It's often been said that success has many fathers.
Well, if that's really the case, one can't help but wonder if former Disney CEO Michael Eisner feels like a proud papa as he looks upon this new version of "King Kong." After all, this Peter Jackson-directed remake has been greeted with great acclaim. And -- given this Universal Pictures release is almost certain to do huge at the box office this holiday season -- Michael must be getting some satisfaction out of the success of this motion picture.
What's that you say? "Why would the former CEO of the Walt Disney Company be getting any satisfaction out of the success of a Universal Studios film?" Well, this version of "King Kong" probably wouldn't have even been produced if it weren't for the actions of Michael Eisner.
Don't believe me? Then let's remember that one of Peter Jackson's chief motivations for making this new version of "King Kong" was that he wanted to erase all memory of the first remake of this classic motion picture. You know, that train wreck of a motion picture that Paramount Pictures released back in 1976?
And just who was the guy who originally came up with the idea of Paramount producing this initial "Kong" remake? You guessed it. Michael Eisner.
As the story is told in Ray Morton's excellent new book, "King Kong: The History of a Film Icon -- From Fray Wray to Peter Jackson," Michael (who was still an ABC executive at the time) initially got this idea of remaking "King Kong" back in December of 1974 after catching the original Merian C. Cooper movie on late night TV. So he pitched the idea of redoing "Kong" to his friend, Barry Diller. Who was then the chairman and chief executive officer of Paramount Pictures.
Diller initially seemed indifferent to Eisner's idea. Which is why Michael then walked across the street and pitched his idea for a "King Kong" remake to Sidney Sheinberg. Who was then the chief operating officer of MCA-Universal Pictures.
Now what Eisner didn't know was that Universal Pictures was finishing up post production on "Jaws." And given that this Steven Spielberg film was expected to do really well when it was finally released to theaters in June 1975, Universal was already on the lookout for some sort of monster-based horror movie to serve as a follow-up to this project.
So when Michael suggested remaking "King Kong" to Sidney, Sheinberg immediately jumped on the idea. I mean, here was the perfect project to follow-up "Jaws." Not to mention that this new version of "Kong" could be the very next Universal Pictures production to make use of Sensurround, that bold new in-theater sound system that literally had movie-goers shaking in their seats.
This is why Sidney immediately put a "King Kong" remake on Universal's production fast track. Sheinberg
Of course, what Sheinberg didn't know was that -- back over at Paramount -- Barry Diller was beginning to warm to Michael Eisner's idea of remaking "King Kong." Diller then contacted colorful independent producer Dino De Laurentis and asked him if he'd been interested in bringing the big ape back to the big screen.
Dino immediately jumped at Barry's suggestion. So -- while Paramount Pictures also began pursuing the remake rights to "King Kong" -- De Laurentis quickly hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (who was then best known as the screenwriter of "Papillon" and "Three Days of the Condor") to produce a script for this motion picture.
So here you have two major motion picture studios quickly gearing up to produce big budget remakes of "King Kong." With both Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures planning on releasing this movie during the 1976 holiday season.
So (as you might have already guessed) when Universal officials found out that Paramount Pictures execs had gone behind their backs and snagged the "Kong" remake rights from RKO ... Well, that's when the lawsuits began flying.
It took numerous trips to Los Angeles Superior Court to finally sort out all the details. With Universal Studios trumpeting about how their "The Legend of King Kong" would obviously be the superior motion picture. A full-color remake that would retain much of the charm of the original "King Kong" (I.E. The story would still be set in the 1930s, all the monsters featured in the film would still be created by using stop motion animation, etc.) with the added plus of Sensurround.
Whereas Paramount Pictures ... Well, Dino De Laurentis had fallen in love with the idea of doing a modern day version of "King Kong" (Which was why the very first version of the film's screenplay that Semple turned out was entitled "Kong '76"). Which meant that -- when Kong finally got loose in Manhattan -- he wouldn't automatically head for the Empire State Building. But -- rather -- NYC's newest, tallest structure: The World Trade Center.
