The Bye Bye Man might be the token scary movie to come on this Friday the 13th, but the film striking fear in the hearts of studio executives is Monster Trucks, Paramount’s family-friendly blockbuster. Those ashen-faced executives aren’t at rival studios, though; they’re at Paramount itself.
When studios are trying to hide a potentially embarrassing film from critics and audiences, they usually look at two windows on the calendar. The end of summer, from late August through September, when the blockbuster season has dried up and kids have gone back to school, can still bring big returns on investment due to a less crowded landscape. But January, a.k.a. the heart of awards season, is the true elephant graveyard of the movie business. Other than American Sniper a couple of years ago–which had already been in limited release for a month–no film released in January has ever topped $42 million in its opening weekend.
Movies scheduled for January tend to be low-budget, low-risk releases. Sure, they could catch on, but they generally don’t. That’s exactly what makes Monster Trucks such an anomaly; it’s a $125 million film that was meant to be a major blockbuster. It’s also an epic miscalculation with a torturous production history full of strange inspirations, multiple release date delays, and fired executives, it’s the absolute worst-case scenario for when a studio sets out to make something audiences ostensibly want to see: an original blockbuster film.
Kids Pitch The Darnedest Things
In July 2013, Paramount Animation announced that the studio was developing a new live action/CGI hybrid film called Monster Trucks. Directed by Chris Wedge (Ice Age), it would be Paramount Animation’s second film after The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. Adam Goodman, the president of Paramount at the time, had already overseen several big successes, including the Star Trek reboot, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, and the micro-budget Paranormal Activity franchise. But for Monster Trucks, Goodman developed the original idea for the film–along with his son, who was four years old at the time.
Letting kids do the work of film industry professionals might make for a cute family project, but it’s not good business. (Just ask Robert Rodriguez, who directed Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D–a movie written in part by his then-eight-year-old son.) And since Wedge had never directed a live-action film before, it set up another precarious situation akin to Andrew Stanton’s infamous John Carter, but without any established property to fall back on.
The underlying concept of Monster Trucks is a decent one: What if cars (which kids love) weren’t powered by motors (which kids love), but by cute and slightly gross monsters (which kids love)? But things got complicated fast. The studio wanted something like the Transformers franchise–a blockbuster that also drove merchandise sales–without having to share a cut of the spoils with a toy company that created the property like Hasbro. Paramount was in the strange bind of trying to create an all-new toy-selling franchise, while also delivering blockbuster action on a $125 million budget.
The Release Date Shuffle
Production on the film began in May 2014 with an original release date the following May–but by the time production wrapped in January 2015, the release had shifted to Christmas. This is not a good sign.
Then, a month after the movie completed production, Goodman was out as president of Paramount Pictures, despite having a year left on his contract. This is, uh, not a good sign.
In May 2015, the release date for Monster Trucks moved again to March 18, 2016. Not a good sign, guys.
In August 2015, Bob Bacon, the head of Paramount Animation (whose next high-profile project, you might remember, is Monster Trucks), leaves the studio…and Paramount eliminates his position. As far as signs go, this isn’t a good one.
In November 2015, Paramount moved the film one final time, to Friday, January 13, 2017. This. Is. Not. A. Good. Sign.
On June 1, 2016, Paramount debuted the first trailer–more than a year after the film was originally set to hit theaters. And it was a doozy, featuring a teen mechanic (Lucas Till) taking selfies with an oil-guzzling “land squid”–a horrifying cross between E.T. and Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon–who powers his clunky pickup truck. No wonder the studio wanted to delay it for years. Till might be enjoying success on CBS’ remake of MacGyver right now, but this bomb looked like it was going the way of MacGruber. (Except MacGruber is amazing. —Ed.)
Finally, in September, Paramount announced a $115 million write-down that trade publications almost immediately linked to Monster Trucks, essentially disavowing the film even though it would still try to recoup what few dollars it could from families who had already seen Moana and Sing.
The Monster Was Us The Whole Time
Paramount may have compounded the disaster of Monster Trucks through repeated delays, but it emerged from a kernel of an idea with the best of intentions: creating an entirely original film. Not a sequel, or an adaptation of a comic book, young adult novel, or toy property, but an idea from the mind of an innocent child. Make the cars go “vroom-vroom” with monsters from the deep instead of engines. In the face of everything ridiculously terrible about this film, it’s worth admitting that tiny noble aspect.
And the thing is, there’s quality here. The screenplay is credited to Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow’s collaborator who also wrote Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World, and the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX. And Jane Levy, rising horror star of Don’t Breathe and the Evil Dead remake (as well as the lead in criminally underrated ABC sitcom Suburgatory) is here–even if it’s just to see her talents wasted on a “nerdy girl who’s the only one noticing the outcast guy is a total hunk” postcard of a character.
But Levy is the key to the one great scene in the film, in which Till’s blonde loner learns to control his monster-driven car off-road while she rides a horse alongside it. There’s a moment here, and you can’t help but think that if it was developed more carefully, it could have found a solid niche in a country where pickup trucks are among the best-selling vehicles.
Monster Trucks is a monument to the enormous difficulties of film production. It’s also terrible. But to sit through it is to imagine all the visual effects professionals, editors, and studio executives who came into contact with it over the course of nearly four years and had to figure out how to dump it while maintaining the lowest possible profile. Hollywood gets a lot of stuff wrong; it’s not always for lack of trying. But when a movie starts with one moment of joyous creation from the mind of a child and stacks on every worst-case scenario between inspiration and theatrical release, it can’t help but become a cautionary tale.