Something peculiar and unprecedented happened in the film industry last year, and it came from the unlikeliest of places. When Paramount Pictures delivered a first look trailer for their big screen adaptation of the video game Sonic the Hedgehog, it was received with a fair bit of outrage. Long time fans of the character were quick to point out how terrible looking his new “enhanced” character model appeared, and they flooded social media with their complaints. But what shocked many people afterwards was the fact that Paramount quickly pulled the movie off their schedule, stating that they were going to “fix” the animation and change the model of Sonic to better reflect the demands of the fans. This is something that is pretty much unheard of in Hollywood, that a movie studio halts the release of a movie after the backlash it received from the trailer. Originally slated for a holiday season release, the Sonic the Hedgehog movie is now being released in theaters with it’s new “refreshed” animation and, as of this writing, it is looking like it’s going to have a better than expected opening weekend. Which raises the question; did delaying the movie actually improve it’s chances. I haven’t seen it myself yet, but by judging the progression the movie went through from that original trailer to the final product, it looks like Paramount might have indeed salvaged what could have been an embarrassing train wreck. I’ll definitely say that the new and improved model is a step up from the grotesque version we saw in the original trailer. He at least looks like the character from the video game now. But, what does this tell us about the film-making process in general. Does it actually benefit a movie to have a delay in production in order to fix supposed problems? Is meeting a deadline actually counterproductive to making a film better? Is it right to take the response to a trailer as a motivation to re-work a movie? In a blockbuster driven market like the one we are living through now in Hollywood, the questions raised by Sonic the Hedgehog’s troubled production provides some clues to problems that stem far and wide throughout the business as a whole.
So, what was the issue with Sonic the Hedgehog being delayed a few more months. The answer is it’s something that just does not happen in Hollywood; at least not this late in the game. One of the longest running mechanics of the studio system in Hollywood is a planting of a flag within a release schedule. It’s a way of the studios telling the industry that they plan to have a movie ready for release on a specific date many years in advance, even if they don’t quite know what that movie is yet. It’s mainly done to assure business with the theater chains, who want to know what to expect over the next several years so they can make their long term plans. Normally, these tent-pole dates occur during important periods of the year where both the studios and the theaters expect bigger than average audiences, like Memorial Day weekend or Thanksgiving or the Holiday Break. And by planting their flag on these busy weekends, the studios can assure themselves that they have stood out among the other competition that weekend. After that, then the pre-production planning begins, where studios figure out what they’ll actually fill those dates with. Some studios know exactly what they’ll put there; Marvel for example has laid claim to the first weekend of the summer season every year for more than a decade. But, other times the date exists there just for the studio to have a claim to a lucrative time frame, and then they sometimes fill it with a movie that they hope will benefit from that. Regardless of what that movie is, the studios have that date set, and the focus from there out is making sure that a movie is ready on that date. Once it’s determined what movie will fill the slot, then it up to the production team to make that goal. And, as we’ve seen with Sonic, sometimes a movie just isn’t ready for prime time.
There are different classes out there with regards to how deadlines are viewed within the industry. Some people, mainly writers, view deadlines as a positive, because it helps to sharpen their focus and allows them to get things done without too much second guessing. On the other hand, there are other people in Hollywood, mainly on the production side, who view deadlines as cumbersome to the creative process. Film directors in particular like to have as much time to work on a project as they possibly can, because it allows them to be experimental and shoot a scene from every possible vantage point. Without the constraint of a time limit, they can also accommodate their production to deal with delays that occur, such as with the unpredictability of the weather. The same goes in the editing process, where more time allows for a more thorough search for mistakes and oversights missed on the days of production. But, a movie studio can’t allow for film crews to have all the free time in the world; because then you end up having runaway productions. This is one of the things that ultimately ended the era of the New Hollywood in the 1970’s. When Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) both went over-budget and over-schedule, the studios intervened and put an end to these projects that seemingly were going to continue going on without end. Ambitious visions are a valuable thing for a filmmaker, but at the same time, there has to be accountability with the budgets, as well as an end point in place, and thus, that’s why studios have become more reliant on those tent-pole dates to ensure things don’t spiral out of control.