As you can see by this teaser poster that Dino had created ...
Copyright Paramount Pictures
... In Paramount's proposed version of "King Kong," the giant ape was to have straddled the two towers as he battled jet fighters. However, by the time the finished version of this John Gulliermin film hit theaters in December of 1976 ... Well, as you can see, the studio made a few adjustments to "King Kong" 's poster ...
... dropping most of the jets that had originally been pictured on the poster in favor of helicopters. Which Paramount studio execs felt would make for a fairer fight.
Anyway ... Getting back to Paramount Pictures' proposed "King Kong" remake: Dino wanted this fantasy film to be loaded with realism. So it would be shot on location in modern day Manhattan. And stupid little stop motion puppets simply wouldn't do for Mr. De Laurentis. Which is why the flamboyant Italian producer ordered that a 42-foot-tall mechanical version of the monster be created. So that a full-sized version of Kong could be seen interacting in real time with actors in this film.
Well, that was the plan, anyway. The fact of the matter is that -- in spite of the $1.7 million that was spent on the creation of this "Big Kong" figure -- the giant robotic ape never really worked properly. Which is why it was only used in a handful of shots in the finished film.
As for the rest of the shots in that picture that feature King Kong ... They were performed by noted make-up effects artist Rick Baker. Who worked for hours in front of miniature sets while he sweated inside of a King Kong suit that featured five interchangable heads.
Anywho ... Getting back to all the legal posturing: Dino trumpeted that Paramount's film would be called "King King: The Legend Reborn." And that -- in order to get the jump on Universal's "The Legend of King Kong" -- that his production would begin shooting on January 15, 1976. To which Universal execs responded: "Well, we've already hired Joseph Sargent to direct our version of 'King Kong.' And we're going to start shooting on January 5, 1976."
So -- as the suits and the counter-suits continued to fly -- this literally became a game of chicken between two major Hollywood studios. All because Michael Eisner had pitched his idea for a "King Kong" remake to both Barry Diller & Sidney Sheinberg.
In Eisner's defense, it should be noted here that Michael didn't approach both Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures with his "King Kong" remake idea out of any form of malice. But -- rather -- because Eisner just thought that this was a really great concept for a brand-new motion picture. Which is why he pitched his "King Kong" remake idea to any studio exec that would listen.
But in the end, it was Barry Diller who ultimately ordered Dino De Laurentis to stop with all the silly lawsuits and find a way to settle with Universal Pictures. ("Why did Barry order Dino to do this?," you query. Well, it seems that Paramount & Universal were actually partners in the Cinema International Corporation, which was a European film distribution company. And Diller was reluctant to bring suit against a corporation that his studio was already doing business with).
Which is why -- in the end -- Paramount & Universal eventually came to a mutually beneficial agreement concerning "King Kong." In return for a share of Paramount's profits on this John Guillermin film, Universal would let Joseph Sargent go and shut down production of its own "The Legend of King Kong."
However, as part of this agreement with Paramount, Universal Studios retained the right to use the King Kong character as part of an attraction that could be added to its Hollywood tram tour. And -- indeed, some ten years later -- Disney Legend Bob Gurr led a team of designers & engineers to create a 30-foot-tall Kong figure that would regularly menace tourists as they explored USH's backlot. Four years later, a "Kongfrontation" ride became one of the signature attractions of Universal Studios Florida when that theme park first opened back in May of 1990. (Sadly, this USF attraction closed in September of 2002 to make way for that theme park's "Revenge of the Mummy" ride.)
And one of the other aspects of Universal's peace accord with Paramount Pictures is that MCA retained the right to make its own "King Kong" movie further on down the line.
Anyhow ... Paramount's "King Kong" (which wound up costing that studio over $23 million to produce, making "Kong" the most expensive motion picture that Paramount had produced up until that time) sold $90 million worth of tickets worldwide. Which meant that this Dino De Laurentis production wasn't quite the blockbuster that Paramount Pictures had been looking for.
