Anatomy of a flop: How a horribly misguided movie like Mortdecai made it into theaters

How does a movie so colossally misguided end up in theaters?

(Image credit: (Lionsgate/David Appleby))

Not all flops are created equal. Plenty of movies bomb with critics and audiences, but every so often, there comes a movie so colossally misconceived — an Oogiloves or a Winter's Tale — that it merits closer analysis.

This month brought us the latest entrant in this ignominious pantheon: Mortdecai, a brutally unfunny action-comedy starring a mustachioed Johnny Depp that survived through buffoonish stumble after buffoonish stumble on its way to box-office infamy last weekend.

How does a movie as unappealing as Mortdecai make it to theaters at all? Here's a comprehensive timeline:

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1973: British author Kyril Bonfiglioli publishes Don't Point That Thing at Me, the first in a series of comic novels about an aristocratic art dealer named Charlie Mortdecai. Bonfiglioli's novels attract a devoted cult following and are consistently praised by a wide variety of publications, including The New Yorker, which later describes his work as being like "an unholy collaboration between P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming."

2003: Johnny Depp plays Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The idiosyncratic performance, which eventually nets him an Oscar nomination and becomes the centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar franchise, turns Depp into the rarest of Hollywood actors: the kind with the clout to get a project greenlit based solely on his involvement. In the decade that follows, Depp uses his newfound power to launch several passion projects, including a big-screen adaptation of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows.

Depp's interest in Mortdecai also begins with Pirates of the Caribbean. During filming, co-star Jack Davenport lends Depp his personal collection of Bonfiglioli's Mortdecai novels, and Depp resolves to bring the character to the big screen. "So it's all Jack Davenport's fault," Depp later confesses, before conceding that he is the movie's true driving force: "I thought this would be amazing to bring to the screen, but would be impossible. And it almost was. It took 10 years." Without Depp's enthusiasm for the material (and his willingness to take the title role), it's hard to imagine the movie ever being made.

July 2013: Screenwriter Eric Aronson — whose sole prior screenwriting credit comes from 2001's misbegotten Lance Bass vehicle On the Line — writes an adaptation of Bonfiglioli's novels for the big screen. In a decision that prefigures Mortdecai's bizarrely moustache-centric ad campaign, Aronson grafts the moustache subplot from the fourth book, The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery, onto his loose interpretation of Don't Point That Thing at Me. ("The moustache is Mortdecai's own sense of his freedom," he later explains.)

Depp sends David Koepp, who directed him in Secret Window, the Aronson script for Mortdecai. "I read it, and within about two or three pages, I knew why [Johnny Depp] wanted to do it, and I knew that he was probably the only person who could do it," Koepp later declares. Depp formally signs on, leading a cast that swells to include Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, and Paul Bettany as Mortdecai's manservant Jock Strapp.

Oct. 21, 2013: Principal photography on Mortdecai begins, with a production budget of $60 million. "MORTDECAI will captivate audiences and keep them on the edge of their seats," promises a press release.

Feb. 7, 2014: Lionsgate, flush with the success of franchises like The Hunger Games, has high hopes for Mortdecai. In a phone call with analysts, Lionsgate Chairman Jon Feltheimer says that he expects Mortdecai to spawn an entire film series, calling the foppish protagonist a "franchisable character" in the vein of The Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau. Mortdecai is "a character that Johnny Depp absolutely loved and would love to do more of," he says. Mortdecai is slated for release in early 2015.

Aug. 6, 2014: @PartTimeRogue, the official Mortdecai Twitter account, makes its debut in a characteristically inept fashion: a message too long for a single tweet.

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The promotional account is just one element of the extensive ad campaign for the film, which leans heavily on inscrutable images of Johnny Depp with a mustache. @PartTimeRogue will spend the following months shilling for Mortdecai in a rough approximation of the title character's style of speech, riffing on everything from the Golden Globes to the premiere of Parks & Recreation. It is very, very irritating — particularly when sponsored @PartTimeRogue tweets are aggressively promoted in the Twitter feeds of nonfollowers.

Aug. 12, 2014: The first trailer for Mortdecai debuts. Reactions are almost uniformly baffled. "The preview introduces the character without introducing any of the movie's plot, or even revealing who Mr. Mortdecai is," says The Wrap. "At least the film boasts an impressive supporting cast," says The Dissolve, straining for optimism.

Nov. 11, 2014: The second trailer for Mortdecai is released, and the confusion has curdled into irritation. "Personally, I think Depp's schtick is getting tiresome," says Slashfilm. "Honestly, I don't know how this movie got made," says FirstShowing.

Jan. 15, 2015: Realizing, apparently, that America is unlikely to succumb to Mortdecai's charms, Lionsgate reportedly cancels advanced screenings of the film, staving off what will, indeed, turn out to be overwhelmingly negative reviews until the last possible moment.

Jan. 16, 2015: In a lengthy post that channels the general sense of annoyance over the omnipresent ad campaign for the film, Vulture's Abraham Riesman asks a simple question: What the hell is Mortdecai? "They're acting like Mortdecai is some kind of major franchise that we're already supposed to be jazzed about," he writes. "Maybe I'm living in a bubble, but I have never met a single person who has any prior knowledge of — let alone name-brand recognition of — Mortdecai."

Jan. 18, 2015: Clint Eastwood's American Sniper opens wide to a stellar $90.2 million, astonishing analysts and towering over every movie in its vicinity. The film's surprise success at the box office adds an extra hurdle for the following week's releases, which include Mortdecai.

Jan. 23, 2015: Mortdecai arrives in theaters. Reviews, as expected, are dismal. "Aggressively strange and willfully unfunny" says the aggregated summary at Rotten Tomatoes, where the movie scores 11 percent positive reviews.

Jan. 24, 2015: @PartTimeRogue — mugging desperately in the face of extremely low box-office numbers — resorts to retweeting compliments from the few people who did enjoy the movie, and encouraging them to see it again:

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Jan. 25, 2015: On its opening weekend, Mortdecai debuts at No. 9 with a terrible $4.1 million gross — well under even the very modest projections set by box-office analysts. Those that did see it weren't big on it; the film earned a C+ CinemaScore, which all but ensures terrible word-of-mouth in the weeks to come. The Mortdecai franchise has been killed in its infancy. @PartTimeRogue, undaunted, makes a joke about 2007's Sopranos finale.

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