The problem with the Snow White “War”

Is that it’s not good for movies.

Don’t get me wrong—I love this shit. I live for this shit. Behind the scenes business shit is my favorite. And this particular throwdown, this pissing match/cockfight/dick swinging contest between Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media and Universal Pictures, with whom Relativity has a co-financing/production deal valued at around $2 to $3 billion. That deal isn’t set to end until 2015, but um…well. Obviously something has gone wrong in that relationship.

My guess? Relativity isn’t known for their, um, aboveboard accounting practices. Even in an industry where everyone fudges numbers, people side-eye Relativity. I’m not convinced that Relativity’s practices are any worse than everybody else’s, so much as I think that supergap financing is as risky as investing in subprime loans. We all saw how that turned out, and so people are suspicious of Relativity’s success over the last four years. And there is prior animosity between Universal and Relativity—clearly it’s much worse than anyone suspected.

Because what’s happening now with the dueling Snow White projects housed at Universal and Relativity has nothing to do with the projects themselves and everything to do with beating the other guy. Relativity’s Snow White, currently untitled, is to be directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell, the upcoming Clash of the Titans: School Daze Immortals) and stars Julia Roberts, Lilly Collins (Abduction), and Armie Hammer (The Social Network). Universal’s Snow White and the Huntsman is the first feature film from commercial director Rupert Sanders and stars Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth (Thor), and Sam Claflin (Pirates of the Caribbean: Arr, give me your money). Guess what?

None of that matters.

The cast, the filmmakers, the writers—the fact that Huntsman’s script is the largest spec sale to date—none of it is relevant anymore. Anyone could be starring in these movies. Anyone could be making them. We’re past that. This situation, this “war”, has nothing to do with those people. I feel badly for them, actually, as their projects are just pawns in a larger game. I don’t think the studios, or Relativity at least, cares how the final product turns out. This is just about beating. The. Other. Guy.

The Snow White War began in 2010 when Universal picked up Huntsman and entered the lists against Disney’s Snow and the Seven (now on hold until 2013, at least) and Relativity’s Brothers Grimm: Snow White (that was the title under Brett Ratner, at the time, the director). Throughout early 2011 Universal and Relativity traded casting announcements—I’ll see your Charlize Theron and raise you a Julia Roberts. But Universal was slated to go with Huntsman in December of 2012 while Relativity had June 29, 2012 marked on their calendars. Then last week Universal, so confident in their property, kicked Huntsman to June 1, 2012. I thought that was super ballsy, and not just because it directly challenged Relativity but also because it put Huntsman right into the middle of the highly competitive 2012 summer season.

I thought Relativity would flinch. The Snow White “Conflict” became the Snow White “Game of Chicken” (Collider ran this timely article about how game theory applies to this situation), and I really thought Relativity would display some caution and step off their release date and recalibrate their project. Boy was I wrong. I should’ve known better. Kavanaugh is a risk guy. No, Relativity didn’t flinch. Instead they did the business equivalent of burning down Universal’s house (after Universal did the equivalent of banging their mom) and bumped up their release date to March 16, 2012, three months ahead of Universal. Also included in the slate update from Relativity? They’re throwing down a Nicholas Sparks adaptation opposite Huntsman, presumably to draw away the female audience of Huntsman, and they’re pitting Phillip Noyce’s Hunter Killer against Universal’s Knocked Up spin-off.

The result? All out war.

Though I’m told Universal is “unmoved” in their belief in Huntsman, they have to be seething at Relativity’s gamesmanship. There isn’t much they can do for Huntsman now—with a fall start date, Sanders will have just barely six months to turn his film around for the summer release, which is cutting it close—but I expect to see Universal respond strongly to the fuckery with Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up spin-off. This is a pissing contest, a standoff between drunk frat boys who won’t back down. Someone is going to get a bag of burning dog poo on their porch next. And now that the Snow White “War” has become about who has the bigger dick, the actual end product is irrelevant. Both studios are rushing through production in their efforts to best the other. Both are short-changing their projects. But Relativity is definitely playing the riskier game.

Ryan Kavanaugh is an egotistical jerk currently involved in a separate pissing contest with Harvey Weinstein, but he’s a very smart man who has an impressive track record. On the one hand, maybe he’s due for an epic fail, but on the other maybe he really is smart enough to analyze his way to King of the Hill. Either way, this move is a risk. First and foremost, Tarsem Singh isn’t known for working fast and the production schedule for Relativity’s Snow White leaves him barely five months to turn around his film, assuming they wrap in August—no delays allowed—and have February for running and distributing prints. Also, I think Tarsem may have lost his marbles. He’s the biggest liability for this project right now. His films aren’t the kind of thing that usually plays well in the mainstream and if Immortals blows chunks, which is completely possible, in November, it gives audiences only a few months to forget that Tarsem just burned them.

The second biggest hurdle for Snow White: Eat Shit, Universal is the unusually competitive March 2012. Since summer 2012 is shaping up to be terrifying, a lot of projects have pushed forward into March and April, leading to a particularly strong slate in typically softer box office months. The Hunger Games opens the week after Relativity’s Snow White but that has little bearing on how Snow White will do. Opening weekend is the key number and since everyone assumes a film will drop off in week two, and The Hunger Games ensures that this Snow will drop off in week two, then there’s no change, really. That’s going to happen anyway. No, Relativity’s problem lies in the weeks previous: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters hits theaters two weeks before Relativity’s Snow White does–people could be fairytaled-out by then. (I’ve always been leery of all these fractured fairytales because who is demanding them, but maybe that’s just me.) Universal faces their own challenge with Rock of Ages, but right now March 2012 looks more competitive than June 2012.

Ultimately, though, it boils down to quality. Both of these projects are being fast-tracked to the point of breaking, which could jeopardize the final quality of the films. For all this posturing, the release date doesn’t really matter. In the end, the better film will do better. But with the studios behind the projects more concerned with beating the other guy, quality seems to have become a disposable asset. And that’s bad for movies. Regardless of whatever other shit may be going on, making good movies people want to see should be the priority. Not pissing in someone else’s Cornflakes.

3 thoughts on “The problem with the Snow White “War”

  1. Annie

    I’ve read the Universal script. It was a hot mess, and I can’t really understand why they paid so much for it? I’m also not sure who the target audience is – too much violence and darkness for kids, too much Snow White for fanboys. The Relativity script may be just as bad (haven’t read it), but at least it seems to be clearly a family movie with a clear kids/family audience.

    Heh. Either way, I liked your post. You hit the nail on the head – this entire thing is ridiculous and hurtful to everyone involved.

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