The Wachowskis burst into the mainstream in 1999 with the seminal hit The Matrix, a film that proved so popular it immediately entered the pop culture lexicon and spawned a host of imitators. The Matrix would go on to generate two cinematic sequels, a trio of video games, comic book spinoffs and a direct-to-DVD anime film, as well as launch the careers of the sibling filmmakers. While the second film came close to doubling the box office of The Matrix, the third had a less positive reception, both in box office dollars and audience appreciation.
The Wachowskis would go on to direct the films Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending, to increasingly diminishing returns – Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending would barely make their budgets back, while Speed Racer did not – however once marketing and distribution costs are taken into account, the films represented major losses to the studio. It is no surprise then that the Wachowskis next project would see them relegated to the small screen, in the form of Netflix’s Sense8.
Welcome to Director Jail
Director Jail is a term that is usually used in a jokey manner, but it is no laughing matter for those that find themselves in it. It’s rare for the stint to be a life sentence as filmmakers often work their way out through work-for-hire situations – a good deal for studios, who get an experienced filmmaker at a fraction of the cost and no leverage against studio demands. Directors who find themselves in this non-corporeal prison are usually in good company, with everyone from Orson Welles to M Night Shyamalan having occupied a cell at some point in their careers. It’s almost inevitable, given the unpredictable nature of the box office beast, that a director will at one time or another end up here – Hollywood works on capital, and capital is gained through churning out hit films – the bigger the hit, the more capital you gain. A film bombing at the box office will eat into that capital and once it’s gone – welcome to Director Jail.
The Wachowskis earned themselves significant capital with The Matrix: the film brought in, adjusted for inflation, $463,517,383 worldwide against a $63 million budget and its sequel $742,128,461 against a $150 million budget. The fact it took four consecutive box office disappointments to finally relegate the Wachowskis from the big leagues shows just how well these two initial films performed for Warner Bros – not to mention the added revenue the franchise generated from home media releases, merchandise and other ancillary sources.
Down the rabbit hole
The Wachowskis demonstrated considerable ambition in their films – both in scope and scale of the stories being told. This was arguably the root of their downfall, as audiences were unwilling or unable to follow them as they tackled increasingly larger and complex themes within their works. For all the analysis, hype and imitation that The Matrix inspired, it is important to remember that at its core, it is a very commercial movie sitting within an easily marketed genre (emphasizing the action and spectacle over the science fiction and grand themes). It was this balance, the sugar coating on the pill, which the Wachowskis would neglect to apply to their future films. Speed Racer was a dizzying cotton candy-coated love letter to a relatively obscure Japanese property. Cloud Atlas was an impenetrable film constructed around an equally difficult novel, dealing with heavy religious and spiritual themes in a science fiction setting. It is no surprise the film’s marketing fell utterly flat – the film is not easy to sell, despite its initial positive critical reception. It also lacked the high-octane visual action that The Matrix offered unsuspecting audiences. Against a $128 million production budget, the film generated a paltry $130,482,868 worldwide, representing massive losses to Warner Bros once you consider the marketing spend.
The Wachowskis adjusted for Jupiter Ascending – offering the action and spectacle that made The Matrix a success, but audiences firmly rejected ‘ridiculous’ images of space elves skating through the sky; the marketing effort for Jupiter Ascending was a huge failure and laid bare Warner Bros’ ignorance of the film they had produced. The final worldwide box office sits at $183,987,723 against a $176 million budget (before marketing costs).
While the Wachowskis’ directorial efforts have produced disappointing box office results, they have not been shy of a dedicated and passionate fan base; their films still draw a certain subsection of the general audience and given the initial performances of their films (when this audience is most likely to turn up) it is apparent that there is still potential here. A major mistake was made after The Matrix – a mistake that sits with Warner Bros – when the Wachowskis were suddenly gifted top-tier budgets. Looking at the overall performance of the Wachowskis’ directorial catalogue, it is apparent that The Matrix and Matrix Reloaded are the exceptions rather than the rule. The Wachowskis’ average box office return sits at approximately $148 million. If the Wachowskis had been working with Matrix-sized budgets, their films would have generated not-insignificant returns for Warner Bros – granted the films would be a smaller scale but it is clear that the Wachowskis cannot perform at the level their ambitious vision requires. The fault does not sit entirely with the pair, as Warner Bros are ultimately responsible for setting budgets. It is an all-too-familiar pattern within Hollywood to throw money at a success, in the misguided belief that more money equals more success next time. The strategy invariably ends with diminishing returns and stalled careers.
The road home
The Wachowskis remain a huge asset to Warner Bros and the studio should not be so quick to dump them. There is still potential for the siblings to deliver films that meet the expectations The Matrix set – they just need to be given the appropriate budget to work with and the time to develop their ideas. It is rare for directors to maintain critical attention as their films bomb at the box office – the two usually go hand in hand (looking at you, John Carter and Lone Ranger). The passionate, though few, fans that the Wachowskis maintain represent an easy win for Warner Bros, a studio in dire need of a win after the beating they have taken recently. There is also the international box office to consider – for all their faults at the domestic box office, the Wachowskis have performed rather well internationally, especially in Russia and Asia. Warner Bros should make moves towards greenlighting the Wachowskis’ next project with a strict $75 million budget in place and a carefully considered, tight marketing strategy. The longer they delay, the more likely that a rival studio will poach the siblings – something that has already occurred on the small screen. The only thing worse in Hollywood than releasing a box office bomb, is passing on a film that ends up being a hit for someone else. When the Wachowskis return to cinematic filmmaking, and eventually they will, Warner Bros would be wise to ensure it’s with them. If Warner Bros can’t see the potential however, there is another struggling studio in need of solid ideas and a modest hit – Sony. So long as they’ve learned to budget accordingly.