In fact, Charles Bludhorn -- the then-chairman of Paramount's parent company, Gulf & Western -- was said to be have been sorely disappointed with the box office performance of John Guillermin's "King Kong." Bludhorn reportedly openly disparged the film in front of the company's shareholders while attending Gulf & Western's annual meeting in the spring of 1977.
Of course, one of the other people who was said to be sorely disappointed with Paramount's "King Kong" was director Peter Jackson. Who had fallen in love with the Merian C. Cooper version of the film when he was just eight years old. And -- from that day forward -- Jackson had dreamed of shooting his very own version of "King Kong." Both as a tribute to Cooper and Willis O'Brien (I.E. The stop motion master who got Kong to move in the first film) as well as in an effort to erase all memories of that god-awful 1976 remake.
Speaking of Paramount's version of "King Kong" ... Given the universally poor reviews that this picture recieved back in 1976, it's easy to understand why this John Guillermin film is rarely shown nowadays. Of course, when you factor in the whole filmed-on-location-at-the-World-Trade-Center aspect of the production ...
... it's easy to understand why the 1976 version of "King Kong" hasn't been seen recently. Anyway ... Getting back to the Peter Jackson-based portion of this story. Back in 1995, Jackson directed and co-wrote the Michael J. Fox horror comedy, "The Frighteners" for Universal Studios. Universal execs were so enthusiastic about the work that Peter had done on this motion picture that they asked him: "What other motion picture would you like to make for our studio? How about a remake of 'The Creature of the Black Lagoon'?"
Jackson politely demurred. Insisting that there was only one motion picture that he really wanted to remake. And that was Merian C. Cooper's "King Kong."
Of course, Universal executives were thrilled to hear Peter's comments. Given that the studio had been sitting on those "King Kong" remake rights since 1976. And now finally here was a filmmaker with the passion and the talent to actually make this picture happen.
Mind you, Jackson wasn't interested in shooting Bo Goldman's old script. Which is why he and his longtime collaborator Fran Walsh hammered together an entirely new "King Kong" screenplay. Which -- while it was very respectful of the original Merian C. Cooper film (I.E. The movie's story was still set in the 1930s, it would still end with Kong at the top of the Empire State building battling biplanes, etc.) -- the script still featured lots of new sequences that were obviously inspired by hit films of the 1980s & 1990s (EX: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" & "Jurassic Park").
The screenplay that Jackson & Walsh turned in absolutely thrilled Universal executives. Here finally was a version of "King Kong" " that was sure to connect with modern moviegoers. The only problem was -- with the picture's trio of attacking tyranosaurs and that herd of stampeding apatosaurs -- this was sure to be one motion picture that would be prohibitively expensive to produce. Early internal estimates suggested that it could cost Universal Pictures as much as $200 million to bring Peter Jackson's vision of "King Kong" to the big screen.
Add to this the fact that -- when "The Frighteners" finally rolled into theaters in July 1996 -- this Michael J. Fox film didn't do all that well. "The Frighteners" pulled in a mere $16 million during its domestic release. Which meant that this Peter Jackson motion picture didn't even come close to cover its promotion & production costs.
Now add to this the fact that Sony Pictures had just announced its plans to produce its own big budget version of that classic Japanese monster movie, "Godzilla." And the news that Michael Eisner had just greenlit Disney's planned remake of Merian C. Cooper's other giant ape movie, "Mighty Joe Young." And you can understand why Universal executives might suddenly get cold feet.
I mean, here was Peter Jackson, a director whose first working-within-the-studio-system film had seriously under-performed at the box office. And yet he wanted Universal Studios to commit $200 million to a remake of "King Kong." A film classic that hadn't performed all that well the last time it got remade.
So -- given these circumstances -- is it any wonder that (in spite of the eight months of pre-production that Jackson and his wizards at Weta had already put into "King Kong") that Universal execs finally pulled the plug on this project in January of 1997.