But even when you have a well oiled machine that is able to fire on all cylinders towards meeting those deadlines, it can cause friction along the way. Some filmmakers find that meeting those demands from the studio ends up diminishing the finished product. In a tweet delivered shortly after he parted ways with Marvel Studios, Doctor Strange (2016) director Scott Derickson described studio release dates as “the enemy of art.” That led to what he and Marvel mutually described as creative differences that led to his being let go from the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel. And it’s a trend that we are seeing happen more and more in Hollywood as blockbusters are becoming more like an assembly line product in service of ongoing franchises. Some filmmakers are able to work under those conditions, while other feel stifled by it. Marvel has benefited from a long line of stable productions throughout it’s run, but the same can’t be said about it’s sister company under the big Disney umbrella; Lucasfilm. Multiple productions on that side have faced upheavals in recent years, with several filmmakers like Colin Treverrow, Benioff & Weiss and Lord & Miller all either being let go from a project or exiting out of their own choice. Creative differences likely played a part in these shake-ups, but also the fact that many of them recognized that delivering under a tight schedule would’ve negatively affected their projects. This seems especially to have manifested with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). The movie was almost completely started from scratch once J.J. Abrams stepped in to take over from Treverrow’s previous direction, and yet it still needed to make that December 2019 deadline. It became clear, with an unfocused narrative and far too many plotholes left open, that the movie needed a few more months to polish out it’s story problems. But, parent company Disney was insistent that it be done that specific year, because the release was going to coincide with the opening of Galaxy’s Edge in the parks as well as the launch of the Disney+ series that tied into the universe. And thus, we got an unfinished movie in theaters that not only was the least popular of the new batch of films, but in some ways also tarnished the brand.
And out of that, you see why Scott Derrickson views deadlines as the “enemy of art.” But at the same time, a project run amok has it’s downside too. What the Star Wars, and for that matter Sonic the Hedgehog shows us is that there should be more assessment over how much time a movie actually needs to be ready. This can usually be examined early on in a film’s development, and oftentimes you do see film studios halt production well beforehand in order to keep a movie from going off the rails. There are often many movies that get announced, but are never made. Some people wonder why these movies never get off the ground and it’s because the studios assess the risks involved if they continue to head down the same road, and sometimes those risks are not worth the investment. There’s the example of Warner Brother’s Superman Lives, which was going to be Tim Burton’s own spin on the famed comic book character, after he had already famously brought Batman to the big screen. The movie went through a fair amount of steps in pre-productions including casting (with Nicolas Cage playing the man from Krypton) and location scouting, before the studio ultimately pulled the plug. And the result usually comes from either the executives balking at the budget or because of a lack of enthusiasm from the public in general. There are probably more examples of movies that died in development than there are ones that made it into theaters, and that includes projects from some of our greatest filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, or Francis Ford Coppola’s Megaopolis, or Ridley Scott’s Tripoli. But these projects never end up hurting reputations for their creators, because they stalled long before things got way out of hand. Perhaps what makes a case like Sonic the Hedgehog so unique is the fact that it changed course so far into production.
