A Cure For Wellness is the sort of film they don’t make anymore.
Now when people usually say “they don’t them like that anymore”, they’re usually referring back to the 1970s and New Hollywood. This was when a new wave of filmmakers – Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski et al - brought up on cinema experimented with film as a medium and its conventions to industry-altering effect; their movies were less about the story itself than how that story was told. A typically modern parallel is Hell or High Water, the tense, tight, Best Picture-nominated thriller that wouldn’t feel out of place on a marquee alongside Chinatown or Rocky. Some using the phrase may reach further back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and its grand studio films – for a perfect example, see La La Land and its relenting homage/update of the musical – but in general the point is that “not making movies like this anymore” refers to feeling like a time long in the past.
Of course, what makes the phrase a bit hollow is that there are innumerable examples for whatever era you’re choosing. A Cure for Wellness is different because it literally is the product a filmmaking ideology that hasn’t been popularized since the 1990s; it’s a mid-range budget studio film made with uncompromising vision by a focused auteur.
This is a production point more than a style or quality one. Indeed, the film itself could be very easily labeled as derivative; the story of Dane DeHaan visiting a century-old spa at the foot of the Swiss Alps is a grab-bag of references, with shades of Shutter Island, The Shining and Sucker Punch in its descent into madness, and all-out Argento in its hammered-home ending. Despite that, though, it’s a creepy, chilling movie that offers up a lot the discuss.
Explaining what the film is and feels like to watch is important because, based on ticket sales, you haven’t seen it. A Cure for Wellness is a box office bomb, in its opening weekend making only $5 million back on a $40 million budget. Going by the common wisdom that a film needs to make double its production budget to account for marketing and other costs, it’s a long way off even breaking even.
Make no mistake, this is a big deal. In fact, it's a disaster, one that will have major repercussions not just for director Gore Verbinski’s career, but possibly the entire studio system going forward.
Mid-Range Budget Thrillers Simply Don’t Exist Anymore
A Cure for Wellness’ budget has been described with regularity as “big”, with many critics going as far as saying it's a daring move for a studio - something that’s frankly ridiculous. That 20th Century Fox sinking $40 million into a movie released the same week Disney started production on a massive, two-part Avengers 3 set to cost upwards of $500 million is even worth remarking at shows just how far away we are from the creative boom of the 1990s.
Let’s just look at the numbers for what are probably your favourite movies of that decade: Seven cost $33 million ($52 million adjusted); Fight Club cost $63 million ($91 million adjusted); The Matrix pretty much the exact same; The Sixth Sense $40 million ($58 million adjusted); The Shawshank Redemption $25 million ($40 million adjusted). There were many classic movies made for less – The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction, American Beauty – and of course many made for a lot more – Disney’s renaissance output, Independence Day, Jurassic Park – but what are regarded as the decade's best, most revolutionary pictures were the product of a mid-range budget and a talented director.
That was how the film industry had worked since the end of New Hollywood. The Jaws and Star Wars double-tap (along with the failure of massive movies like Heaven’s Gate) killed that creative wave and led to a greater focus on bigger budget movies, but Hollywood was still generally built to cater to a wide range of audiences with a wide range of financial and creative inputs. Things changed in the late-1990s/early-2000s, with a run of near-crippling bombs (just go back and look at Warner Bros. 1997 slate and not weep) leading to the rise of the multimedia brand.
The biggest shift in reaction to this has been the proliferation of franchises to the point where the only way to make a movie with a budget of $100+ million is to have it be a part of a bigger series or based on something with a proven fanbase. Literally the only major exception to this is Christopher Nolan, a brand unto himself; his big 2017 movie is Dunkirk, a war epic that probably cost more than a small country's GDP set to be released in the middle of blockbuster season - and it'll be a smash hit. Nobody else can do that – the closest comparisons are Peter Jackson and James Cameron, but their output is irregular. Everybody else working today has to play by the rules; James Gunn may be beloved for his style and behind one of the biggest surprise hits of recent years, but if his next film didn’t feature Star-Lord, Groot and Rocket (as well as the Marvel logo) he’d be lucky to command a tenth of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s $200 million budget.
The politics of modern tentpole filmmaking are so convoluted they’d really need a whole article for themselves to even scratch the surface, but it’s the other change a budget rung down that we’re concerned with.
What Happened To Mid-Range Movies?
Whereas blockbusters have evolved, the movies we talked about earlier simply don’t get made. At all. Instead, the sub-100 million category is dominated by films that would once be a studio's top line – the big budget explosion fests based on original ideas – while indie producers have taken the lower cream of the crop. The rest of them just don’t exist; they're simply not safe enough investments in the modern landscape, with rising cinema prices and ever-improving home options having audiences saving their money for only the biggest of releases.
Pretty much the only people who get to make those sort of films nowadays are David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino and handful of other long-standing big names who offset a project being an unknown property (and even they don't command Nolan money). Occasionally a Gunn or a Zack Snyder will be gifted a “massive” budget of $50 million on a passion project, but that’s usually as a reward for a previous tentpole and they’ll invariably go back to franchises after. One for me, one for them (this is how Nolan first grew himself, but he is a savvy businessman and one failure can set you back).
