What really went wrong with The Dark Tower

Stephen King's The Dark Tower has finally arrived in theaters after a long and complicated journey to the big screen. However, Hollywood's latest attempt to launch a cinematic universe didn't exactly go as planned: the movie was widely panned by critics, and opened to a disappointing $19.5 million haul.

While this was (barely) good enough for first place, the movie's lackluster performance with critics and audiences can only be seen as a disappointment—for the studio as well as for King fans who'd waited years to see the books brought to life. Here's what went wrong with The Dark Tower's big-screen debut.

It didn't honor the source material

The many, many stories King penned in the Dark Tower universe spanned quite a lot of plot, but for some reason, the studio decided not to go with any of that for the film, instead making it a sequel to the books—as director Nikolaj Arcel described it, a "canon continuation" that has King's approval.

The groundwork for the sequel was laid in the seventh book of King's saga, when (spoiler alert) Roland finally reached the top of the Dark Tower and realized he'd been on this long journey many times before. Fans began to suspect that the movie might be following the sequel path when King tweeted that Roland would "raise the Horn of Eld" in the film, a reference to the family heirloom that the character finds with him when he starts over again at the end of the book series. 

While this decision may have seemed like a smart way for the filmmakers to boil down the novels' epic scale into just one film, it was also alienating to the hardcore fans who'd been looking to see the stories they were already familiar with play out onscreen. Opting for a continuation of beloved source material rather than just going for the real thing may have cost the film some potential viewers right off the bat.

The plot was vague and confusing

The Dark Tower straddled a dangerous line by trying to appeal to those who were already firmly entrenched in the world of King's novels while also being easily digestible enough for those who hadn't read any of them. Trying to please both parties ultimately backfired, adding up to a movie that didn't exactly give anyone what they were looking for.

As already mentioned, those who'd read the books were left hanging by the fact that the filmmakers tried to make a sequel rather than an adaptation. Those who hadn't read the books, meanwhile, were left with a plot that was vague and confusing.

This was clearly an attempt to establish the sprawling canvas inhabited by King's novels (and the world-building that the studios plan on pursuing further down the line), but the movie failed to delve far enough into it. While the movie did a fair job of setting up its central quest story, it failed to sell the deeper conflicts inherent in the epic journey of the characters.

The runtime was too short

Nowadays, viewers who walk into big-budget blockbusters expect to be in the theaters for at least two hours—and often more. The Dark Tower easily could have filled up this runtime—in fact, it probably would have helped its awkward attempt to fit so many disparate elements from King's novels into one movie.

Director Nikolaj Arcel, however, decided to instead keep the film at a very tight 95 minutes. The director said he did this because he saw the film as an "introduction" to the world of the novels, adding that the movie had a "lean" script that would introduce the basic ideas of the project without being too overwhelming at first.

While this runtime may have been doable had Arcel chosen to only focus on the first book, the movie's positioning as a sequel to King's books meant it had to introduce huge amounts of information while playing out its story. Although Arcel saw the short runtime as a way to build the world without doing too much, many fans saw it as just being too little, leaving the world feeling empty and unfinished. The movie could have benefitted from an extra 30 minutes of world-building—if not more.

It kept losing its director

Arcel wasn't the first director to try his hand at adapting The Dark Tower. The first to seriously pursue the project was J.J. Abrams, who, in 2007, started working on an adaptation alongside his Lost co-conspirators Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. The trio were all big King fans, but it was this appreciation for the author that ended up getting in their way. The group let their deference to the author get in the way of their own creative vision, and ended up letting go of the project because they were too nervous about messing up the beloved work.

Ron Howard was next up to the plate, with the Oscar-winner looking to direct three movies with two seasons of a TV series to bridge the gaps between. The project was set up at Universal Pictures, but a year after it was announced, the studio pulled the plug, saying it was too expensive. The movie next moved over to Warner Bros., where talks broke down and they ultimately passed. 

It took another three years for the movie to land at Media Rights Capital (MRC) and Sony Pictures, who in 2015 announced that they were taking on the movie with Arcel as the director and Howard remaine on board as a producer. While trouble finding financing doesn't always spell bad things for a film, the fact that The Dark Tower was thrown around so much hints at creative conflict—and it didn't stop once MRC and Sony were on board.

There was reportedly trouble behind the scenes

Even after the Dark Tower adaptation finally got off the ground, there was reportedly trouble behind the scenes, with conflict arising between the two studios and Arcel reportedly overwhelmed by the movie's scale.

According to one report, Sony and MRC were unhappy with an early cut of the film, and three blind screenings returned negative audience reactions. The studios reportedly considered bringing in a more experienced director to do another cut, but the cost was too high; the companies also reportedly shelled out $6 million for reshoots to help flesh out the film's storyline and cut some of the exposition.

Apparently, the two studios disagreed about quite a lot on the film, with one insider describing the project as having "too many cooks in the kitchen." According to the report, if one studio didn't like something it had to be removed, leading to a difficult series of decisions.

