Primary Colors

  • primary colors 1998
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  • Directed By: Mike Nichols
  • Written By: Elaine May
  • Release Date: March 20, 1998
  • Domestic Distributor: Universal
  • Cast: John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates

Box Office Info:
Budget: $65 millionFinanced by: Universal; Mutual Film Company; Tele München; BBC; Toho-Towa; UGC PH
Domestic Gross: $39,001,187Overseas Gross: $13,089,000

primary colors 1998 box office
About one month after the 1996 novel Primary Colors was released, director Mike Nichols paid $1.5 million for the film rights to the roman à clef about the sleazy and shady shenanigans during Bill Clinton’s 1992 bid for the presidency.  The book was a huge seller, in part powered from the mystery surrounding its anonymous author, which gave an air of gossipy intrigue to the book.  Nichols immediately began to set the project up at Universal, but encountered roadblocks when the budget was set to exceed $75 million.  Then just a few months after he picked up the rights, the anonymous author was outed as hack journalist Joe Klein, which deflated a lot of the frenzy around the book.  That did not deter Nichols from moving forward with Primary Colors.

After reaching an impasse with Nichols over the cost of the picture, Universal allowed him to shop the project to other studios, which had John Travolta committed to the lead role.  There was no interest and eventually he was back at Universal willing to defer part of both his $5M salary and Travolta’s $20M salary to reduce the budget for Primary Colors to $65 million.   Primary Colors still gave Universal pause and the studio wanted to find a financing partner to mitigate the risk.

In October 1997, Universal inked a five picture co-financing arrangement with Mutual Film Company and Primary Colors fell under this arrangement.  Universal handled domestic distribution and Mutual owned international rights.  The movie was finally greenlit and Universal reimbursed Nichols for the book rights.  Only four movies materialized from that deal and just one money maker The Jackal.  Virus, Black Dog and Primary Colors were all box office flops.

Mutual had inked an equity and distribution arrangement with four overseas companies (Germany’s Tele München, UK based BBC, Japan’s Toho-Towa and France’s UGC PH), for their slate of movies and each would invest and distribute in their countries.

For the remaining territories, Mutual brought Primary Colors, Virus, Black Dog and A Simple Plan to the November 1997 MIFED movie mart and sold out almost every overseas market for each picture.  Each movie was a non-performer for distributors.

Primary Colors was dated for March 20, 1998 and in the weeks leading up to its release, the movie was completely upstaged by Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal, which was quickly growing into a media and tabloid firestorm.  It bowed against Wild Things and Mr. Nice Guy.  Despite solid reviews, the movie could not compete with reality and it pulled in a very soft $12,045,395 — placing #2 for the weekend led by the 14th frame of Titanic.  It declined 41.8% to $7,005,780 which was not a strong enough hold to break out and the domestic run closed with a disappointing $39,001,187.  Universal would see returned about $21.4M after theaters take their percentage of the gross, which would not cover P&A expenses or any of the studio’s exposure to the budget.

After the movie died stateside, there were little expectations that Primary Colors would spark any interest overseas — especially as the staggered international release was once again overshadowed by the Clinton scandal.  Mutual wanted to drum up international appeal and spent about half a million dollars to screen (and have an after-party) the movie at Cannes, $130,000 of which was spent on flying and pampering Travolta to the festival on his private jet.  The screening did little to hype the pic and it pulled in a dismal $13M across numerous distributors.

The back to back failed box office performances of Primary Colors and Mercury Rising, led to the forced resignation of four executives — Marc Platt, president of production; marketing chiefs Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones; corporate operations VP Howard Weitzman.

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