Meet Joe Black

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  • Directed By: Martin Brest
  • Written By: Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, Bo Goldman
  • Release Date: November 13, 1998
  • Domestic Distributor: Universal
  • Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani

Box Office Info:
Budget: $90 millionFinanced by: Universal
Domestic Box Office: $44,619,100Overseas Box Office: $98,321,000


Martin Brest had been tinkering with the idea of remaking Death Takes a Holiday (1934) since the ’80s and Meet Joe Black began to actively move forward in 1996.  The project was developed at Universal, which gave Brest the rare and coveted final cut privilege.  Meet Joe Black landed with such a critical and commercial thud, it’s a miracle that Martin Brest was able to cheat death from this fiasco and be able to go off and kamikaze his career with Gigli (2003).

Brest filmed at a glacial pace, pushing the production at least two months over schedule.  The budget for Meet Joe Black was at least $90 million by the time an edit was locked and nearly $30M over budget.   It was originally positioned to be Universal’s sole big budget summer picture, but Brest was nowhere near finished editing and it was delayed until November 13, 1998.  The studio had no major summer fare to put in place of Meet Joe Black‘s vacancy and only released smaller counter-programmers Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, Out Of Sight and BASEketball.

Meet Joe Black was exactly the sort of nightmare project that sours final cut privilege amongst the studio brass.  It was expected to be a major prestige picture with a high concept and an easy commercial hook, but Brest delivered a 3 hour melodrama, which he refused to cut down.  As the release was approaching, buzz and awareness was high and there was still awards chatter, but then the reviews came in.

Critics savaged Meet Joe Black and the bloated running time commercially handicapped the film, since it had less showings at cinemas per day and was very off putting to most auds.  Universal had not landed a hit since The Lost World in May 1997 and there was much riding on the success of the studio’s four end of the year heavy hitters — Meet Joe Black, Babe: Pig In The City, Psycho and Patch Adams.  The critically reviled Patch Adams was the only hit of the bunch.

Meet Joe Black bowed against I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and I’ll Be Home for Christmas.  It disappointed with $15,017,995 — placing #3 for the weekend led by the holdover The Waterboy.  The opening numbers were also inflated from Star Wars fanatics with disposable cash, who paid for a ticket only to view the trailer for the execrable The Phantom Menace and then walk out.  The film declined 47.6% to $7,871,985 in its second frame and the domestic run closed with a very soft $44,619,100.

Universal Pictures chairman and CEO Casey Silver was fired two weeks after Meet Joe Black opened.  His termination came days after the dismal box office numbers for Babe: Pig In The City.  After Universal’s string of money losers, it was the back-to-back releases of Joe Black and Babe that finally did Silver in.  He was the only executive that had remained at Universal when the Canadian liquor company Seagram bought the studio in 1995.  In Seagram’s financial report, they announced that not only was $98 million in quarterly revenue wiped out primarily from Meet Joe Black and Babe: Pig In The City but that they posted a $65 million loss for the fiscal quarter.

Brad Pitt’s star wattage did carry over to a decent $98,321,000 overseas cume, but it was not enough to lift the dreary domestic numbers out of the red.  The worldwide gross was $142.9M and Universal would see returned about $78.5M — which would likely cover global P&A expenses, but the theatrical receipts would not dent the budget.

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