General Electric Co. was counting on “Miami Vice” to sizzle at the box office this summer. But fizzle is closer to the truth.
At a cost of at least $235 million to make and market, the remake of the iconic 1980s TV cop show was the biggest bet of the year for the company’s studio Universal Pictures. During an earnings call with financial analysts in July, GE’s chief financial officer singled out the stylish crime drama as a coming bright spot for the third quarter.
That could leave GE backpedaling on Wall Street: Universal Pictures could lose as much as $30 million on the picture, according to sources who asked not to be named because movie finances are closely guarded.
A little more than a month after its debut, “Miami Vice” has grossed only $63 million at the U.S. box office. An abrupt fall-off in attendance has dimmed the prospect that the film could muster $100 million in domestic receipts, as Universal had projected.
The poor results also could damp hopes at GE that its film division could help offset the continued hard times this year at the NBC broadcast network, which has suffered from a prolonged ratings slump.
Universal is expected to eke out a slight profit this year, thanks to box-office winners such as “The Break-Up” and “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” which grossed $189 million and $147 million worldwide, respectively. But the studio has fallen behind most of its rivals in domestic market share this year after ranking third last year, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., a box-office tracking firm.
“The studio underestimated the inherent challenges of translating ‘Miami Vice’ to the big screen,” said Universal Pictures Chairman Marc Shmuger. “As a commercial proposition, it had a familiar title but not a really deeply appealing connection to the larger audience.”
“Miami Vice” was doomed not only by its failure to resonate with young audiences but also by the cost of talent -- a recurring complaint among studio owners this summer. The biggest winner in the case of “Miami Vice” could be director Michael Mann, who will make at least $6 million, plus a percentage of the box-office receipts, before Universal makes a dime, according to people familiar with his deal.
“ ‘Miami Vice’ is symptomatic of a malaise in the industry,” said independent media analyst Harold Vogel.
“The industry is undergoing a transition in terms of business models. For the first time in many years, they are encountering strong head winds against whatever they throw up against the screen.”
Just last month, having publicly dismissed Paramount Pictures’ biggest star, Tom Cruise, Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone called for a reexamination of Hollywood’s star system. As he put it, “Studios make peanuts compared to the stars, and unless they learn how to say no and demand more for less, they won’t survive.”
Studio economics have gone from bad to worse since General Electric entered the movie business three years ago. GE bought Universal at a time when DVD sales were near their peak. But growth has flattened as consumers fill out their home libraries.
“It’s a different world than it was three years ago,” Vogel said.
For their part, Shmuger and Universal Pictures co-Chairman David Linde said they would continue to take “creative risks,” but they acknowledged a changing tide in the business.
“A mind-set is taking hold which is a reflection of the economic realities we are facing as an industry,” Shmuger said. “We just have to be smart about how we take risks.”
Universal has stepped boldly onto the ledge again, in hopes of increasing the visibility of its upcoming film “Children of Men.” After looking at a crowded fall lineup of movies, the studio decided to move the release date of the futuristic thriller directed by Alfonso Cuaron from late September to Dec. 25. Universal executives see the film, about the possible extinction of humans as they can no longer procreate, as an intelligent action thriller that could be an awards contender.
“We are planting our flag,” Linde said. “It is a resonant movie for contemporary audiences.”
Yet December is a highly competitive time for movies. Because media buys are more expensive during the holiday, the move will greatly increase the expense of marketing the film, which cost an estimated $70 million to make. What’s more, the stars of “Children of Men,” Julianne Moore and Clive Owen, though well-regarded actors, are not big box-office draws.
In addition, the futuristic genre is “a tough sell,” according to Brandon Gray of online tracking firm Box Office Mojo. “These pictures tend to be box-office disappointments. A lot of them develop an audience later on television or DVD. They grow in esteem over time.”
Universal needs “Children of Men” to work after the disappointment of “Miami Vice,” which was put into production by former Universal chief Stacey Snider, who left Universal this year to run DreamWorks SKG.
Snider thrived on working with filmmakers who are critically acclaimed but veer toward artistic films with limited appeal. Movies directed by Mann, for instance, have grossed an average of $46 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
When Snider first met with Mann about the project, his latest film, “Collateral,” the 2004 Tom Cruise drama, had grossed an impressive $218 million worldwide.
Mann, who was executive producer of the “Miami Vice” TV series, had no interest in re-treading the glamorized, pastel world of detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs that made the 1980s TV show so memorable. Instead, he envisioned a dark, realistic treatment of the narcotics trade. The movie would be violent, R-rated, expensive and potentially dangerous, with location shoots in the Dominican Republic and Paraguay’s notorious Ciudad del Este -- a haven for smugglers and terrorists.
As with most coveted directors, working with Mann came with a big price tag. On “Miami Vice,” he made a $6-million salary and will get 8.5% of every dollar the studio receives from theaters.
Studio executives weighed concerns about the cost, R rating and potential production challenges against the movie’s franchise possibilities and its potential revenue from a revival of the TV series on home video. They banked on Mann’s talent, the “Miami Vice” brand and the action genre.
“You don’t run a motion picture business based on models,” said Linde, formerly co-president of Universal specialty division Focus Features. “You have to run it on instinct and guts as well as examining the financial reality of making a movie.”
But difficulties flared up immediately. There was friction between Mann and his stars, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx. Three hurricanes led to production delays. A bizarre shooting incident prompted the crew to leave the Dominican Republic.
Ultimately, the biggest problem was the film’s failure to win critical praise or young action fans. On the opening weekend, more than 62% of the audience was older than 30 -- people who remembered the TV show but do not traditionally drive box-office grosses. By the second weekend, ticket sales had dropped a deadly 60%; they never recovered.
Studio executives hope the film can make up for the losses at home by catching on overseas, where the picture has grossed $65 million, with some countries yet to show it. In addition, they are betting that the DVD will play well with action fans, blacks and Latinos, the leading purchasers of home videos.
“It seemed like an extended episode of [Mann’s TV show] ‘Robbery Homicide Division’ more than ‘Miami Vice,’ ” Box Office Mojo’s Gray said. “It was never going to be a slam-dunk.”
Those odds are not endearing to General Electric, which is dedicated to zero-defect manufacturing principles.
“General Electric follows the Six Sigma philosophy where they go by one defective unit in a million,” analyst Vogel said. “In television and movies you are lucky to have seven defectives out of 10.”
NBC Universal Chairman and Chief Executive Bob Wright was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. No other GE executive was made available.
Shmuger, however, maintains that GE is not the “boogeyman” Hollywood paints it to be. He said the industrial giant had much to teach the studio.
“There is a lot of pressure in delivering profitability year after year, but when we signed up for duty, we knew what we were getting into. They have been very fair owners,” he said, adding: “We haven’t been Six Sigma-tized.”