out that way. Instead of blazing a trail as he did with X-Men, Singer was late to the party with Jack.
When Singer agreed to direct Jack, he was looking for a comeback vehicle. Following the success of the first two X-Men movies, the director jumped ship to Warner Brothers in order to reboot their flagship superhero franchise. It was a risky career choice. X-Men 3 would have been a victory lap for Singer. Instead, he swung for the fences with Superman Returns which failed to live up to sky-high expectations. Singer’s Superman sequel never saw the light of day.
Two years later, Singer tried to bounce back with the World War II drama, Valkyrie. Once again, the movie had the makings of a sure-fire hit. Leading man Tom Cruise was going through some bad PR after his shenanigans on Oprah’s couch a few years earlier, but he could still be counted on for a $100 million dollar gross. Instead, Valkyrie barely earned back its $75 million dollar production costs in the US. The star’s popularity overseas saved the movie from bombing, but it was an undeniable disappointment.
Singer took some time off to lick his wounds. His name was attached to various projects that never came to pass including a big screen version of the “classic” Battlestar Galactica TV show and a remake of the 80’s King Arthur movie, Excalibur. Eventually, Singer had to choose between returning to the X-Men franchise and the Jack and the Beanstalk update. He chose to produce X-Men: First Class and direct Jack the Giant Killer himself.
One of the X-Men in First Class was played by Nicholas Hoult. As a child actor, Hoult had starred opposite Hugh Grant in the hit comedy, About a Boy. As a young adult, Hoult was getting noticed in movies like A Single Man and Clash of the Titans. He seemed poised for success in 2013. In addition to Jack, Hoult starred in the zombie rom-com, Warm Bodies that year. Warm Bodies was another trendy movie trying to ride the wave of zombie-mania and the popularity of young adult fiction. It ended up grossing $66 million dollars on a $35 million dollar budget which isn’t bad, but it’s not the kind of box office that mints a movie star.
The first sign of trouble came in 2012 when Warner Brothers delayed Jack from its original summer release date. Instead of hitting theaters in June, the expensive fantasy film was pushed back until March of the following year. The studio claimed that the decision was made because their summer was strong enough without Jack in June. And indeed, they had a surefire hit with The Dark Knight Rises scheduled for a July release. But a March release date is never a sign of confidence from the studio.
That’s because Warner Brothers was starting to panic. They wanted something they could market to the family, but Singer’s movie was shaping up to be an R-rated adventure. They started to worry that they had a John Carter situation on their hands. In addition to toning down the violence, Warner Brothers changed the title from Jack the Giant Killer to the subtly less intense Giant Slayer. The marketing department came up with a family friendly trailer they could run on prints of the studio’s Christmas tentpole, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Singer worried that the movie’s first trailer gave audiences the wrong impression of the movie:
The studio was anxious to get it on Rise of the Guardians, which was playing to five year olds, so the trailer had to be comfortable for a five year old to see. So that became the trailer and was on The Hobbit, and I said, ‘Okay… but it’s got more to it than that.’ It’s scary, but it’s not upsetting.
The end result was a $200 million dollar compromise between the suits and Warner Brothers and the director. They ended up releasing a PG-13 fantasy film that was too scary for little kids and too safe for teens. The mixed messages from Warner’s marketing department successfully convinced both demographics that Jack was not for them. Worse still, audiences hungry for a live action fairy tale had been sold much more successfully on Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful which was released one week later.
Neither movie was especially satisfying, but Oz was a hit while Jack was a notorious flop. How do we account for the different outcomes for two similar movies of similarly mediocre quality? Disney’s Oz, had a little more star power with James Franco and Mila Kunis. But Jack had some well-known actors like Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci in supporting roles. Arguably, Oz is a better-known property than Jack and the Beanstalk. I think ultimately, it came down to this. Oz the Great and Powerful stuck more closely to the aesthetic of Burton’s Alice. Audiences felt like they knew what they were going to get. But no one, including the studio, seemed to know what Jack the Giant Slayer was supposed to be.