While the studios and Arcel have denied these reports, pointing out that the film was shot on time and on budget, the confused end product makes it easy to believe there were issues.

The release date was pushed back

With all those cooks allegedly arguing over The Dark Tower's direction, it was inevitable that scheduling would be affected—and eventually, the movie's release date was pushed back not once, not twice, but three times. 

First, it went from January of 2017 to February of 2017, a move that came just one month after Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey were announced as stars. Half a year later, the movie was moved yet again, this time back to July 28. Sources at the time said that, while filming had wrapped on time, the movie needed more time for visual effects, which were proving difficult with the tight budget. 

Finally, at the end of March—just months before its scheduled release—the movie was pushed yet again, moving back a week into its eventual early August release date. (This move came from Sony wanting to give the kid-friendly The Emoji Movie an extra week in theaters before school started back up.) Every bump had a plausible explanation, but they still reinforced fears that this was a troubled production.

Advertising was minimal

Whether it was a result of behind-the-scenes tumult or just a strategy, it's hard to deny that advertising for The Dark Tower was somewhat minimal. The first trailer didn't arrive until early May, three months before the film's release. In comparison, that month saw the release of the record-breaking teaser trailer for It, due out in September, as well as the first trailer for Blade Runner 2049, which won't reach theaters until October.

The long wait for the trailer definitely got fans talking, with many wondering what, exactly, was taking so long. While the company may have been looking to avoid over-saturation by keeping the film under wraps, it looks like the minimal campaign ended up backfiring. The movie failed to generate a buzz with its low-profile campaign, and it didn't help an already risky bet at the box office.

And so was organic buzz

Advertising is just one piece of getting people to see a movie. While reviews and star power also play a part, organic buzz is also huge, with word of mouth and social media impressions both important pieces of a film's success or failure. For The Dark Tower, whether due to a lack of advertising or a lack of interest, there just wasn't much chatter about the film. 

Two weeks before its release, it failed to even track in the top 10 movies being talked about on social media. (To be fair, that weekend was San Diego Comic-Con, but the film could have capitalized on that buzz by releasing a new trailer or doing some other creative marketing to get fans talking.) While it was able to get some traction the week its first trailer was finally released, the movie failed to make an impression throughout the rest of the summer, and that low amount of organic buzz meant that the potential blockbuster just couldn't join the zeitgeist.

The summer box office has been slow

It seems like it's been flop after flop this summer, as franchise and sequel fatigue has hit Hollywood hard. The summer box office is down 11 percent headed into an August with nary a tentpole or blockbuster in sight, and The Dark Tower's opening weekend marked the lowest-grossing weekend of the season to date. In retrospect, it can only be seen as a missed opportunity: the movie had the name recognition—and the epic feel—to potentially be a franchise-launching hit, but now it's hard to see a compelling way forward for the series.

There was still strong competition

The Dark Tower may have been the biggest release in its opening weekend, but that doesn't mean it was without competition. Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk nearly edged it out for first place, showing a strong hold after topping its two weeks in theaters and further buoying what will likely be a strong awards season campaign. Unseating Dunkirk was going to be a tough endeavor, and while The Dark Tower managed to pull it off, Dunkirk likely stole quite a few of Tower's potential viewers. 

The movie also saw competition from Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, as well as the Halle Berry-led action thriller Kidnap. While Detroit underperformed, the well-reviewed film may have been more attractive to film buffs and serious moviegoers; Kidnap, meanwhile, had marginally better reviews than The Dark Tower but promised more escapist summer fun. The Dark Tower may have been able to stand out if reviews or audience word of mouth had been stronger, but after stumbling on both fronts, it was tough to lure viewers away from their many other options.

A low budget could save it

While an opening as low as The Dark Tower's would be a sign of impending doom for many a blockbuster, MRC and Sony actually put themselves in a good place for a potential slow box office by making the movie on a shoestring budget: it's said to have cost just $60 million, in addition to $6 million for reshoots. Those numbers don't take marketing expenses into account, but with international sales still bringing a potentially major influx of cash, The Dark Tower could still end up being profitable.

Plans are still moving forward for a full universe

The Dark Tower may have been a box office disappointment, but Sony and MRC still seem to be moving ahead with the franchise. The movie is set to be the first of a series of films with, as Howard originally planned, a TV series helping to fill things out. While there's no word yet on whether the movie sequels are moving forward, the TV show made a major step just before the film was released, adding The Walking Dead's Glen Mazzara as a showrunner. 

The TV series is said to be a prequel to the books, focusing on King's Wizard in Glass novel. While that will mean it'll likely have a different feel than the films, it'll see the return of Idris Elba's Roland, Tom Taylor's Jake, and Dennis Haysbert's Steven Deschain, along with Arcel, who will write the script alongside Anders Thomas Jensen.

While the TV adaptation is still in its early stages and has yet to find a network, the addition of Mazzara hints that it could be getting off the ground soon. The group is hoping to begin production in 2018, so it looks like The Dark Tower hasn't fallen yet.