Cloud Atlas: how Hollywood failed to put it on the map

The film's release should have been a global event, but its studio's reticence over its fragmented form has led to disappointing box office returns

"They played footsie for a little bit, until we basically got on our knees, begged them and crapped our pants in front of them, you know: 'Look into your heart!'"

That's Andy Wachowski's account – given to Deadline Hollywood – of trying to get Warner Brothers on side for his and sister Lana's adaptation of Cloud Atlas. Not what you think you'd have to do for a studio for whom you've made in excess of a billion and a half dollars. Warner eventually signed on, coughing up around $20m of the $102m budget – but their indecision has echoed through the film's marketing and release stages, hobbling one of the most ambitious and globally oriented projects of the decade on the first leg of its journey. Its US release last October – in third place, with a dodgy $9.4m (£6m) opening weekend – saw the tag officially slapped on: flop!

It was never, it must be said, an easy sell. David Mitchell's novel – six interlinking stories spanning the planet and time frames from 1850 to 2321 – is as adaptation-resistant as they come. And the Wachowskis, co-scripting with Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, arguably made it even more complicated: instead of simply nesting the stories in a controlled order as Mitchell did, their screenplay chopped and changed antically between.

"The script was not user-friendly," actor Tom Hanks later told the New Yorker. "The demands it put upon the audience and everybody, the business risk, were off the scale." That was Warner's judgment, too; after projecting the box office take, modelling their estimate on Darren Aronofsky's similarly flighty and multi-stranded The Fountain, it refused to commit all the way.

Cloud Atlas was eventually financed, appropriately, with a patchwork of international capital: part-Warner, part-German Federal Film Fund, part-Asian investors, part-preselling distribution rights to territories around the globe. The latter push was overseen by Focus Features, whose CEO James Schamus had once sewn a quilt of similar deals for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

But the fragmented nature of this arrangement caused problems, beginning with a haphazard release schedule trailing over six months that means Cloud Atlas, arriving in the UK this week, has the air of yesterday's news. "Our plan in the beginning was to have a much more coordinated release," says producer Stefan Arndt. "But what happens if you have 20 territories with 20 investors with 20 opinions – in the end you cannot force your distributors to follow one strategy."

One key problem, amid the babble, is whether the enigmatic Cloud Atlas ever had a chance to build a clear identity with audiences. Warner, who retained the rights in core territories such as the US, UK, Japan, France, Spain and Australia, were in the best position to set the tone, but have dropped the ball. The material wasn't easy, granted, but the studio failed to encapsulate it appealingly. "Everything is connected" was the flat tagline, a default globalisation slogan more suited to a mobile-phone campaign than a quixotic, pioneering blockbuster. They could have homed in on more specific themes – "The weak are meat, and the strong do eat" is one resonant catchphrase – that might have dredged up more protein from the zeitgeist. Or how about mining the shapeshifting feats performed by the cast, who take on multiple roles across the six stories, for their visual potential?

But the main poster is a mess. A six-minute trailer dropped last July, but this heavy-handed approach only highlighted that Warner were struggling for ideas. Cloud Atlas's treatment feels like a failure of nerve – irrecoverably so, once the film clocked up a middling C+ CinemaScore with US audiences, opened in the middle of Hurricane Sandy, and was then blown on to the rocks by Typhoon Skyfall.

Arndt stresses that the marketing was a joint affair between the producers and the studio, and that wide release couldn't have happened without a partner of Warner's clout. He also says that the original push focused too much on filmgoers over 30, and adjustments were made to target the youth demographic on the later international releases. But the piecemeal strategy – buttressed by Warner's odd decision to schedule their other openings on the other side of Christmas – killed off the possibility of Cloud Atlas being any kind of global event; far-removed from the simultaneous worldwide release (the first of its kind) rolled out by Warner for the Wachowskis' The Matrix Revolutions a decade ago.

The studio is, of course, under no obligation to continue bankrolling careers that look to some sceptics like meandering philosophy postdoctorates, with the odd pop-culture-fetish interlude such as Speed Racer thrown in. But it does like to cultivate a reputation for maintaining strong, long-term relationships with directors: Clint Eastwood, Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan, Ben Affleck. So it feels like a failure of duty of care towards the directorial team that cashed in so emphatically for them in the early noughties – especially with the Wachowskis still admirably keen on expanding cinema's parameters at a time when that's sorely needed.

Arndt is philosophical about Cloud Atlas's breech birth – casting such issues as part of the dance between major "pipeline" studios and independent producers that is replicating itself across the global film landscape: "We support them by saving money, they support us by releasing movies with the strength they have." But he also believes "in the end, next time, the producer should have the last say in how to bring everything together".

It's a shame because a global event is exactly what the film should have been. It has its flaws (the siblings' ongoing love of Spiral Tribe-esque wardrobe choices, for one), but it is a staggering feat of adaptation with an uncompromising line of attack, shouldering the very biggest themes: history, morality, racial identity, religion, storytelling. It picks up one point the Wachowskis' Matrix trilogy was concerned with: the relationship between oppressor and the oppressed – and refracts it elegantly through the six stories into a compelling demolition of Nietzschean "might is right".

Happily, its spirit of humanity-sans-frontières looks like being its saving grace. It is crawling into profit, thanks to strong showings in Russia ($17m), Brazil ($4.6m), Germany ($12.6m) and China ($21.6m). Each territory had its own decisive factors: the home crowd for Tykwer in Germany; the fact that "intellectual" movies aren't as offputting to Russian audiences as they are to US ones, as Cloud Atlas's CIS distributor diplomatically put it; Chinese marketing that emphasised the action content, as well as local actor Zhou Xun, who has a decisive role in the neo-Seoul timeline. (Some online wags have suggested the 23-minute cut imposed by the Chinese censors has improved the film.)

Could one sole entity – studio or producers – have taken all these variables on board? That's the world we now inhabit; this is one endeavour where the centre would always struggle to hold, but you get the feeling the Wachowskis knew that going in.

• Next week's After Hollywood will look at how Turkey is coming up with its own answer to Monument Valley. What global cinematic stories would you like to see covered in the column? Let us know in the comments below.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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