Knives Out for Michael Mann

Johnny Depp's new gangster movie Public Enemies may be stylish, but if it doesn't win at the box office, Hollywood will be gunning for its director, Michael Mann.

Xtra Insight: Plus: Harvey Weinstein says the Oscar race begins with Public Enemies

As tectonic plates continue to shift in Hollywood thanks to the economy and the digital revolution, studios no longer want to pay for big-name stars and they certainly don’t want to pay for big-name directors who seem unlikely to deliver a product that is solidly commercial.

All this would seem to augur ill for a talent like director Michael Mann, who appears to be poised for trouble with his latest film, Public Enemies. The Public Enemies billboards look cool and Johnny Depp may be a god, but critics are mixed to the John Dillinger biopic, and a more pragmatic audience—theater owners—have not been expecting the film to do well. They find it to be stylishly directed but slow, violent, and unlikely to perform in smaller markets.

Johnny Depp disliked Mann’s chaotic style of filmmaking to the point that he ultimately refused to speak to the director.

One former studio chairman told me that he can imagine what the movie’s problems are without having seen it, based on Mann’s previous work. “It’s going to take itself too seriously, it’s going to be way too long and it will not focus on entertaining the audience,” he says. “Michael Mann, in the past 15 years, has not made one movie I’ve liked.”

Perhaps you loved some of Mann’s movies—I was crazy about The Insider—but he typically doesn’t deliver at the box office. At least not in the context of what he’s been spending. Many people enjoyed his biggest hit, the 2004 thriller Collateral, but it barely got to $100 million. None of his other films—including Ali, Miami Vice, and Heat—have come close.

Artistic merit aside, Mann is a costly proposition in more ways than one. I was talking to a couple of veteran crew members recently about which directors are the biggest nightmares on set. In such conversations, three big names always come up: James Cameron, Transformers director Michael Bay, and Michael Mann. But one of these is not like the others. “With Michael Bay, you have the opportunity to break out, so he’s a pain in the butt but you have the potential for a big upside,” says an executive who knows from experience. “With Michael Mann, you’re lucky if he breaks even. And you’re raked over the coals in the process. What part of that is a prudent decision?”

I last wrote about Mann in 2006, as Miami Vice was rolling into theaters. The movie went over schedule and dramatically over budget as Mann waffled constantly about what he wanted to do and where he meant to do it. He berated and humiliated his crew and there were questions as to whether Mann was sufficiently concerned with the safety on set. Many crew members had their doubts about the security arrangements while filming in the Dominican Republic. Jamie Foxx left after a shooting (with a gun) took place during filming there and refused to return for any more work outside the U.S., forcing Mann to rewrite his ending. In Miami, Mann continued to work when a hurricane warning was in effect as Katrina drew near. (When I asked Mann about this, he initially said it didn’t happen. An angry crew member provided proof in the form of a time sheet.)

At the time, Universal Co-Chairman Marc Shmuger stuck up for Mann. "I actually marvel at his ability to keep all of his creative options open,” he said. “He's fearless. He is willing to try everything. That's a process that does involve wear and tear on everybody." As for negative buzz that the movie generated even before it opened, Shmuger said Mann movies are not just about the box office. "The key on looking at the profitability of Michael's movies is that they've got a very long tail, well after the theatrical run," he said. "Everybody's seen Heat. Everybody's seen Last of the Mohicans. … [The films] do fantastically well in video, on all television outlets, overseas."

So what did Miami Vice do? The movie cost significantly more than the $135 million claimed by the studio and it grossed only $63 million domestically. With foreign box-office bringing the number to $164 million, it would have needed a tail that could span a continent to make money. But its DVD sales were not stellar. And this time, DVD sales overall are slumping.

Public Enemies is another film with a budget past the acknowledged $100 million. And sources say Mann went about business as usual on the set: Johnny Depp disliked Mann’s chaotic style of filmmaking to the point that he ultimately refused to speak to the director. Universal executive Dylan Clark (who has subsequently resigned to take another position) was forced to act as go-between. (All parties declined to comment.)

All this comes at a particularly bad time for Universal. There is a loud drumbeat that big management upheaval is imminent there after a string of disappointments: State of Play, Duplicity, and the inexplicable Land of the Lost. If in fact the guard changes, Public Enemies will be perceived as one of the films that helped to bring down the regime at a studio.

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So it’s hard to imagine that Mann will pick up another $100 million budget—or even $50 million or $60 million—for his next project. But this comes when the overwhelming success of Transformers and the failure of several artistically ambitious films will make the studios more risk-averse than ever. Universal linked a director who tries to pursue an artistic vision with one of the few true movie stars that we have left. When experiments like that don’t succeed, we may be left with so few movies for grownups that within a year, the Academy won’t be able to find even five, much less 10, credible candidates for Best Picture.

Xtra Insight: Harvey Weinstein: The Oscar Race Begins

Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.