'Terminator: Dark Fate': What makes a franchise live or die?

Ryan Faughnder, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

The "Terminator" flop is the latest blow for Santa Monica-based Skydance Media, the studio Ellison launched in 2006. Ellison, the son of Oracle Corp. billionaire Larry Ellison and the brother of Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison, specializes in big-budget science fiction action movies meant to attract global audiences. David Ellison, 36, is known for having more commercial tastes than his sister, whose prestige-focused studio has struggled. Skydance's best-known hits include the recent "Star Trek" and "Mission: Impossible" movies as well as "World War Z."

But the company has also produced some high-profile misfires. In October, Skydance released "Gemini Man," a $138-million film starring Will Smith playing an aging hitman who faces off with his younger self. The Ang Lee-directed movie is expected to lose tens of millions of dollars after its disappointing box office run. Skydance has also produced lackluster offerings including "Geostorm" and "Life."

The studio's decision-making was questioned earlier this year when it hired ex-Pixar executive John Lasseter to head its animation division after he left Disney following allegations of inappropriate treatment of employees. Emma Thompson exited the Skydance animated movie "Luck" in protest. Skydance defended the decision, saying Lasseter had apologized for his behavior.

Still, analysts said Skydance and Paramount should catch a break when they release "Top Gun: Maverick" next summer. Sky-high hopes for the Tom Cruise action movie soared after the movie's trailer debuted online in June to a rousing reception on social media.

Plus, insiders say the company is in better financial shape than the box office returns would suggest because it has diversified in businesses including television production and video games. But the failure of "Terminator" stings.

"It's a tough road for Skydance and Paramount," Bock said. "'Top Gun' can't get here fast enough."

"Terminator: Dark Fate" suffered from a series of problems, even before it got off the ground. After the massive success of "Terminator 2," a spate of subpar sequels turned many people off the franchise, analysts said, and it ultimately may have been too difficult to win back fans. Ellison, who bought the rights from his sister Megan Ellison after she paid $20 million for them in 2011, tried to start a trilogy with "Terminator: Genisys" in 2015, only to scrap sequel plans when that movie failed amid dismal reviews.

The studio tried to salvage the series. Cameron and Skydance made "Dark Fate" a direct sequel to "T2," eschewing the timelines of the other films. They also brought back Linda Hamilton, 63, to play Sarah Connor alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, 72. Yet Cameron, who produced the movie but did not direct, reportedly clashed with director Tim Miller and made significant changes in the editing process. Asked by movie website Cinemablend if there were disagreements during editing, Cameron said there were many.


"And the blood is still being scrubbed off the walls from those creative battles," Cameron told the publication. "This is a film that was forged in fire."

The deadliest blow, perhaps, was saddling the movie with a $185-million production budget. Even though financing was split among four companies (Skydance, Paramount and Fox each put in 30%, while China's Tencent contributed the remainder), the costs mean the movie will have to do blockbuster business to break even, said Eric Handler, an entertainment industry analyst at MKM Partners.

In contrast, the lower budget for "Joker" took some of the pressure off. Even so, Warner Bros. was nervous enough to enlist co-financiers Bron Studios and Village Roadshow Pictures to co-finance the movie. Did Warner Bros. leave profits on the table by bringing on financial partners? Maybe, but it could have easily gone the other way.

"I think the 1/8'Terminator'3/8 producers green-lit a movie with a budget that was way out of whack for what a movie like this was going to do," Handler said. "You've got a case of an aging franchise with aging actors that are far less relevant than they used to be."

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