Steel

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  • Directed By: Kenneth Johnson
  • Written By: Kenneth Johnson
  • Release Date: August 15, 1997
  • Domestic Distributor: Warner Bros
  • Cast: Shaquille O’Neal, Annabeth Gish, Judd Nelson, Richard Roundtree

Box Office Info:
Budget: $23 millionFinanced by: Warner Bros
Domestic Gross: $1,710,972Overseas Gross: $0

steel 1997
As the meteoric rise of NBA star Shaquille O’Neal turned him into a household name, he was also becoming a brand name from an endless stream of product endorsements, rap albums and then studios were eager to turn Shaq into a bankable star.  His onscreen debut was a supporting turn in William Friedkin’s flop Blue Chips (1994) and then he was given his own starring vehicle to humiliate himself in, which was the classic awful movie Kazaam.  After he wrapped production on the ridiculous genie picture, it was Shaq’s idea to turn the DC Superman comic offshoot Steel into his next movie.

In July 1996, Shaquille O’Neal landed a $121 million contract with the Lakers and then deferred most of his salary on Steel for backend points and merchandising revenue.  He took home $200k for Steel and then probably $0.25 from merchandise.  Steel was expected to properly launch a very lucrative Hollywood career for Shaq and WB had major plans to franchise and merchandise the hell out of this property.  Shaq and his co-stars Annabeth Gish and Richard Roundtree were expected to reprise their roles in at least one sequel.

The budget for Steel was $23 million and this stinker was fully financed by WB, which owned DC Comics.   WB’s quality control over the DC brand was abysmal in the late ’90s and not even two months before Steel opened on August 15, 1997 the legendary travesty Batman & Robin had just derailed the franchise.  Steel was the last DC movie to emerge until the trainwreck Catwoman (2004).  After the DC film brand survived the triple threat of Batman & Robin, Steel and Catwoman, WB successfully relaunched the Batman series in 2005 with Batman Begins.

Production on Steel began in early August, 1996 and this hack work was cobbled together in a very short window of time, as Shaquille O’Neal was on the Summer ’96 Olympic basketball team and then he would be unavailable come October 3 when his Lakers duties took precedence.  Writer/director Kenneth Johnson was initially pressuring the studio to cast an established actor in the lead role, but WB execs (and like most of the corporate world) thought Shaq was extremely marketable — and the potential revenue stream of Shaq Steel merchandise was more enticing than landing an actor who could actually open a movie.

Kenneth Johnson has since talked about the picture’s embarrassing failure and said: “Yeah. I took Bill [Bill Gerber President of WB Worldwide Theatrical Production] to breakfast shortly after and asked him, what in the world he was thinking not giving me what I needed. He said, “I gotta be honest, up until the last minute, we were thinking about listening to you, about pulling Shaq out and putting in a Wesley Snipes or a Denzel Washington, someone with some clout,” and I said, ‘and you didn’t because?…’ and he goes: “Well, we were convinced that we would sell more toys with Shaq’s name compared to a Wesley,” and I of course told him that he wouldn’t sell a toy if the movie didn’t even open, what the hell was he thinking? He simply told me that they were just wrong. I of course told him that they sure were and thanks a lot. It was a very frustrating situation, because we had to make this picture under budget on a ridiculous schedule and few people enjoyed it or went to see it. It was a drag.”

Shortly before filming began on Steel, Shaq’s first solo movie Kazaam was released in July ’96 to much ridicule and only $18.9M in box office receipts.  As the release date was approaching for Steel, WB decided to dump this turkey with minimal advertising support.  There was a toy line from Hasbro, but awareness of the film was low and WB was giving the bare minimum required for a wide release.  Steel was another WB throwaway picture, as the studio had also tossed Free Willy 3: The Rescue into the marketplace with little care just one week earlier.  It was booked only moderately wide into 1,260 theaters (Free Willy 3 was dumped into 1,258 locations) and WB did not screen the movie for critics.  Reviews that eventually posted were rock bottom.

This sleepy late summer frame had Cop Land and Event Horizon bow and Steel pulled in a laughable $870,068 — placing #16 for the slow weekend led by Cop Land.  Steel took a 78% nosedive the following session to $191,667 and then promptly lost most of its theater count.  The domestic run closed with a mere $1,710,972.  The picture went straight to video overseas.  This effectively ended Shaq’s leading man days in Hollywood.

WB had a string of box office losers in summer ’97, which kicked off with the fiasco Father’s Day, then the soft returns on Addicted to LoveBatman & Robin derailed that franchise, Contact did decent business but barely squeaked into profit, Free Willy 3 ended that franchise and their last major release was Conspiracy Theory, which also barely broke even — and the studio’s final summer movie was this embarrassment.

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