Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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  • Directed By: Terry Gilliam
  • Written By: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni
  • Release Date: May 22, 1998
  • Domestic Distributor: Universal
  • Cast: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire

Box Office Info:
Budget: $21 millionFinanced by: Universal
Domestic Gross: $10,680,275Overseas Gross: $3,031,628

fear and loathing in las vegas
Hunter S. Thompson’s literary counter-culture classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream had numerous attempts to reach the big screen for nearly 25 years.  Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando were circling the two lead roles in the 1970s, as were Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi — both Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone were two of many directors interested in Fear And Loathing, but it was another Hunter S. Thompson project that got off the ground first Where The Buffalo Roam (1980).  That picture toplining Bill Murray was a critical and commercial failure and Fear And Loathing lost development steam after Buffalo flopped.

In the early 90’s the record company Rhino Entertainment Company, formed a film production offshoot Rhino Films and optioned Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.  Rhino originally planned on financing the movie themselves at a low budget cost of $5 million and when Johnny Depp lobbied for the role at a reduced salary of $500,000 Rhino increased the budget to $6 million.  Alex Cox was eventually brought on to helm the movie and filming was set to begin on May 20, 1997.  Summit boarded to handle international pre-sales in March 1997.

One month before production was to begin, Alex Cox went to Hunter S. Thompson’s home to discuss the project and this meeting not only almost derailed the film, but got Cox thrown off Fear And Loathing.  Thompson thought Cox was completely disrespectful to the content in the book, including wanting to animate certain sequences.  Hunter S. Thompson has said of the encounter: “Here in my house comes this adder, this asp. And he just persisted to insult and soil the best parts of the book. It’s a miracle I didn’t fucking stab him with a fork.”

With Cox tossed off the movie, just days later Terry Gilliam was courted to direct and he threw out Cox’s script and rewrote everything in 8 days.  With Gilliam on board, his name had more clout in the international marketplace and he could command a larger budget than what Rhino could supply.  Summit was able to get more pre-sale coin with the addition of Gilliam and Rhino ended up brokering a deal with Universal to take over financing — since the studio made a profit off of Gilliam’s previous picture 12 Monkeys.  Universal also scooped up all remaining overseas markets.  Universal set the budget at $17.5M and when Gilliam quickly delivered his script, they balked when the costs were expected to be north of $19M.  Gilliam re-wrote another version that Universal agreed to, but he purposefully tossed that aside and filmed the original script.

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas budget: Universal allotted 44 shooting days to the production, but Gilliam went over schedule to 55 days and over budget to $21 million.   Rhino was paid a producer fee of $250,000 for their development services, most of which went to legal fees fighting off a lawsuit from Alex Cox after he was dismissed.

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was finally in the can after two decades of false starts and the movie had landed a coveted competition slot at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1998.  Universal dated the movie for May 22, which was one week after its Cannes premiere.  It was to serve as counter-programming to Godzilla.  There was much hype for Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, all of which was deflated when the movie was met with boos and atrocious reviews at Cannes.

Universal was left with a deranged commercial oddity that they booked only moderately wide into 1,126 theaters.  The wide expansion of Bulworth also bowed that weekend.  Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was dead on arrival with $3,338,590 — placing #6 for the frame led by Godzilla.  Audiences gave the movie a poor C+ cinemascore (which actually seems like a high score for a movie this insane) and it declined 47.2% to $1,762,805 the following session.  It then sank 58% to $738,045 in its third weekend and then promptly lost most of its theater count.  The domestic run closed with a dreadful $10,680,275.  Universal would see returned about $5.8M after theaters take their percentage of the gross, which barely dents just the P&A expenses.

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was dumped overseas and cumed a mere $3M.  With time, the film has mostly shed its toxic reputation and sold well on home video, where it found its audience.  Years later, Depp used his clout to get another Thompson novel to the big screen The Rum Diary (2011), which also flopped at the box office.

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