Contrary to what box office numbers might suggest, movie making is not a sound profession. Making a film requires an enormous investment of time, resources and man power, and if an audience doesn’t care for a film, it can mean lifelong disaster for the people involved. For that reason, studios get protective of the products they deliver, and while they want a director to make a good movie, the studio suits also want to ensure a return on their investment. That can prove problematic for directors unwilling to communicate or cooperate with a studio, or for a studio that hires a filmmaker with a vision different from their own. Hollywood has a long and unfortunate history of taking films out of the hands of directors to retool in the name of commercialism. Sometimes the tinkering works, but other times, it ruins a potential masterpiece.
Take these examples. Each had a noted director at the helm with a very specific vision. Nevertheless, the studios seized each one in the name of business and oftentimes ruined a good film in the process. With reports continuing to surface about how Warner Bros. changed Suicide Squad in the weeks leading up to release, or how Disney has mandated an overhaul on Rogue One, let the world take note of these 15 Movies Ruined By Studio Recuts.
15. Alien 3
Also known as the mother of all nightmare studio recuts, the problems surrounding Alien 3 have become the stuff of legend. After years in Development Hell, Fox greenlit the film with Vincent Ward signed to write and direct. Ward envisioned a film of surreal images, with Ripley and the Xenomorph landing on a wooden planet populated by monks. When Fox didn’t reign in some of the more outlandish qualities until the 11th hour, Ward balked, and subsequently found himself out of a job. David Fincher—who had never before directed a film—came aboard to direct a reworked story reset in a mining colony full of convicts.
Fincher and the producers battled nonstop, in part because of an unfinished script, and in part because of the director’s arrogance. Fincher refused to follow studio mandates regarding schedule and budget. Fox eventually shut down the film to work on remaining story problems, later insisting on extensive reshoots that would alter the story. Fincher departed the film during editing, and the theatrical release is a muddled, nihilistic nightmare devoid of any real thrills or scares. For fans, Alien 3 marks the spot where the entire franchise went off the rails, and the movie did only middling business. The so-called “Assembly Cut”—which more closely reflects Fincher’s vision—has since become the defining cut of the movie, suggesting that Fox might have done well to let Fincher complete his movie.
Director Terry Gilliam decided to take on Hollywood in 1985, writing and directing the big-budget sci-fi epic Brazil for Universal Studios. A strange mix of dark comedy and dystopian tech fiction, Brazil featured an unusual cast and stellar production design. A downbeat ending, as with so many other entries named here, gave the studio cold feet before releasing the film. Gilliam battled Universal head Sid Sheinberg over the ending, with Universal eventually re-editing the film to add a happier resolution.
Gilliam objected publicly, eventually taking out a full page ad in the trade newspaper Variety to protest the studio ending. Universal stalled releasing Brazil to American audiences, the director took his own edit of the film public. Gilliam began showing Brazil in small screenings for critics and students, enough so that it became known as an immediate cult movie. Under mounting pressure, the studio offered a compromised edit that ran ten minutes shorter than Gilliam’s preferred cut. It would open to mixed reviews, with critics noting the director’s cut as a far superior version. Recognizing their mistake, Universal eventually released Gilliam’s cut on home media to great acclaim. It remains a highly influential cult film to this day.
13. Fantastic Four
Speaking of Fox, a similar fiasco to the Alien 3 debacle transpired in 2015 with the studio’s hasty reboot of Fantastic Four. Acclaimed indie director Josh Trank signed on to direct, and problems broke out from the start. The studio mandated the casting of certain actors over Trank’s objections, and reports soon surfaced of Trank’s strange behavior on set. After viewing an assembly cut, Fox ordered changes over the director’s objections. Producer Simon Kinberg stepped in to write and direct extensive reshoots which heavily altered the plot of the film. Trank made his protest public, tweeting one day before the film opened that his version was far superior, though it was one that would likely never see the light of day.
Fantastic Four bombed in theaters in spectacular fashion, displacing Batman and Robin as the nadir of the modern comic book movie genre. Sources inside the studio have since praised Trank’s version, which remains unseen. According to reports (and judging by reshoots, easily spotted thanks to actress Kate Mara’s wig), the new scenes added more humor and a lighter tone, in hopes of steering the film in the direction of the cartoonish Marvel films. Trank’s version featured a darker, more brooding take on the story. Fox may have thought they’d saved the day by taking the movie away from Trank, but in the end, their recut just cut their own throats!
