Battlefield Earth

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  • Directed By: Roger Christian
  • Written By: Corey Mandell, J.D. Shapiro
  • Release Date: May 12, 2000
  • Domestic Distributor: Warner Bros
  • Cast: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker

Box Office Info:
Budget: $44 millionFinanced by: Franchise Pictures; Intertainment
Domestic Box Office: $21,471,685Overseas Box Office: $8,253,978

Now, looking back at the movie with fresh eyes, I can’t help but be strangely proud of it. Because out of all the sucky movies, mine is the suckiest.”

–Fired Screenwriter J.D. Shapiro

battlefield earth 2000
Battlefield Earth was John Travolta’s years long passion project and once Pulp Fiction lifted his career out of the gutter in 1994, he tried to use his clout to get his dream movie to the screen.  The project was first developed at MGM and then moved to Fox 2000 and then to Warner Bros.  All three studios sent the picture into turnaround, unable to come to terms with a budget of at least $100 million and the controversial attachment of Scientology — even with any religious aspects scrubbed from the screenplay.

Enter Elie Samaha.  Wealthy night club owner, head of a chain of dry cleaners and head of a small production company Franchise Pictures.  Franchise was operational for about five years, churning out dirt cheap genre movies for the once profitable direct to video market.  Samaha wanted to move into the big game and fund A-listers’ passion projects that the studios sent into development hell and make them for a fraction of the price they were initially budgeted at.  For a sleazy scumbag, that was actually not a bad idea.  Movie stars get their pet projects funded and Samaha gets movie stars at a reduced salary.  But Samaha was more interested in running a criminal enterprise and pocketing money, than focusing on quality control and the result was some of the lousiest movies of the early 2000s.

To help fund this giant slate of movies, Franchise brokered a deal with the German based Intertainment.  Franchise would retain domestic rights and distribute the movies through Warner Bros and Intertainment would cover 47% of the budgets for international rights.  Samaha contacted Travolta to fund his dream picture and this legendary stinker went into active development.

Intertainment wanted no part of Battlefield Earth, especially since Scientology was beyond controversial in Germany.  Samaha then packaged this toxic project with the commercially friendly The Whole Nine Yards, which was a personal picture for Bruce Willis.  Intertainment would have no choice but fund their half of Battlefield Earth if they wanted the Willis movie.  And just like that, there was funding for one of the most misguided disasters of all time.

In February 1999, Samaha told Intertainment that the budget for Battlefield Earth would be $55 million.  In a March 17, 2000 letter to Intertainment shareholders, CEO Barry Baeres informed them that the budget has risen to $80 million.  Let’s skip ahead to December 2000, where Intertainment sued Franchise for fraudulently inflating the budgets for their movies, so that Intertainment ended up shouldering more than the 47% of the production costs they contractually agreed to cover.  Elie Samaha was making phony deferments called “approved overages” that were made up charges and the actual budget of Battlefield Earth was revealed to be $44 million.  Over $30 million was embezzled by Franchise Pictures.

Back to pre-production.  Travolta offered directing duties to Quentin Tarantino, who for some reason declined, so when an auteur turns you down, where do you go?  To the second unit director of the godawful The Phantom Menace Roger Christian, of course!

With Franchise pocketing most of the production costs, filming was mostly bare bones.  Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens said: “Battlefield Earth had the smallest lighting budget of any film I’ve ever done.”  Director Roger Christian penned a response to an article in the LA times about the budget: “The live-action production budget for the film, which was shot in its entirety in 52 days, was less than $14 million. Less than $9 million was then spent on special effects.”  Considering what’s on screen, he should be believed.  With a reduced salary of a still massive $10 million, Travolta put a reported $5 million of his pay into the production when funds were drying up.

Warner Bros dated Battlefield Earth for a prime release slot on May 12, 2000.  Despite bad buzz that trailed the movie through development and into release, Franchise and Travolta were proud of the final product and marketed the hell out of it.  In this long and lousy article from the New York Times, (that’s more like a lazy PR piece for Elie Samaha) Travolta was quoted: “More than any other movie, I’ve been very involved in the technical aspects of this film, the special effects, the fantasy, the toys.”  For lovers of bad movies, it’s a shame Travolta has not been involved with those technical aspects on other films.  The special effects were atrocious, the less said about the fantasy the better and the toys were a total bust.

Trendmasters, which put out the line of Battlefield Earth toys, expected sales to reach about $50 million.  They went bankrupt in 2002.  The Church Of Scientology also retained a certain percentage of any merchandising profits.  There were certainly none.

As May 12 approached, there was high awareness of Battlefield Earth, but for all of the wrong reasons.  The movie was constantly the butt of jokes in the media and despite having little chance of success, Travolta was announcing plans for a sequel.  Warner Bros had nothing on the line in terms of risk (except embarrassment by association) on Battlefield Earth and actually received a $9 million fee for distribution.  Battlefield Earth was booked into 3,307 theaters, which at the time of release was the fifth largest theater count on record.  It bowed against inexpensive counter-programmers Center Stage, Screwed and Held Up and would have competition with the second weekend of the surprise smash Gladiator.

Some movies are critic proof despite poor reviews, but Battlefield Earth received reviews almost unanimously proclaiming it one of the worst movies ever made.  It opened to nationwide ridicule and a weak $11,548,898 — placing #2 for the weekend led by Gladiator.  Audiences slapped the film with an atrocious D+ cinemascore and it sank 66% the following frame to $3,924,921.  It then tumbled 72.7% to $1,073,097 in its third session and then promptly lost most of its theater count.  The domestic run closed with a poor $21,471,685.  About $11.7 million would be returned after theaters take their percentage of the gross, leaving much of the P&A expenses in the red and the budget untouched.

Battlefield Earth was mostly dumped overseas after the dismal reception it received stateside.  The recorded offshore cume was just $8,253,978.  Despite being almost entirely funded by German coin, it was sent straight to video in Germany.

Five months after the humiliating Battlefield Earth, Travolta saw his follow up Lucky Numbers post even worse box office and a rare F cinemascore.

Intertainment successfully sued Franchise and Samaha for $77 million and wiped out the scummy company in 2004.  Before that judgement was handed down to Franchise, Morgan Creek also sued the company, as they had acquired domestic distribution rights in 1998 for eight Franchise films — “The Whole Nine Yards (Franchise’s only hit movie),” “Battlefield Earth,” “Art of War,” Get Carter,” “The Pledge,” “3000 Miles to Graceland,” Angel Eyes” and “Heist.”  Along with a distribution fee, Morgan Creek would receive 15% of the film’s profits and they would have a right of first refusal on distributing the movies.  Franchise never paid out any money for “The Whole Nine Yards” and they never offered Morgan Creek any other additional films to accept or pass on.  Morgan Creek was awarded $2 million.

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