It’s not just the filmmakers getting work (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln almost went to HBO and Martin Scorsese struggled for decades to make Silence) that's the problem; as a result of this, a whole type of movie has disappeared. The 1990s classics cited above were all dark, unsettling, unique stories given R-ratings that delved deep into the human psyche through creative use of the genre and provided intense talking points that see them still remain relevant to this day. They bended the knee to no one and while in some cases there was studio blowback – New Line wanted to give Seven a tamer ending – the stance of a filmmaker as the auteur still had enough clout to carry through their vision. That's a rarity in 2017 and so the bottom's fallen out.
Of course, these stories are still being told, just not in the cinema. It’s absolutely no coincidence that “The Golden Age of Television” blew up around the same time these movies left the cinema. At first it was just offering audiences new stories, but as we’ve moved into Peak TV the very directors and actors who would gravitate to these films have now moved into series. Fargo, The People vs O.J Simpson, Legion, The Americans and many shows that aren't on FX; it’s not a novel observation anymore, but these are the sort of things that would have played in a multiplex a couple of decades ago. The reason for the shift is again an article for itself, but it ultimately falls down to the creative enablement of certain networks in contrast to big studios.
The only exception (and this is so much an exception it needs underlining) is the Oscar movies. Around the same time big movies were homogenizing and these mid-range films were disappearing, the "Oscar bait" industry grew (mainly The Weinstein Company, but others quickly got in on the act). Compared to films in the 1990s and earlier, this new range of awards movies don’t operate like regular movies – they’re made with Oscar glory 100% in mind - and thus the way they're financed is different. This year’s set is a damn good one, but they all fit the mold. The biggest outlier is Arrival (costing $47 million), but that comes from a director gaining notoriety in a proven awards sub-genre. Next rung films Hacksaw Ridge ($40 million) and La La Land ($30 million) were clearly going to be favourites of the season and thus could be expected to offset their budgets – and it’s worth pointing out both cost considerably less than counterparts fifteen years ago (We Were Soldiers was made for $75 million, Chicago for $45 million).
Some smart producers are adapting to fill this gap. After ramming Paranormal Activity down people’s throats for far too long, Jason Blum has turned his Blumhouse into a low-budget factory that gifts talented filmmakers the tools to make films akin to the 1990s thriller peak without breaking the bank: The Gift, Hush, Split. He’s the guy who gave Damien Chazelle the chance to make Whiplash, allowed Mike Flannigan to transform Ouija: Origin of Evil into one of 2016’s biggest surprises and helped Jordan Peele to produce Get Out. But each one of these films cost below $5 million - that’s playing against a stacked deck and while it leads to interesting films, it doesn’t address the bigger industry problem.
How A Cure For Wellness Fits Into This
So why is A Cure For Wellness the lynchpin of this? Well, because it is one of those rare mid-range budget studio movies. At $40 million it’s actually on the smaller side, but to have the Fox logo play in one of its own productions without five other studios following it and not fade out with an “X” is a pretty big deal. Even more so in a movie that doesn’t have a safe green-light “in”. It wasn’t an Oscar movie. It wasn’t a tentpole. It wasn’t a VOD release getting shown in a few cinemas. It was just a movie; a movie from someone who really wanted to make something out-there and was lucky enough to be able to do just that. It isn’t the best movie – neither is Gore Verbinski the best filmmaker – but there’s something delightfully uncompromised about the film that simply isn’t seen enough of anymore.
That it was made at all is rather surprising. Verbinski emerged from the 1990s mid-range boom with MouseHunt and The Mexican, but didn’t find praise until he moved bigger with The Ring remake. One Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy later and he was a proven box office maestro. This allowed him to make the brilliantly bizarre Rango and, after The Lone Ranger, A Cure For Wellness. What’s important is that Pirates, Rango and Wellness all come from different studios; there’s no “one for me, one for you” in place - Paramount (Rango) and Fox (Wellness) simply believed in his vision enough to back it. That he’s got Pirates on his resume no doubt helps, but that’s some real faith in a director of mixed ability.
That it bombed is much less surprising and its results painfully predictable; it'll lead to Verbinski doing something safe - another Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster with Johnny Depp or a reboot of some franchise - and, more importantly, make studios think that people don't want weird, challenging horror-thriller movies in general. The message of A Cure for Wellness will be taken to be that betting a mid-range budget on talent alone isn't worth it and that they should just stop making films like that - if one thing about Hollywood can be said we certainty it's that they learn big lessons from mistakes and refuse to look back.
The future is thus for things to continue on the same track. Two weeks after Wellness, Fox are releasing a film that cost only $20 million more yet with increase box office receipts twenty-fold: Logan. Wolverine 3 takes the baton from Deadpool in showing that big franchise entries needn’t be of the $250 million variety to be big hits. If anything, the fact Deadpool beat Batman v Superman domestically and Logan is set to eclipse The Wolverine shows that the creativity it affords is better received. But while better movies is something that should never be sniffed at, if this trend becomes widespread it further muscles out the scant original properties, with an even smaller budget range for movies that aren’t hoping for mainstream blockbuster status or Oscars.
In truth, A Cure For Wellness is just a "good" film - while it's got an excellent sense of feel and some involved performances, its length leads to randomness and the final fifteen minutes is over-explanatory. But the level of intense creativity it brings to the table eclipses some studio's entire slate. It'll likely do very well when it arrives on Netflix and has enough gross-out bizarreness to become a fully-fledged cult hit, but it's the sort of thing that needs to do well at the box office to really have a concerted impact.
So rather than saving your money to go see a sequel to a film you only partially liked because you know the brand, why not have a punt on this? You'll get a unique cinemagoing experience and definitely have something to talk about after.
- A Cure for Wellness (2017) release date: Feb 17, 2017