As you might understand, given his love of the original film, Peter was absolutely devastated to lose what he thought would be his one-and-only chance to produce a new version of "King Kong." Still, as one of Jackson's dream project dies, another film fantasy that this director had been hoping for decades that he'd get the chance to produce came into being: "The Lord of the Rings."
Of course, I don't need to tell you folks about the crucial role that Michael Eisner played in the creation of that Academy Award winning trio of films. How the head of the Walt Disney Company first insisted that Peter Jackson try & tell all of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy in two films, rather than three. Then how Michael -- concerned about the high costs of producing these motion pictures -- abruptly pulled the plug on this Miramax Pictures production. Which left Jackson scrambling to find a studio that would actually fund his vision for these films.
Which -- luckily -- led Peter to New Line Studios. A company that actually had executives who were bold enough to embrace Jackson's vision. Who were willing to pony up $300 million to see if there actually was an audience out there for a big screen version of the "Lord of the Rings" book.
So -- as you can see -- from 1974 on forward, Michael Eisner has been a factor in the "King Kong" saga. First as the guy who initially proposed that this classic motion picture be remade, then as the studio exec who -- by inadvertently delaying Peter Jackson's first attempt to get "King Kong" remade -- helped us get the film that's now being screened at multiplexes all around the world.
Now some people might wonder why Michael Eisner feels such a kinship to a character like King Kong. But -- me personally -- I can't help but notice that there's a bit of a resemblance between these two entertainment industry giants.
Photos courtesy of Google Images
Anyway ... Let me wrap things up here by mentioning two other weird little bends to this story. When asked if he was bitter that he didn't actually get a chance to remake "King Kong" back in 1997, Peter Jackson said "No." That -- while the cancellation of that production may have seemed to be a huge blow back then -- it actually turned out to be a blessing. You see, the years that he spent working on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy made Jackson made a better director. More to the point, CG technology has now greatly improved. Which allowed Peter to bring much more of his original vision to the big screen.
(FYI: Remember how Universal Studios execs shut down production of Jackson's "King Kong" back in January of 1997 because that version of the film was projected to cost $200 million. Care to guess how much the 2005 version of "Kong" cost? Would you believe $207 million?)
Getting back to the differences between the 1997 and 2005 version of Peter Jackson's "King Kong" ... The intervening years also gave Peter the chance to review the screenplay that he and Fran Walsh had originally written. Which made Jackson realize that the scope of his "King Kong" film needed to be tightened. That there was really no room for prologues set during World War I with flying aces who played baseball high over the trenches. That -- in order for this picture to play to modern moviegoers -- that film's title character had to be someone that audiences could really relate to.
Well, as those of you who have already seen the new version of "King Kong" know, Peter Jackson succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. This new Universal Pictures release is really a landmark motion picture. It's actually no faint praise to say that Jackson's "King Kong" is almost as good as Cooper's original. If you haven't seen it yet, go check out this movie ASAP. You'll be glad you did.
Also ... Just to demonstrate how everything in Hollywood seems to work in cycles and/or circles: Do you remember the project that Universal Studios execs originally offered Peter Jackson as a possible follow-up to "The Frighteners"? That's right. A big screen remake of that 1954 horror classic, "The Creature from the Black Lagoon."
Well, Universal Studios just announced that they're finally going forward with production of a "Black Lagoon" remake. And guess who they just hired to helm this picture? Michael Eisner's son, Breck Eisner.
And -- to add to the irony of this whole situation -- one of the main reasons that Breck actually got this job wasn't because of Daddy's connections (Eisner's son is already quite an accomplished director. Earlier this year, he earned some great reviews for "Sahara." The big screen version of Clive Cussler's best seller that Breck directed for Paramount Pictures). But -- rather -- because Universal Studios was looking for another monster movie to follow-up what they thought would be the smashing success of "King Kong."
So -- as you can see -- it's 1975 all over again, folks. With the execs at Universal looking for a film that would be a worthy follow-up to "Jaws."
Anywho ... That's the protracted version of the impact that Michael Eisner had on the production of two "King Kong" remakes. Which I hope you found somewhat entertaining.