The unfortunate result of doing that kind of course correction so late is that it put extra pressure on the people working on your film. In Sonic’s case, the visual effects team pretty much had to throw out months worth of work and effectively star over again. This is especially problematic because the visual effects industry is notorious for over-working their artists, as well as adding a substantial amount to the budgets of the movies. When a film is reaching that crunch time before a release date, it’s the pot-production crews that feel that crunch the most. And with the case of Sonic the Hedgehog, they were saddled with having to work overtime on a project that they thought was nearly in the can already. Having them go back and re-doing their work meant that it was going to take extra time away from their families in order to make the new deadline, and over the holidays no less. To add more salt in those wounds, the visual effects company responsible for the Sonic redesign, Motion Picture Company (MPC), closed it’s Vancouver location shortly after, where all the Sonic work was done. So, not only did the effects artists have to work through the holidays, but they were left without a job right after. This speaks more to the volatility of the visual effects industry which is a whole other story, but it’s indicative of the growing problem where movie productions fall victim to their own inability to plan things out effectively. Usually, movie studios haven’t taken the responses to movie trailers as seriously before, but in this case, the response had become so severe that Paramount had to intervene. But, was it worth putting artists through a tough time for. Many people get into the business for the love of creating movie magic, but when it’s becomes an arduous task to reverse a problem that should’ve been caught long before hand, that allure of creativity doesn’t seem so bright anymore.
The question remains, should movies be so beholden to set timelines. In many ways, cinema is the only art-form that has to conform to such a demanding schedule. Literature, for example, sometimes takes years to make it to the bookshelves from when they are announced to their ultimate publication. We’ve been waiting how long now for George R.R. Martin to finish his next book in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series? Music also premieres in a different way, with singles often pre-releasing before a complete album; usually as a way to drive up hype. The video game industry, like film, also uses release dates to gain attention for their products, but as they often fall prey to delays almost across the board, the gaming consumer base has become more lenient when it comes to receiving a video game far longer than what was expected. So, why is it that movies are held to such a constraining time limit. No doubt the history of out-of-control productions may have influenced it, but does holding onto it actually diminish a final product that ultimately needs more time to prepare. It’s something that should become apparent when a major disruption happens, like a complete overhaul of the script or the team in charge of the production. Otherwise, you are left with a movie project that either becomes a problem far too late into production like Sonic the Hedgehog, or a movie that lacks an identity because it had no time to evolve into something different like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The worst thing a movie can do is to waste it’s potential, and sometimes it needs just that little extra time to finally meet it. Otherwise, you run into the embarrassment of having a movie that fails at what it was supposed to do, because there wasn’t enough time to fix it.
Ultimately, there are many films that are far beyond fixing. I don’t think that a post-release clean-up of the movie Cats was ever going to save that film from embarrassment. But, at the same time, we may have seen another film like Sonic the Hedgehog possibly turn around it’s fortunes. Sure, it’s not going to become an all-time great, but it may have saved itself from the train-wreck that it looked like it was heading towards. A last minute delay like it’s was still not without it’s costs though, as the poor digital effects artists will tell you. But, a better box office performance for the film may teach Paramount and other studios in Hollywood that rushing towards a release date is not always a good thing. Some movies need to incubate a little longer, and the studios need to recognize exactly when is the right moment to change course. It certainly shouldn’t happen as late as post-production, where you have to completely redesign a character because of the immediate backlash you faced from the trailer. At the same time, a deadline also keeps a project in check, so it shouldn’t so much be a removal of all boundaries as just a re-positioning of the goal post. If Star Wars hadn’t been so strict with their unmanageable release schedule, they wouldn’t have been forced into a hiatus like they are now, with so much personnel being shifted around. At some point, a movie will let you know how much more time it will need, or even if it’s going to ever happen at all. Overall, I don’t think Scott Derrickson is right when he says that deadlines are the “enemy of art,” because I see a lot of people become more driven when they know they’ve got an end point they need to get to. It’s probably just the writer part of me that thinks that, but having a deadline in front of me allows me to keep my mind focused on a goal and eliminates all distractions. But, there should be precautions allowed for any case where a project gets de-railed by unforeseen forces. I don’t blame movies like Spider-Man (2002) and Zoolander (2001) delaying their release so that they could make a last minute edit of their films to remove the World Trade Center immediately after the events of 9/11 for example. Sometimes, deadlines are a necessary evil, but it’s one that should be flexible enough to allow movies to become the best that it ultimately can be.