Number Crunch: Depp/Burton vs. Depp/Burton

on May 18, 2012 by Shawn Robbins
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deppburton.pngOver two decades, the combination of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton has become one of the most familiar moviemaking duos. But does familiar mean financially successful? With their eighth collaboration, Dark Shadows, opening in theaters this past weekend, it's time to see just how successful the artistic pair has really been.

Their story begins in 1990: Edward Scissorhands was conceived by Burton during his childhood and was the first film he made with Depp as his leading man. Had the film made less money, we'd be calling it a cult classic. But as it made $86 million worldwide on a $20 million budget, "cult" would be selling it short. The money-making Edward Scissorhands' wasn't just the beginning of Depp and Burton's beautiful relationshipit was the beginning of the two bringing mainstream popularity to gothic films.

Four years later, Depp and Burton reunited for the biopic Ed Wood, based on the infamous low-budget '50s filmmaker. Ironically, just like Wood's own flicks, the film flopped, managing only a puny $5.9 million theatrical gross. Alas, poor Buena Vista, who bore the cost of Ed Wood's $18 million budget. At least the financial failure was offset by critical success: its Rotten Tomatoes' score is 91%, a tie with Scissorhands. Unfortunately, that's not much consolation for Buena Vista. Ed Wood remains the duo's least successful film.

Their third outing was the first of many, many adaptations. In 1999, Paramount spent $105 million on Sleepy Hollow, betting that the combination of Depp and Burton would prove to be an attractive marquee for a dark holiday season horror story. They were sort of right. The film banked over $206 million worldwide and garnered decent word of mouth from the Depp-Burton fan base. Critics were less impressed, but Sleepy Hollow still sits with a "Fresh" 67% at Rotten Tomatoes. Still, with a 1.96 gross-to-budget ratio, it appears that the film only barely made back its budget. Studios weren't clamoring for the terrible twosome's next partnership.

Depp and Burton didn't reunite on the big screen until 2005 with another adaptation/re-make of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In three tries, they'd managed only one clear successtheir firstwhich made Charlie a must-win. So they tried for a different tone: Charlie was the first bona fide family-friendly film they'd make together, and their plan worked: it made $475 million worldwide, and reviews were slightly stronger than Sleepy Hallow. Still, two adaptions in a row left some of their fan base wondering if the two would ever get back to creating original material.

They got their wish just two months laterkind of. In September 2005, the stop-motion gothic comedy Corpse Bride debuted to very modest numbers. Warner Bros. attempted to sell this as a kid-friendly gothic cartoon, and the $53.4 million gross and 84% Rotten Tomatoes critical score suggest that it worked as well as possible. Unfortunately, the film's $70 million pricetag meant it film failed to turn a profit, making it the third film by Depp and Burton to struggled financially. With only a 40% success rate, they were far from Hollywood's most bankable pair.

In 2007, Depp and Burton remade the thriller musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, based on the classic play. At home, it pulled almost identical numbers to Corpse Bride, but the overseas' box office accounted for nearly two-thirds of its $153 million gross. And though it was the duo's best-reviewed film since Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd's $77 million investment meant Paramount/DreamWorks still struggled to make back their money.

With their success rate slipping almost below recovery, Disney took a big risk. The Mouse House gave Burton and Depp $280 million to reimagine Alice in Wonderland. And the shock was: it worked. Alice surprised the industry with a $116 million domestic opening and a massive $1.02 billion worldwide gross. Like Charlie, it was an adaptation of a classic literary tale with massive appeal to kids and families. Plus, hot off the heels of Avatar's success, Alice was given a huge bump with 3D ticket sales. But while the dollars flooded in, critics abandoned ship, giving Burton and Depp the worst reviews of their entire partnership, and and many among their core fanbase despised the fact that the two had gone completely commercial.

That brings us to Dark Shadows. The eighth collaboration between Depp and Burton opened to a disappointing $29.7 million this past week and is on track to only gross between $175-200 million worldwide-and that's the best case scenario. The film has dethroned Alice as their worst-reviewed movie and with a ghastly budget of $175 million, it will easily become the second biggest flop on their resume after Ed Wood.

What happened? First, let's look at the lessons they've learned-for better and worse. Out of eight films together, only two have been original. And the success rate of their original ideas is a mere 50%. On the other hand, two of their three "family movies" rank as two of their only three financial successes. Charlie and Alice won them slippery mainstream success at the cost of shedding the fan base who'd been loyally buying tickets to their films since Edward Scissorhands. Financially, Depp and Burton been rewarded more for remaking family films than they have been for investing in creative, unique and adult stories.

Has their on-and-off success come at the cost of the art itself? It's important to remember that two back-to-back critical disappointments do not make a trend. Prior to Alice, all of their films were well-received by critics and (generally) by fans. Knowing that, maybe it's the studios that simply need to stop investing a huge marketing budget that caters to the Hot Topic generationone underlying theme behind their declining success is an over-blown budget coupled with an over-reliance upon the mainstream gothic culture. There's no excuse for a vampire soap opera to cost almost as much as Transformers. And the financial pressure to make back their costs pushes these two very talented men to play it safe. How can their careers be salvaged? Reduce those outlandish budgets and convince Depp and Burton to take a small pay cut so they can get back to where they live: on the edge. Why should they agree? Because their most profitable film remains their first-a low-cost creative masterpiece about a boy with scissors for hands.

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Tags: Johnny Depp, Tim Burton
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