12. Suicide Squad
David Ayer’s Suicide Squad arrived in theatres, opening to huge box office receipts thanks to clever marketing and an audience eager to see a film centered around a group of villains. Just prior to opening, however, stories began to emerge about behind the scenes drama that had plagued the film in post-production.
Warner Bros. studio, in response to criticism surrounding their earlier release Batman v Superman, had apparently feared Suicide Squad would turn off audiences with its dark tone. The studio ordered extensive reshoots to add more humor and reduce the amount of violence in the film. After viewing Ayer’s preferred cut, the studio panicked again, this time farming out final edit duties to marketing company Trailer Park to restructure the film. After screening both Ayer’s and Trailer Park’s edits, the director and studio assembled a “compromise” edit, which unfortunately compromised the tone of the film and clarity of the story! The theatrical release, while not godawful, suffers from a lack of focus and a somewhat confusing plot. Though Warner Bros. made a killing opening weekend, early statistical analysis suggests a huge drop off in the second week, indicating that the studio might have been better off letting Ayer complete the film as he intended.
11. Iron Man 2
The first Iron Man film proved a major hit and provided the fledgling Marvel Cinematic Universe with promise and fresh air. Director driven, it made a second-tier hero into a cultural icon and featured a great balance of action, humor and character drama. How quickly the studio forgot their own hands-off philosophy…
By the time Iron Man 2 rolled around two years later, Marvel had begun meddling about in development and production. Originally conceived to follow the “Demon in a Bottle” story—in which Tony Stark battles with alcoholism—Marvel pushed director Jon Faverau in a more benign direction. The final plot of Iron Man 2 focuses less on Stark’s inner demons than on him upgrading his arc reactor and a rivalry with Ivan Vanko. Actor Mickey Rourke also protested the final cut of the film, claiming that a good deal of his scenes of character development ended up excised in favor of set-up for the forthcoming Avengers film. While by no means the debacle of other films listed here, Iron Man 2 signaled the germ of a growing problem with the Marvel films for directors—the studio imposes so many mandates, they end up with little creative control. Both critical and audience response, while relatively positive, paled in comparison to the enthusiasm generated by the original film.
10. The Magnificent Ambersons
One of the most legendary studio recuts in history, the changes to The Magnificent Ambersons remain a subject of controversy to this day. Orson Welles wrote and directed the film as a follow-up to his masterpiece Citizen Kane. While on assignment in South America, however, the studio tested the film and feared that its downbeat ending would depress audiences. Wary of releasing a bomb, studio RKO ordered editor Robert Wise (later an Oscar winning director in his own right) to film new footage and reedit the film to include a happy ending. Wise changed the order of scenes and dropped others entirely, lightening the tone of the film, omitting the mention of the death of several characters, and shoehorning a romance into the final reel. Welles raged against these changes, though because he was out of the country, there was little he could do.
The Magnificent Ambersons flopped on release in 1942, though it received strong critical acclaim. It has since become regarded as one of the best films in history. The lost footage remains a holy grail of sorts for cinephiles who consider the film something of a mutilated masterpiece. Searches continue for early edits of the film, with film buffs cursing RKO for its meddling all the while.
9. Blade Runner
Speaking of classics that flopped, Blade Runner transformed cinema with its spellbinding production design and dark take on science fiction. The film had a troubled production almost from the start. Director Ridley Scott rejected draft after draft of the script and pushed the design departments to their limit. Night shoots made filming tense and arduous, and a writer’s strike necessitated several plot changes and character omissions, even after actors had been cast in the roles. Then Scott put together a workprint of the film to screen for the studio, and things got really bad.
Studio executives and the producers found the plot hard to follow and the futuristic atmosphere of the film incomprehensible in places. An ambiguous ending also made them fear the film would be too dark to attract an audience. Though Scott objected, the studio forced him to add a happy ending onto the film which contradicted several key expositions about the characters’ lifespans, and Scott inserted voice over to help provide context to the action. The theatrical release flopped upon release in 1982, though it has since gone through a renaissance. Now regarded as one of the greatest films in history, Blade Runner underwent a corrective restoration in 2007 to fix certain plot holes, bad effects, and remove the voice over and happy ending. Had the studio allowed Scott to finish the movie as he’d planned in 1982, they might be polishing Oscars in their offices!
