- “The Aeronauts” producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman told Business Insider the challenges of making a movie about a historic 1862 balloon ride.
- The movie’s stars, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, even filmed in the balloon over 1,000 feet in the air. This led to a crash landing during one trip.
- Hoberman and Lieberman also commented on the movie’s stripped-down theatrical release, which will now only be two weeks long and not include an IMAX release.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
At the start, the aspirations for how the movie “The Aeronauts” (in theaters Friday, and on Amazon Prime starting December 20) would be presented to audiences were as grand as the topic the movie is based on.
Wide theatrical release. IMAX window. It would be an epic presentation for a movie filmed in the sky.
But things don’t always work out as planned, especially in the ever-changing landscape of today’s Hollywood.
Veteran producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman were instantly taken by the idea of a movie set around the historic 1862 balloon ride that broke the flight altitude record when director Tom Harper first presented it to them in 2016. The producers were impressed by Harper’s adaptation of “War & Peace” as a mini-series for the BBC, and already had a relationship with the director’s frequent collaborator Jack Throne, as he had penned the 2017 drama “Wonder,” which Hoberman and Lieberman produced.
They were also invigorated by the way Harper wanted to make the film: in a real balloon thousands of feet above the ground.
“We wanted to do as much as possible for real, that was the North Star,” Lieberman told Business Insider.
A movie made in the sky
Thorne went hard to work on a script as Hoberman and Lieberman began trying to map out a way to shoot the movie away from sound stages filled with green screen. It resulted in a lot of excitement within the industry, as a bidding war ensued for the rights to the movie. When the dust settled, Amazon Studios won out with a seven-figure deal.
“Amazon was creatively in sync with what we wanted to do,” Lieberman said. “They were the most passionate and that did not change throughout the making of the movie.”
With Amazon on board, things moved full steam ahead with a $40 million budget. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were cast in the lead roles as scientist James Glaisher and balloon pilot Amelia Wren (their first time being paired up for a movie since the 2014 Stephen Hawking biopic, “The Theory of Everything”), and an authentic balloon was built for them to film in.
“A period-accurate balloon of this type, not a hot air balloon but one filled with helium, had not been built in decades,” Lieberman explained. “And there were only two people in the world who knew how to build it. We ended up with one of the guys, Per Lindstrand. He’s one of the people who traveled with Richard Branson to break travel records.”
An 80-foot-tall, 50-foot-wide balloon was created for the movie. And the producers said that after lengthy conversations with lawyers and the insurance people on the movie, Redmayne and Jones were finally allowed to be filmed in the balloon a few thousand feet in the air.
“There were certain shots we wanted Eddie and Felicity up there for,” Lieberman said. “There’s a really beautiful shot where we have Felicity sitting on a hoop and it’s going across the London landscape, that’s really them in the air over 1,000 feet.”
However, Lieberman remembers that day of shooting for another reason. It’s when everyone realized just how dangerous it was to shoot the movie for real.
Trying to land the balloon turned out to be more challenging than expected.
Sand bags hung from the sides of the basket to control how high it went and also keep the basket stable. On that specific ride, according to Lieberman, too much sand was let go so the balloon didn’t have enough ballast to hit its intended landing. The balloon veered off course and crash landed with both Redmayne and Jones inside.
“The cameras had finished filming by then but the sound continued,” Lieberman recalled. “I ended up listening to the recording of that crash and let me just say as a producer it gave me pause of putting them up again in the air.”
Other shots of the stars in the balloon were done using a 180-foot crane. And some were done with stunt people, like Helen Bailey, who while up several thousand feet in the air climbed the side of the balloon for the movie’s harrowing scene where Jones’ Wren character has to get to the top of the balloon to stop it from climbing. The parts of the scene where Jones is seen climbing were done on a soundstage.
Big screen dreams dashed
As production on “The Aeronauts” was coming to a close, back at Amazon Studios, major changes were happening that would affect the movie’s release.
Within the industry, the big difference between Amazon and its streaming rival Netflix had been that Amazon would give its titles a lengthy theatrical run before making them available on its Prime service. That was the intention for “The Aeronauts,” and then some. Along with playing nationwide, the movie would also be shown on IMAX. Executives of the large-screen format even visited the set of the movie.
But all of that changed by the summer.
The release of the comedy “Late Night” in June didn’t go as Amazon hoped. After Amazon bought the movie for $13 million at the Sundance Film Festival in January, executives felt they had another “The Big Sick” on their hands (the 2017 movie Amazon bought at Sundance for $12 million went on to become a box-office hit and was nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar). But this one didn’t make as big of a splash. The movie only brought in $22.3 million worldwide. “The Big Sick” earned $56.4 million worldwide, for comparison.
After that, Hollywood veteran Bob Berney exited Amazon as its head of marketing and distribution. Around the same time, according to The New York Times, the decision was made to scrap the wide release and IMAX play for “The Aeronauts.” The movie will now only play for two weeks before being available on Prime (in the UK, the movie is getting a wide release and IMAX screenings through distributor Entertainment One).
“We’re filmmakers and if we had our choice the movie would be released theatrically in a wide release with IMAX,” Hoberman said. “But having had numerous conversations with Amazon we came to understand that it made sense for them to do what they needed to do for their company. What the trade off will be is millions of people will be able to see it.”
Hoberman and Lieberman’s production company, Mandeville Films and Television, has been around since 2002 (previous to that, Hoberman launched Mandeville Films in 1995) and is behind a wide array of titles like “The Fighter,” the two sequels from “The Divergent” franchise, “Stronger,” and Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” The seasoned producers admit what is going on right now in the business is unlike anything they have seen in their decades of experience.
“There are no rules in Hollywood right now in terms of what goes theatrical and what goes streaming,” Hoberman said. “I think it’s up to the individual entity that is going to be releasing to determine what is best for their company. In this particular case, for Amazon, this is what was best for their company. If it was Warner or Paramount or somewhere else maybe it would have been released theatrically. We’re in the Wild West of exhibition at this point.”
And “The Aeronauts” is not the only Amazon title feeling the change at the company. “The Report,” starring Adam Driver as the Senate staffer who led the investigation into the CIA’s post 9/11 interrogation tactics, got a brief two-week theatrical run in November and is now on Prime. Amazon did not report box-office grosses for “The Report” and won’t do so for “The Aeronauts.”
Amazon now appears to be going the Netflix route: getting content quickly to subscribers. A source within Amazon told Business Insider the motivation to get “The Aeronauts” to Prime subscribers quickly was partly because the reaction to the movie when it had screened was so positive.
So why even have a theatrical run? To get Academy Award consideration, a movie must play theatrically in New York and Los Angeles for at least one week.
And Amazon is, however, attempting to go outside the box with its theatrical run of “The Aeronauts.” It is currently doing a 19th century fair experience roadshow at select cities while also showing the movie on 70mm.
Hoberman and Lieberman are adapting to the changing tides. The producers said they had multiple projects in development, including at Amazon, but have no idea which would end up going the theatrical route.
But in a time when movies catered to the over-30-year-old audience are thriving — “Downton Abbey,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Knives Out” — an ambitiously made thrilling drama like “The Aeronauts,” for which its stars literally risked life and limb, could potentially have soared.
That begs the question, if Hoberman and Lieberman were shopping “The Aeronauts” script today, would it still go to Amazon Studios?
“It’s an impossible question to ask because they were so aggressive and creatively in tune with us,” Hoberman answered.
Lieberman added: “There was once the idea of let’s just fall in love with the story and figure out the best way to get it made, we know it will be released theatrically. The first half of that answer still remains, it’s the second part that’s malleable. We still fall in love with stories, we still try to find a way to get them made, but now the question is where’s the best place to show it?”
“It will go where the studio winds take them,” Hoberman said.
Amazon Studios declined to comment for this story.