Revisiting the Collective: Major Hits That Were Initially Considered Awful Ideas

(CS 2021: Time to repost another of my past Collective Publishing pop culture columns. I've been avoiding most of the pieces that were movie reviews or were commentaries on news at the time because I feel like people would be more interested in evergreen type pieces. But if you want me to post old reviews or news pieces just for kicks then let me know.) 

It is too easy to dismiss a work as a failure based off an initial idea because one hasn’t had the chance to see the entire vision and story unfold. It is the job of a critic or executive in an entertainment industry to see past any absurd idea and give the art a chance to shine. (CS: Like Al Capone shitting in bed.) Yet often a work will get dismissed right away as being too silly or impossible to create, and while many times the doubters will be proven correct, there is enough evidence to show that “silly ideas” can turn into something incredible and successful. 

By now critics should learn to give anything a chance and not deem it a failure before viewing or reading. But many critics, whom I must admit I was among, thought a Fargo TV series was a disastrous idea both for attracting viewers and having creative value. The Coen brothers’ comedic crime caper in 1996 is a true classic, but nobody thought there was any worthwhile story left to tell in that universe. Yet the series creator Noah Hawley has expertly crafted a show that feels like a loving homage to the original and also perfectly captures the feel with similar quirky characters and a bizarre crime while still telling a completely original story. (CS: Now Fargo is one of my all-time favourite series and Hawley is one of FX's most cherished showrunners.) What several months ago was being pegged as a destined flop, has now become of the best and most riveting series in a year jammed with fresh and compelling shows. 
Fargo isn’t the first time people have been way off on predicting failure based off initial ideas and concepts. Here are a few works that are considered classics that initially the majority deemed would be massive flops. (CS: You can tell this is closer to the end of my run at Collective Publishing as I wasn't doing these massive pieces with a list of 10 anymore.)

Star Wars: It is hard to believe that there was once a time that almost no studio wanted to distribute the now billion dollar franchise, but back in the mid-1970s nobody wanted to take a ’gamble’ on the now famous space opera. After George Lucas failed to get the rights to Flash Gordon, he started crafting an original script for a space adventure, but the first few drafts were drastically different than the well-known final product, and none of the major studios could decipher what Lucas was trying to say with all his bizarre names and pseudo-spirituality. 

The faith in the success of the movie didn’t increase when it started to be filmed. Most of the cast and crew thought the picture was nonsensical and didn’t have a clue to what was going on. Respected Academy Award winning actor Alec Guinness (who played Obi-Wan Kenobi) told his friends that it was “fairy tale rubbish” and cringed every time he had to recite what he perceived as banal dialogue. 

The negativity continued when Lucas held a private screening of the picture’s first cut to several of his friends and colleagues who almost all (except Steven Spielberg) believed it was a disaster. (CS: Spielberg and Lucas actually made a bet on if Lucas' Star Wars or Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be the bigger box officer hit with the directors choosing their friends rather than their own.)  It was the almost bankrupt at the time 20th Century Fox (CS: Now, it is just a branch of Disney, Sigh.) that picked up and distributed the picture after every other major studio turned it down. 

Yet they even had no faith in making any money. In order to cut costs, they got Lucas to agree to a decrease in his salary and instead accept exclusive rights to merchandise, because who could possibly want to make toys, posters, and t-shirts for this movie? (CS: Plus, merchandising wasn't really a huge revenue stream for movies at that point, but guess who changed all that?) At the time, science fiction was considered niche and low budget. The more expansive and ambitious Star Wars was seen as box office poison. 

20th Century Fox actually had to force cinemas to carry the picture by threatening to withhold the Sidney Sheldon adapted picture The Other Side of Midnight (many believed it would be one of the major summer hits) unless they agreed to also screen Star Wars. One picture ended up spawning 5 sequels, several cartoon series, a highly anticipated new installment in 2015, countless novels and video games and a massive worldwide fan-following, while the other picture was probably forgotten or unknown by everyone reading this until I mentioned it. (CS: Raise a hand if you've ever seen the Sheldon adaptation or even know where you could legally watch it today?)

Carrie: This was actually the fourth novel written by Stephen King, even though it was his first published. His previous novels had all been rejected, and at the time he was living in a trailer with his wife, Tabitha, and two children, while teaching during the day and selling short stories to supplement his income. Carrie was initially supposed to be another short story (since that was the only fiction he could sell at that point), but then it started to grow into something much larger. King got frustrated with the direction and as a result, he ended up throwing the manuscript in the trash. (CS: I can totally empathize with the writing a short story that grows into a novel problem.)  It was Tabitha who ended up fishing it out and then forced him to finish the story. King had reservations over if it would be sold, but he stuck it out to its completion. 

King admits that this wasn’t one of his favourite stories, and it got frustrating hearing publishers constantly say a story about a telekinetic female teenager wasn’t sellable. He eventually sold it to Doubleday for a $2,500 advance and it had a modest first print-run on hardcover. Then the popularity of the novel exploded in paperback with over a million copies sold in its first year. King made $400, 000 on the paperback rights, and quickly had himself a red-hot bestseller. He was able to quit his teaching job and launch one of the most successful and famous writing careers in modern times. All because his wife was willing to pick stuff out of the trash. (CS: The fact that King never really seemed to come around on thinking it was a great novel but stuck with it so it became a mega-hit, is one of the most inspirational stories and a healthy reminder for me when I'm frustrated with my own creative work.)

Lost: The series has now made many critics’ list of all-time best TV shows, and it also was one of the most talked about shows on social media during its run, and as well several books have been written trying to discuss the many themes and mysteries. It was a legitimate pop culture phenomenon that was must-see viewing to be in the know during party chatter. But before it premiered, most respected entertainment magazines and websites had it pegged as an easy bet for early cancellation. (CS: I don't remember what magazine, but I remember reading a fall season preview that put this in a destined to flop category.)  

The series looked like a potential disaster, as the pilot had exceeded budget and ABC looked to have an expensive flop on its hand. It initially looked like a serious version of Gilligan’s Island mixed in with some quirky supernatural element that TV execs were worried would fly over audience’s heads. Plus, at the time, most supernatural or science fiction series were considered incredibly niche and needed to keep costs down to be profitable, as it wasn’t considered something viable as major network prime-time entertainment. 

ABC’s parent company Disney was so upset with the decision to greenlight this series that it ended up being one of the main reasons Lloyd Braun was fired as the head of the network. Of course, all the negative energy was coming off a premiere that had not even aired yet and it had just assumed to be a major miscalculation. Now, we know Lost as being the series that turned the executive producer J. J. Abrams into a household name. (CS: And then he killed Star Wars. Just kidding.) 

Since the series finale, every network has tried to replicate the successful formula that turned the series into a sensation. This is one of the best examples of how a major entertainment company may have been better off being patient before making major decisions like firing the guy that approved a massive hit. 
Each of these massively successful works of fiction proves that you can’t predict success just off a basic concept. Sometimes you have to trust the creator and have a little patience to see how it all unfolds. Almost any idea with the right creativity and talent has the potential to turn into something wonderful. (CS: Except for Capone shitting his bed and getting phone calls from delusions.)   

What are some books, movies or TV shows that you were surprised to discover that you loved? (CS: I read somewhere that having user-engagement questions at the end of a piece were major ways towards growing an audience. I started trying to implement them in hopes of building Collective Publishing's readership, but since it closed down a few months after this, you can tell how successful that strategy turned out.)