8. Event Horizon
Paul W.S. Anderson would make a career out of schlocky horror films like Alien vs. Predator and the Resident Evil series in the 2000s. Anderson’s first attempt at major studio filmmaking came in 1997 with the sci-fi thriller Event Horizon. The film opened to negative reviews and flopped at the box office, though it has since gained a cult following thanks to Anderson’s popularity among genre fans. In 2011, however, Anderson revealed, in part, why the movie underperformed: studio meddling.
Anderson assembled a rough cut in early 1997 which lacked finished special effects and second unit footage. Paramount executives, which had left Anderson alone during production, were horrified at the amount of violent gore in the movie, and Anderson himself expressed disappointment with some of the direction and performances. He agreed to trim the film down to a shorter length, though Paramount forced him to cut sequences he considered vital to the film’s narrative. Anderson’s original vision, in addition to adding character backstory and exposition, featured a more overtly religious context to the horror sequences, including an orgy in Hell. Though some of the footage was later found on a VHS tape, Anderson laments that his original version of the film has been lost to time.
Mark Christopher had long dreamed of making a film about the legendary disco Studio 54. After directing two short films in the early 1990s, indie studio Miramax approached him to write and direct a feature. With a cast that included up-and-comers Ryan Phillipe, Breckin Meyer, Salma Hayek and Neve Campbell, along with comedian Mike Meyers stepping into a dramatic role, 54 had all the markings of a hit in the making. Early studio reaction to dailies and even a rough cut proved positive, and Miramax began showing the movie to test audiences in hopes of creating positive buzz.
Then everything changed. Test audiences found the main characters unlikable, and objected to scenes of Phillipe and Meyer’s characters’ bisexuality. Fearing a flop, Miramax ordered Christopher to rewrite the film and conduct extensive reshoots, removing hints of bisexuality, increasing Campbell’s role, and changing several plot points to make Phillipe’s character more likable. The final movie flopped at the box office, and with critics. Years later, however, Christopher’s workprint surfaced and began playing at film festivals. Positive buzz and prodding from Phillipe, who’d objected to the plot changes, prompted Miramax to go ahead with a director’s cut of the movie. The cut hit Blu-Ray in 2016 to a positive reception.
6. A Star Is Born
Judy Garland’s performance in A Star is Born often turns up on “all-time best performances” lists, which makes the history of the film an even bigger tragedy. Garland and husband Sid Luft had planned the film as a big screen comeback for the actress, who had left the industry four years before. Acclaimed director George Cukor signed to direct Garland and James Mason in the leads, and Harold Arlen & Ira Gershwin agreed to write original songs for the film.
Production, however, didn’t go smoothly. Script changes and studio mandates from Warner Bros. demanded that Cukor reshoot all completed footage at one point, sometimes more than once! Judy Garland suffered from a drug addiction which made her mentally unstable, further frustrating Cukor. The director’s final cut ran 182 minutes and earned rave reviews, especially for Garland and Mason. Still, Warner Bros feared the length could hurt box office results, so the studio cut another 30 minutes over Cukor’s objections. The studio cut flopped at the box office, and likely cost Garland an Oscar win. In 1983, Warners tried to make amends by releasing a reconstructed version using limited deleted footage and still photographs, though the fact that the original, full edit remains lost is a cinematic tragedy.
5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The first Amazing Spider-Man opened to strong reviews and impressive box office receipts thanks to the sensitive direction of Mark Webb and two great performances by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Webb had planned the film as the first in a trilogy that would retell the Spider-Man legend, and parent studio Sony had agreed. Then things got messy…
With the MCU doing juggernaut business, Sony had hoped to use their lone superhero property to spawn a similar shared universe. The studio then mandated that Webb include a litany of new villains in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to spin-off into other films. The studio also wanted a lighter tone, which resulted in the villain Electro becoming more cartoonish than menacing. Webb tried to move ahead telling the story as he’d planned it, but as footage piled up, Sony mandated that Webb focus more on the expanded universe angle than the character evolution of Peter Parker. The final film plays like a schizoid patient: the tone and focus vary from scene to scene, and the film never finds a strong narrative thread. Critics gave the movie mixed reviews, and the final box office tally was far below the hopes of Sony. Ultimately, the studio canned the planned spinoffs and sequels, opting instead to license the character back to Marvel for another reboot, the character’s third in 15 years.
4. Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid
Director Sam Peckinpah became a critical darling in the 1970s thanks to his deconstructionist, ultraviolent take on the western genre. Films like The Wild Bunch and The Getaway made Peckinpah a hot commodity, and the studio selected the historical tale of Billy the Kid as his next project. Filming commenced in 1973 and proved a disaster from the beginning. Filming on location in Mexico with an inexperienced crew caused technical problems, actors got sick, and Peckinpah’s own battle with alcohol caused extreme budget overruns and schedule delays.
When Peckinpah returned to Hollywood to edit the film, studio MGM immediately began to battle with the director over the length and violent content of the movie. Though Peckinpah finished his preferred edit, the studio balked, assembling its own cut which ran 16 minutes shorter. The final release bombed amid gossip about Peckinpah’s mental state and the changes made to the film. In 1988, MGM discovered a copy of Peckinpah’s directors cut, which it released to critical and audience acclaim. It remains the definitive version of the film, which is regarded as something of a lost masterpiece.
Before earning critical praise for his take on DC Comics’ Batman, Ben Affleck tried his hand at superheroics in 2003 with Daredevil. As conceived by writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, Daredevil would have retold the famed “Electra Saga” from the Daredevil comics and given a grim and violent take on the material. Johnson began shooting the film with this approach in mind, only to get derailed by another superhero: Spider-Man.
With Daredevil still filming when Spider-Man hit screens in 2002, Fox became apprehensive over the adult take on the material. The studio forced Johnson to rewrite and reedit the film, removing an entire subplot, toning down the violence and placing new emphasis on Daredevil’s romance with Electra. The final film opened to subpar critical and fan reception, though it managed to do decent business. Years later, Fox allowed Johnson to complete his director’s cut for DVD release. This version earned unanimous praise from critics and fans, who remarked that the film fit more with the tone of the original comics.
2. Lost Horizon
Frank Capra may have become one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood history by the time he made Lost Horizon in 1937, but that distinction wouldn’t protect him from studio meddling. Capra, having just won an Oscar for It Happened One Night, decided to make an epic drama about the fabled city of Shangri-La. The technical demands of the film pushed the budget higher and higher, as Capra demanded to shoot on location with state-of-the-art special effects to portray the snowy mountain city. His first cut of the movie ran a full six hours! Undeterred, Capra continued to edit, finally turning in a three and a half hour cut to the studio. Previews didn’t go well, at which point the studio intervened. Though Capra turned in a leaner cut, which included reshoots and ran 132 minutes, studio Colombia seized the film. The studio cut another 15 minutes before releasing the movie, which became a surprise hit. Nevertheless, Capra sued over the cuts, eventually reaching a settlement with the studio.
As if the initial problems on the movie weren’t bad enough, Lost Horizon underwent even more cuts after its initial release! A 1942 release deleted a key scene in which a main character decries war, and in 1952, the studio cut the film again to delete perceived communist sympathies! Capra never got over the cuts made to the film, though in 1973, he did see some degree of vindication. Students and faculty at UCLA partnered with the AFI to restore the film to Capra’s 132 minute cut. Though all of the audio survived, several scenes had to be recreated using film trims and publicity stills. This reconstructed version helped earn Capra’s film a new audience, along with renewed status as a classic.
1. The Descent
Can one minute of cut footage make a difference in a movie? Ask fans of The Descent to find out.
The British-made horror flick debuted in 2005 to strong reviews in the US and Europe. It followed a group of spelunking women who find themselves trapped in a cave with strange, carnivorous creatures. The film earned praise for an almost all-female cast, terrifying story, and for its remarkable production design. It became something of a horror classic, though American audiences may not have realized they had not seen a complete version of the film. With director Neil Marshall’s cooperation, American distributor Lionsgate cut the final minute from the movie. Originally [SPOILER ALERT!] the film ended with the lone surviving woman believing that she’d escaped the caves, only to realize she was still inside with the creatures slithering toward her. American releases cut the final minute, making it look as though she actually had escaped.
Though the film received critical raves and did well at the box office, controversy erupted almost immediately over Lionsgate’s choice to cut the final minute. Fans continue to debate the validity of the final frames and their overall importance to the film to this day. Thankfully, most broadcasts of the film—and the majority of home media releases—retain the original ending. As a result, many Descent fans aren’t even aware that the studio muddled around with it in the first place.
Know any stories of studio-meddling recuts we missed? Tell us in the comments!
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