Turnaround Noun, e.g., “E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “Home Alone” (1990) and “Forest Gump” (1994) are among the films put in turnaround that went on to become blockbusters.
Definition: The status of a project when a studio decides not to develop it further and offers it to other studios to recoup development costs.
History: Until 1948, major studios owned the theaters that screened their movies. Those wanting to see a film at their local Bijou had to eat it when turkeys came to town. Then the Supreme Court decision U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures forced studios to divest their interests in theaters. With new theater owners came the expression “opened at,” which initially meant box office for a film’s first week, then became box office for its first Friday thru Sunday, and today is evolving into box office for opening day. A film that “opens at” a disappointing number won’t be at the Bijou—or even the local multiplex—for long.
This imperative for immediate box office made making movies far riskier than before. Today only one of ten projects that go into development receive a green light for production. Projects that languish in development for months and even years are said to be in development hell. To be put in turnaround is a reprieve from this damnation.
A common cause for turnaround is that a project no longer fits the studio’s commercial vision. For instance, “E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial” began as “Night Skies,” a science fiction horror story about a family terrorized by gremlin-like aliens. When Steven Spielberg increasingly reworked the plot to focus on the one benevolent alien among the invaders, Columbia put the project in turnaround not wanting to make a sweetness-and-light Disney-like movie. By contrast, 15 years later Disney would put David Mamet’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” in turnaround fearing Mamet’s screenplay, which transformed Anne into a modern Israeli dodging suicide bombers, was too dark for the studio’s image.
Problems with the script is the standard reason that studios give for turning around a project, but often these “problems” amount to the project not attracting the director and/or actors the studio wants. For instance, after approaching Paramount and 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers took the musical “Jersey Boys” out of turnaround when Clint Eastwood was recruited to direct the film. Conversely, Mamet’s choice of action film director John Woo for “The Diary of Anne Frank” probably spooked Disney, which couldn’t imagine the iconic Anne penning things such as, “Dear Diary. Today I popped a cap in the skull of one raghead and crunched the nuts of another with a Kung Fu kick . . .”
While recouping development costs is the usual goal of turnaround, studios often receive more or less. Projects that never found a buyer are many, but for studio execs trying to sell a project, the alternative can be worse. Columbia Pictures, for instance, cut a deal with Universal Pictures in which it received $1 million in development costs for ET plus 5% of the movie’s net profit. True, the deal earned Columbia more than any Columbia release that year. The bad news was Columbia execs had sold the rights to a movie that grossed more than $400 million.
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