Byline: Chris Lee
How 'MIB3' nearly turned into a disaster movie.
On the surface, at least, it seemed like the formula for a box-office grand slam. Take the biggest star on the planet--Will Smith--stick him in a third installment of a blockbuster sci-fi comedy franchise, and release the movie on Memorial Day weekend. Cha-ching!
Instead, Men in Black 3 stands as one of the most difficult movie productions inrecent Hollywood history, a massively expensive exercise in inefficiency and infighting that compelled the heads of Sony Pictures, the studio releasing the film, to consider taking a huge loss rather than continuing to throw good money after bad.
The star vehicle with a budget north of $215 million--Smith's first film in four years--was hustled into production by Sony to nab the actor before he signed on to a competing blockbuster (and to take advantage of a $38 million New York state tax incentive that was expected to expire). So anxious was Sony to get the cameras rolling that MIB3 began shooting without a completed script--the Hollywood equivalent of erecting a skyscraper without a finished blueprint.
To accomplish this crazy feat, the producers built a hiatus into the schedule so that an elite tag team of screenwriters could help draft the movie's second and third acts. But when the hiatus dragged on for three months, speculation ran wild that Smith's grandiosity had bogged down the production.
Sony is at pains to disavow that perception now that prerelease intel all but dictates MIB3 will be the summer's next global blockbuster. But multiple sources close to the film maintain that Smith's insistence on splitting hairs resulted in cost overruns and production chaos. According to a source close to the production, who requested not to be identified, Smith's notoriously exacting method of working through a screenplay--breaking down a script scene by scene with a laptop computer on set and demanding "last say" on every key decision--handed the production its most serious delays. "Will is known to get in there and control things," the source says. "He likes to go in and understand everything. There's a deconstruction and reconstruction in each scene that's part of his process." Smith declined to comment for this article.
Operating as a unified front, the star and director Barry Sonnenfeld effectively held up production with their demands for rewrites and continuing rehearsals, while producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald pressed the studio to support their own vision of the movie, according to several people who worked on MIB3. Meanwhile, New York tabloids had a field day covering the "starship-sized" trailer Smith occupied during filming in New York's SoHo. Reportedly nicknamed "the Heat," the 53-foot behemoth boasted such amenities as a screening room, offices for assistants, and an all-granite bathroom. Neighbors grumbled about the enormous vehicle's gaseous fumes, and retail tenants groused that it was damaging their businesses.
By spring 2011, according to another source close to the production, the film ran the risk of not being completed by its May 25, 2012, release date, setting off alarms inside the Sony exec suite. Already having poured untold tens of millions of dollars into the production, studio co-chairs Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal were forced to openly consider a doomsday scenario: "Should we just take a write-down?" the source recalls Lynton asking Pascal.
In other words, should Sony swallow the losses and pull the plug on a movie featuring Hollywood's top box-office draw?
When Smith made the first Men in Black, he was still something of an untested Hollywood commodity with only one hit film, the ensemble thriller Independence Day. The rapper turned actor had lucked into Men in Black when Sonnenfeld's wife, a fan of Smith's sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, suggested him for the part. Men in Black …