(CNN) — On the surface, "The Counselor" looked promising.
The film had a number of notable stars, including Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender. It was directed by Ridley Scott, of "Gladiator" and "Blade Runner" fame. The script was by the renowned Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the book "No Country for Old Men" (which won Bardem an Oscar for his performance in the movie version). And it was an evocative tale of crime and corruption -- an easy sell at the box office.
Like "The Fifth Estate" the week before another film with gold-plated credits it was given mixed reviews by critics and did poorly with audiences. "A casually violent and pretentious slog," wrote USA Today's Claudia Puig. "Perhaps director Ridley Scott should have turned over the reins to whoever edited the trailer."
How could a movie that had so much going for it go so wrong?
It's actually not that uncommon, points out film historian and filmmaker Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For all the money invested by studios, for all the talent and smart ideas and marketing savvy and focus groups, sometimes movies just don't work.
"It's always a crapshoot because there are so many factors you don't know about before you're going into something," he says. "Even with all the elements in place, there's always an element of chance."
Pressure all the way around
Studios hate chance. Movies are an art form, but they're also a business, and the idea is to turn a profit so you can make more movies.
Just recently, stories have cropped up about Warner Bros.' nervousness over the hit "Gravity." Director Alfonso Cuaron told io9.com that the studio suggested having flashbacks, giving Sandra Bullock's character a love interest and concluding the film with a rescue helicopter.
And why not? Cuaron was working with unproven technology, and Warner Bros. was investing tens of millions of dollars.
There's plenty of pressure all the way around, says Michael C. Smith, a filmmaker and instructor. Nowadays, given the make-or-break circumstances of big-budget films, studios even schedule release dates well in advance and have huge franchise expectations. Woe to the film that runs into deadline trouble.
"There's often a pressure that gets put on particularly big, high-profile films that, if they move a release date, there's a sign that there's a problem with the film," Smith says.
Sometimes the simple blessing of time can fix problems, he observes: The release date for "Titanic" was pushed back, giving director James Cameron more time, and what was gossiped about as a disaster waiting to happen turned into one of the most successful films in Hollywood history.
More often, the seeds of destruction are planted much earlier. A film has hundreds of moving parts, from performers and directors to editors, marketers and technical staff. It may have the right actors but the wrong roles. It may have a good director who's wrong for the material. It may have a promising script with third-act problems. Somebody's ego or many people's egos may get in the way.
You never know.
A classic case so classic it produced a whole book, Julie Salamon's "The Devil's Candy" is the 1990 film version of Tom Wolfe's novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
Wolfe's 1987 novel, about a philandering Wall Street trader who becomes enmeshed in a New York scandal, dominated best-seller lists and was considered surefire Hollywood material. In turn, Hollywood gave it some of the medium's best and brightest: director Brian DePalma, screenwriter (and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) Michael Cristofer, stars Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis, all at a late-'80s peak.
But in retrospect, there were problems. Hanks wasn't a good fit for the trader. (Wolfe himself envisioned Chevy Chase, who had actually grown up among upper-class New Yorkers, though it's an open question whether Chase could have pulled off the performance.) The studio offered Willis after his part, as a muckraking journalist, was turned down by others. Cristofer's cynical ending was changed after poor testing.
Despite all this, DePalma has said "nobody realized it was going wrong when we were making it."
The story does not end well. The film tanked with critics and audiences.
'7,000 opportunities to mess up'
Hindsight, of course, is 20-20, and "what works" is in the eye of the beholder.
Some sloppy films do bang-up business at the box office, which makes the studio (and presumably everybody else) happy; other films, hailed as great, fall flat with audiences.
Director Allen Baron, who made the classic 1961 noir "Blast of Silence," points out that sometimes it's all a matter of timing.
"Bonnie and Clyde," the 1967 classic with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, was originally dumped in drive-ins and lower-tier theaters, and many critics were appalled by the violence. But Beatty, who also produced the film, asked the studio for another chance and this time the film, thanks to some positive reviews and even better word-of-mouth, became a smash.
"(Filmmaking is) in some ways a clumsy process, because of all the variations involved and all the people involved," he says. He's particularly down on the executives, who "make opinions that won't cost them their job and at the same time won't further the film they're expected to release properly."
Besides, says Dixon, chance may work in your favor. He observes the famed 1931 gangster film "The Public Enemy" was originally cast with James Cagney and Edward Woods in each others' roles. Director William Wellman realized the casting was wrong and changed it around, essentially making Cagney's career (and ending Woods').
For that matter, if Steven Spielberg wasn't having so much trouble with Bruce the mechanical shark, he wouldn't have shot 1975's "Jaws" so cleverly, saving the beast for key moments. If Bruce had worked properly, the special effects may have taken over and "Jaws" may have lost its suspense.
Yes, nobody sets out to make a bad film, as the old saying goes. But given all the variables, it's a wonder so many films work as well as they do.
"It's a tall order to make an audience believe and go with a story every moment of a film," says Smith. "If you lose the audience for one second, you can lose them for the rest of the film. There are 7,000 seconds in a feature, so you have 7,000 opportunities to mess up."