Gore Verbinski, Bioshock and the Big-Budget Horror Film

By  · Published on October 21st, 2016

A Cure for Wellness might have the best trailer of the fall, but the math is anything but positive.

Early yesterday morning, the best trailer of the year dropped. Sure, maybe the song selection was a little on the nose, but when the action kicked in none of that seemed to matter. Countless people began the trailer as skeptics and emerged as the film’s fiercest advocates; the visuals alone were enough to seal the deal for skeptical movie fans who had sworn not to get too hyped after earlier flops by the filmmaker.

That’s right, I’m saying for the record that the trailer for A Cure to Wellness was one of the best of the year. What, did you think I was talking about Logan?

This is an important film in the oeuvre of director Gore Verbinski. Unleashed at last from the clutches of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – and a few good years removed from the domestic box office flop that was The Lone Ranger – Verbinski has effectively turned back the clock to the early days of his career. It was Verbinski’s American remake of The Ring that catapulted him into the upper echelon of studio directors, and now, ten years later, Verbinski is returning to the horror genre in need of a hit. The first trailer for A Cure to Wellness looks incredible; it also suggests that Verbinski has not quite gotten the development hell of Bioshock out of his system.

But will Verbinski be able to buck the trend of expense R-rated movies? It’s tempting to look at the film’s delayed release or February premiere and decide that A Cure to Wellness is just another movie being dumped in an inoffensive month. It’s more fun to deal with the numbers. In order to get a sense of how similar horror films have performed at the box office, I pulled the numbers for each of the highest-grossing R-rated horror films of the last five years. More accurately: I took a list of the ten highest-grossing horror films of 2010 through 2015, excluded anything below an R-rating, and averaged out how much the film cost to make and how well it did in the domestic market. This left me with a list 39 horror films. The results pretty much speak for themselves.

The first thing that jumps out at you when you look at this list is the value being offered by the horror genre. The average budget of an R-rated horror film over the past five years is around $20 million dollars, but that only tells part of the story; every film on that list with a budget in excess of $50 million dollars failed to make its budget back at the domestic box office. What’s more, only one film on the entire list has a budget that exceeds $100 million, the ill-fated remake of The Wolf Man that nearly killed the Universal Monsters reboot before it even had a chance to get off the ground. By going even further and sorting the list by the biggest difference between domestic gross and budget, we can see that the ten most profitable films of this time period average a little under eight million dollars per production. Needless to say, unlike many other Hollywood movies, the amount of money invested has very little correlation to the amount of money returned.

And this will be something of a challenge for Gore Verbinski, because the man is not exactly a micro-budget director. It’s been more than a decade since Verbinski shot a film for under $100 million; even his well-received 2013 animated film Rango cost $135 million to produce. Speaking strictly from a number standpoint, Verbinski is a tough man to pin down. His two biggest failures at the box office have come in the form of a $225 million dollar film (The Lone Ranger) and in the form of a $20 million dollar film (The Weather Man), meaning that Verbinski has both failed and succeeded at every spot in the Hollywood spectrum. Even if we decide to compare apples to apples, Verbinski’s remake of The Ring cost a (relatively) whopping $48 million dollars, which would have made it one of the more expensive movies on this list.

Unstoppable force, meet unmovable object. If Gore Verbinski averages over $100 million per film, and recent history has been extremely unkind to any R-rated horror movies with a budget above $50 million, where does that leave A Cure for Wellness? I have absolutely no clue. What little we know about the production budget suggests the film will be closer in cost to a typical Gore Verbinski cost than an R-rated horror film. The German Federal Film Fund (DFFF) alone contributed over eight million dollars to the production, the most that the DFFF earmarked for any one film this past year. For comparison’s sake, Captain America: Civil War received only four million from the DFFF. It’s all guess work, but it’s probably safe to say that the budget for A Cure For Wellness is going to be a lot closer to nine figures than seven.

Why does this matter? For some – like me – the success or failure of A Cure for Wellness is its own reward, but video game fans in particular should watch the box office for this film with keen interest. Gore Verbinski has long been interested in shooting an R-rated adaptation of the popular Bioshock video game series; if A Cure for Wellness, with its techno-dystopian aesthetic and R-rated content, flops at the box office, then studios may take this as a sign that Verbinski’s Bioshock project was never meant to get off the ground. If A Cure for Wellness is a hit, though? This would pretty much set the stage for Verbinski to kick off his next major Hollywood franchise. Whether you love video games or love horror, it’s probably not a bad idea to burn some incense to the Gods of February Releases that A Cure for Wellness is more Big Daddy than Little Sister. This is probably the closest thing we’re going to get for a while.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)