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Here at the Tracking Board, we keep a list of hot projects to keep tabs on and at the top of that list, just below “The Whole James Bond Situation” and “Deadpool 2/Cable” but above “Young Dumbledore” and “Barbie,” has been Adam McKay’s untitled DICK CHENEY biopic. You may have forgotten about the project, especially since there was no mention of it at Paramount’s CinemaCon presentation last week, but McKay’s follow-up to The Big Short had been tipped for a fall release when it was first announced, so it has been a high priority for us over here.
On a whim, I emailed a source late Tuesday night to inquire about the project, but timing is everything in Hollywood, and it turns out that I was already too late. Not more than 24 hours later came word from Variety that McKay planned to cast Oscar winner Christian Bale as the former Vice President, five-time nominee Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, and Golden Globe winner Steve Carell as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Though both Bale and Carell starred in The Big Short, it would be an understatement to say the casting came as a surprise. I had thought McKay would eschew the A-list in favor of an older actor who physically looks like Cheney. Maybe he’d even bring back Richard Dreyfuss from Oliver Stone’s W.? Instead, he went in the opposite direction by casting Bale, who looks nothing like Cheney, but still has plenty of clout since playing Batman.
Bruce Wayne as Dick Cheney? I don’t think so! But after staring at photos of Bale with a paunch and a combover in American Hustle, my eyes began to adjust and I could suddenly see how the Welshman might be able to pull it off with the right makeup. I mean, who better to play Dick Cheney than the guy who starred in American Psycho, right?
With the casting mystery solved, other questions still remain. For starters, does this movie make financial sense for Paramount, a studio that lost hundreds of millions last year, prompting its parent company Viacom to hire Jim Gianopulos to execute a new creative mandate? Let’s examine the numbers… and do keep in mind that the surely modest budget for Dick Cheney remains unknown.
McKay’s The Big Short grossed $133 million worldwide on a reported production budget of $28 million, and was nominated for five Oscars, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s a successful movie by any measure, and one with an 88 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But let’s dig a bit deeper, shall we? While Hollywood accounting is as blurry as Robin Williams in Deconstructing Harry, the general rule of thumb is that distributors take home 50% of theatrical grosses, splitting the other half with theater owners. So really, Paramount made $66 million on The Big Short, give or take a few million.
The production budget of $28 million (real budgets are impossible to ascertain, but Paramount cops to this one so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) doesn’t account for the studio’s P&A spend, or its pricey awards campaign. So let’s just be conservative and tack on another $28 million for those costs. Add up those two figures and you get $56 million, leaving the studio with a $10 million profit, not counting revenue from DVDs, cable rights and other ancillary streams. Movies have long financial life spans and will continue making money for decades to come, so the complete box office story is never really etched in stone, but we’ll estimate another $10 million to $30 million for those additional myriad revenue streams.
All in all, a tidy $20 million to $40 million profit for a film starring Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell, all of whom no doubt reduced their individual acting fees to get the movie made at an acceptable price point. It was the very presence of those stars (particularly Pitt) that likely helped The Big Short at the foreign box office, where it grossed $63 million, nearly matching its domestic total.
This time around, there’s no Gosling or Pitt on camera (at least not yet), though Pitt is producing the film under his Plan B banner along with Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, as well as McKay and his Gary Sanchez partners Will Ferrell and Kevin Messick. Sources say McKay actually asked Pitt to play Rumsfeld before Carell, though it didn’t work out, as Pitt may have had his fill of war-themed movies over the past decade between Inglourious Basterds, World War Z, Fury, Allied and Netflix’s upcoming War Machine.
Moving on from The Big Short, let’s take a look at Josh Brolin’s George W. Bush biopic W. Yes, Bale (who famously turned the Bush role down) is a bigger star than Brolin and McKay is a much more commercial and accessible filmmaker than Oliver Stone, but it’s still a fair comp for Dick Cheney given the political subject matter of both films.
That movie grossed only $29 million worldwide (including just $4 million overseas), and Bush is arguably much better known than Cheney — though the former VP certainly makes for a better villain, having backed the Iraq War as well as the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques against suspected terrorists. Paramount still hasn’t officially greenlit Cheney yet, and it’ll only move forward if Gianopulos thinks it will perform closer to The Big Short than W., which isn’t necessarily a given.
To that end, the studio has to question whether Bale can open a movie like this, which isn’t “sexy” on paper like American Hustle. The dedicated actor clearly thrives when putting his body through hell, whether packing on pounds for that David O. Russell film or losing weight for The Machinist and The Fighter, the latter of which won him an Oscar. And yet, Bale couldn’t open Out of the Furnace or Ridley Scott’s big-budget Exodus, while the lyrical indie Knight of Cups barely registered at the box office and The Promise doesn’t look to fare much better. Even Terminator Salvation and Public Enemies underperformed at the box office, not that Bale deserves to be saddled with the blame for either one. I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, and the devil is wondering if foreign audiences are interested in a movie about Dick Cheney, who he must know quite well (hehe).
Of course, the name of the game in this town is “talent relations,” so even though Dick Cheney strikes me as a risky financial bet for New Paramount, the studio may be willing to pay a premium to stay in business with the team behind The Big Short and its Arrival star Adams. A studio insider told the Tracking Board that production is more likely to start in the fall than the spring, as Carell is currently filming Plan B’s father-son drama Beautiful Boy. A fall start date would make it next to impossible for McKay to deliver the finished film by the end of the year in time for awards consideration, so barring a miracle, it’s currently looking at a 2018 release.
From an awards standpoint, that shouldn’t bother Paramount, which will likely have its hands full this fall between George Clooney’s Suburbicon, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, Alex Garland’s Annihilation and Darren Aronofsky’s mother!
Bale has Scott Cooper’s Hostiles and Andy Serkis’ The Jungle Book on the horizon, but fortunately, his schedule is otherwise open, as is Adams’ once she wraps Sharp Objects for HBO. Carell is actually the one with the busiest schedule, and this fall he’ll no doubt be promoting his turns in Fox Searchlight’s tennis movie Battle of the Sexes and Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying. All three are expected to strike a deal for Dick Cheney, but it’ll be up to Gianopulos to pull the trigger… or the plug. Let’s hope he’s a better shot than the former VP himself.
McKay didn’t have to look far for his three leads, as like him, they’re all represented by WME.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief