Was The Film "The Iron Giant" A Complete Failure?

Although it is now considered a cult classic, The Iron Giant was deemed a failure when it first came out. How can that be?
iron giant directed by brad bird

The Iron Giant is a Warner Bros animated film, released in 1999, and was the directorial debut of Brad Bird, who would go on to direct other masterpieces like Ratatouille and The Incredibles.

The film is set in 1950s America and follows Hogarth Hughes (yes that is a real name), a young boy who is being raised by his single mother. One night, a giant robot appears from who-knows-where and starts making a racket near Hogarth’s house, after finding and befriending him, Hogarth and the giant strike up an unlikely friendship as Hogarth teaches the giant about the world and himself.

However, not everyone is as accepting of the giant as Hogarth is, as rumours of a giant monster start circulating and eventually a government agent starts sticking his nose around town to search for and destroy Hogarth’s friend.

Despite The Iron Giant is a cult classic, when it was released it was a financial flop−even though test audiences loved it and it got great critical reviews−so what on earth happened for the film to perform so poorly?  The short answer is marketing. But let’s delve a bit deeper than that…

The Iron Giant had been in the works since 1991 and was initially brought to attention by the animator Richard Bazley to studio founder Don Bluth, ex-animator for Disney, but he passed on the project.  

It was then pitched to Warner Bros as an animated musical by Pete Townshend from The Who and Des McAnuff in 1994. Townshend had already worked on adaptations of the original story by Ted Hughes, The Iron Man, creating music for the stage play and an album.  

Pete Townshend of the Who

When Warner Bros merged with Turner Feature Animation Brad Bird came with it, and expressed his interest in the project; however, he didn’t want to do a musical, stating that ‘The meat of the story, to me [Bird], was the relationship between this little boy and the Giant.’  

Instead, Bird pitched another version of the story, raising the question ‘What if a gun had a soul, and didn’t want to be a gun?’  The Iron Giant got the green light from the studio and officially began production in early ’97.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. Warner Bros' latest animation Quest for Camelot was released in 1998 and became both a critical and financial flop. This made Warner Bros more apprehensive about producing animated films, and their paranoia led to The Iron Giant’s downfall.  

As they predicted, the film was a box office failure, having spent $50 million on making the film, it barely grossed $32 million (including international markets). However, this wasn’t Brad Bird or the film’s fault, it was all due to the studio's mishandling of the situation. 

Worried about putting their faith in another animated film, Warner Bros gave The Iron Giant virtually no marketing whatsoever, preferring to back a live-action western film they had in the works, Wild Wild West, instead (which was a critical and box office flop anyway). They didn’t even give The Iron Giant a release date.  

the wild wild west wb film

In an interview with JoBlo.com Brad Bird revealed that ‘we were perceived as a film that would be finished and put on the shelf until there was a hole or something in the release schedule in the future, and then we’d be plugged in. They wouldn’t give us a release date; they didn’t have any hopes. They just thought the animation wasn’t going to really work for them.’

Ultimately, Warner Bros neglected to give the production team a release date until April, giving the team less than four months to create a marketing campaign. Due to this, there was only one teaser poster drawn up for the film, and tie-ins like a Burger King toy deal and a breakfast cereal never happened.  

The marketing in existence for The Iron Giant was so minuscule that audiences had no idea the film was even coming out. This proved to be an even bigger blunder on Warner Bros' behalf when test screenings came back with extremely positive results, according to Bird ‘the test scores were their highest for a film in 15 years.’

Once they caught wind of this, the studio nearly delayed the release of the film by a few months in order to better prepare, with Brad Bird pointing out that ‘'you guys [Warner Bros] have had two and a half years to get ready for this.’  

As a comparison, Disney’s Tarzan released the same year, had started raising awareness over a year before it opened in cinemas. Because of the bungled marketing, The Iron Giant opened at No.9 in the box office and didn’t recoup even half the budget spent on it.

disney's tarzan

After the unexpectedly positive reviews for the film, Warner Bros acknowledged their mistakes and tried to right the wrongs by establishing a much larger marketing campaign for the film's home-video release, and it worked.  

The film was extremely successful on home release and Warner Bros sold the TV rights to Cartoon Network and TNT−who played the film frequently during the holidays−causing it to become a staple in family-friendly entertainment throughout the early 2000s (and probably why it feels so nostalgic if you grew up in that time). Cartoon Network went so far as to show the film for a full 24hrs non-stop for occasions like thanksgiving and the fourth of July.  

15 years after The Iron Giant’s release Brad Bird started a conversation with Warner Bros to get the film on Blu-ray and on 23rd April 2014 he appealed to fans on Twitter saying ‘WB & I have been talking. But they want a bare-bones disc. I want better.’  

He encouraged people to tweet Warner Home Video to show their desire for a special edition Blu-ray to be produced. Eventually, The Iron Giant Blu-ray became available to purchase on 6th September 2016, with both the theatrical and signature cuts included, as well as a documentary about the making of the film, called The Giant’s Dream.

giant's dream documentary

The Iron Giant is so beloved partly due to the studio’s hands-off approach because they were anxious to avoid another Camelot failure. The Quest for Camelot was made in a way that tried to replicate Disney’s famous formula and, according to Bird that is why the film didn’t work.  

He told Animation World Magazine that: ‘the Disney model is sort of a micro-managed thing, where every single decision is combed over by a huge number of people. It works very well for Disney, but I don’t think it worked very well for Warner Bros. They had more management than they had artists, almost, during The Quest for Camelot. It was a troubled production.’

While The Iron Giant had different problems to cope with, having a smaller budget, shorter production time, and let’s not forget the insane lack of marketing, the production had the major advantage of creative freedom:  

‘They [WB] were good enough to stay away and let us make the film. That was one of the most wonderful things about this film. They truly let us make it. This film was made by this animation team. It was not a committee thing at all. We made it. I [Bird] don’t think any other studio can say that to the level that we can.’ −Brad Bird

Now that The Iron Giant has come to Netflix, my hope is that you will be able to fall in love with it all over again, immerse yourself in nostalgia. If you’ve seen it introduce it to others, if you haven’t gone ahead and given it a go, I bet you won’t be disappointed. 

giant and hogarth
A graduate from UEA with a BA in English Lit. with Creative Writing. An aspiring writer and editor, loves anime/manga, films and books.

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