Heaven’s Gate: UA and Michael Cimino’s demise — Mistakes Were Made

Image for post
Image for post

Michael Cimino was coming off a fantastic Oscar win for Deer Hunter in 1978, and his next project was supposed to Hollywood’s next big thing. The movie ended up being one of Hollywood’s biggest flops. It ended up destroying Cimino’s career, today we look at Heaven’s Gate.

After the success of Dear Hunter (won best picture and best director in 1978), Cimino could do any project he wanted in Hollywood. He chooses to revive the Heavens Gate project. He got Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Walken to star in it. The initial budget for the project was 11.6 million, and Cimino was given free rein to go over the budget if need be.

According to legend, by the sixth day of filming, the film was already 5 days behind schedule! Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet of footage, costing the studio approximately $200,000 per day in salary, locations, and acting fees. Cimino’s obsessive behavior earned him the nickname “Ayatollah.” Production fell behind schedule even further as rumors spread of Cimino demanding up to 50 takes of individual scenes and delaying filming till a cloud he liked rolled into view (sigh).

As a result of the delays, several musicians who were brought into to work on the film ended up just waiting for shoots to materialize. Actor John Hunt ended up waiting around so long for his scenes to be shot, that he ended up acting in another movie (elephant man). Hunt still had time to spare to finish shooting his scenes for Heaven’s Gate.

Heavens Gate finished shooting in March 1980; it started filming on April 16, 1979, for reference. The film ended up costing $ 44 million. The first workprint footage of Heaven’s Gate was shown to executives in June of 1980. The film ran for 5 hours and 25 minutes! Studio executives refused to release the movie at that time length. Cimino went back and edited the movie down to its premiere length of 3 hours and 39 minutes.

The film finally premiered on November 19, 1980. The premiere was a freaking disaster. During the intermission, the audience was so subdued that Cimino asked why wasn’t anyone drinking champagne? He was told by his publicist, “because they hate the movie, Michael.” After a sparsely attended one week run, Cimino and United Artists quickly pulled the film from any further releases, ultimately postponing a full worldwide release.

The film was re-released in April of 1981. This new “directors cut” of the film only ran 2 hours and 29 minutes. The cinema closed on its 2nd week of run this time, only grossing $1.3 million on its 44 million dollar budget. Critics completely hated the movie. New York Times critic Vincent Canby panned the film calling it “something quite rare in movies these days- an unqualified disaster.” Canby compared the film to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” Roger Ebert, after viewing the shorter version of the film, called it “the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember I’ve seen Paint the Wagon.” In 1999, Time Magazine placed the film on a list of the 100 worst ideas of the 20th century.

In the end, the film cost more than 44 million dollars (115 Million in 2018 dollars) and grossed only 3.5 million. Because of the negative publicity from Heavens Gate, Trans America sold United Artists to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. This sale effectively ended United Artists existence. Cimino went on to direct 4 more movies after Heaven’s Gate; all were poorly reviewed and performed poorly at the box office. None of the films remotely hit the highs of Deer Hunter.

Another Black eye for Heaven’s Gate was that it was marred with accusations of Animal Cruelty. According to the Humane Society, 4 horses were killed and many others injured during a battle scene. It was claimed that one of the horses was blown up with dynamite.

Mistakes Were Made:

Big box office flaps have been going on since the beginning of the film industry. More recent examples are Water World, John Carter, and, most recently, Gemini Man. There are mainly two reasons for a film to flop external circumstances and high production costs. External circumstances are situations where films open during a national crisis or national disaster. Another example is when public opinion has shifted on the topic of the movie, or some national scandal has popped up about the movie’s subject. Heavens Gate falls into the high production costs category.

High Production Costs:

Heaven’s Gate originally had a budget of 11 million, It ended up costing 44 million and only grossing 3.5 million. That’s a terrible return on investment. United Artists essentially gave Cimino a blank check, and he went too town. The studio probably should have had frequent check-in on the Production set every now and then. Cimino was coming off a big Oscar win, so I get why they were like do you. Still, a significant mistake that ended up significantly contributing to United Artists demise,

Critically Panned Reviews:

Michael Cimino was not well-liked by critics and a few people in Hollywood. When stories started rolling out about production costs go amuck, Cimino acting like “Ayatollah” on set, well it brought the wolves out. When the movie premiered badly, it was free reign to go to town panning Heaven’s Gate. Keep in mind this was before Rotten Tomatoes, so newspapers were the Rotten Tomatoes of its day. Moviegoers heard the reviews and stayed far away from Heaven’s Gate. This significantly contributed to its luck luster box office performance. If Rotten Tomatoes gave a bad review to a movie today, would you go see it? How many of you’ll rushed out to see X Men — Dark Phoenix this summer?

Ironically, Heavens Gate has gotten a second life recently, mainly overseas in Europe. BBC rated it 98 on its 100 greatest American movies of all time. Still, the film ended the career of its director and essentially ended the reign of its movie studio. People in Hollywood have turned the movie into a noun. They will tell any aspiring director, don’t make another’s Heavens Gate.

Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on October 27, 2019.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store