Film producer Thomas Gray on the crazy path to bringing the Turtles to big screen in the Nineties

When did the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first make a bleep on your radar?

In the late Eighties, I was head of production for Golden Harvest Films, which at the time was the largest Asian-based film company. We made Bruce Lee movies, Jet Li movies and Jackie Chan was just coming up with us. We had a studio in Hong Kong and I was first based in London and then moved to Los Angeles to become head of production.

Around 1987, I had commissioned a comedy based on the great British comedy Are You Being Served? I loved it and was so inspired by that so I was attempting to do an American version. I wanted to put it in Dayton, Ohio and use the premise of a department store, but with my own cast of characters. I hired a writer called Bobby Herbeck and we started writing the comedy.

He told me ‘you should take a look at this comic book that my friend Gary Propper says is the greatest thing he’s ever seen’. It was called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I told him that I wasn’t interested, it sounded stupid and I didn’t want to present it to the Chinese, they would fire me.

For the next four or five months, we were trying to get the comedy script hammered out but he kept bugging me about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He told me that a friend called Kim Dawson had the project and wanted to come to LA to talk about it. I agreed to have lunch with Kim at a Cajun restaurant, which was all the rage at the time in LA.

During the meeting, Kim was telling me how great this was and I wasn’t even paying attention. I couldn’t buy it. I had a ‘holy shit’ moment as I was sliding out of my chair and I picked up the comic and a bell went off. I realised that it was nothing more than our four best Chinese stuntmen in rubber suits and make this in our studio in Hong Kong for a buck and a half and make our money. That was the inspiration.

On June 6th, 1988, I sent a memo to my boss, the great Raymond Chow, and I said ‘I’m not sure if this is one of my dumbest ideas but I think we do this cheaply’ and he bought it. He liked it. So we set about trying to put it together.

We came into contact with director Steve Barron who had done phenomenal work with Henson and had directed A-ha’s Take on Me and Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean music videos.

He and his partner Simon Fields had a great vision and they said about bringing in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. I thought they were out of their minds. We couldn’t afford Henson. Steve had a very special relationship with them and he went to Jim and Brian Henson and they agreed to do it. By then, the writer had changed from Bobby Herbeck to Todd Langen.

When we finally got to the point where we had green-lighted the picture for around $4m, I started to go around town to secure distribution and sell the rights for North America, I was met with “get the hell out of this office.”

People didn’t want to talk to me about it. I figured out why but no-one actually said it because they were too scared to say it. Howard the Duck had come out a few years before from the mighty George Lucas and it crashed and burned. Everybody was thinking ‘I don’t want to do the next Howard the Duck’. People said ‘if the mighty George Lucas can’t make money with it, how can you? You’re a nobody.’ That became my difficult hill to climb.

I’d to all of the heads of studios and pitch it and each time I’d go back, I’d have some new things to say. We’d have toys with Playmates Toys and the Christmas orders are outstanding. The syndication numbers for the series were looking good. Everything I could throw at them to make a deal, I did, and they all balked.

Finally, I went over to Fox and Fox made a deal with me. As I was doing high fives with everyone over the deal, the news came in that Fox was undergoing a regime change and would not be moving forward with the deal. We had started pre-production in London’s Hampstead Heath at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and they had built the Turtles’ heads. We had a start date of July 1988 and it just wasn’t going to come together.

I had the horrible position of calling Hong Kong and telling Raymond ‘the deal with Fox had collapsed, we don’t have the money and I need you to get me $6m’. There was a huge silence and he said ‘we don’t have $6m in the whole bloody company. How are we going to do this?’ I told him that if we didn’t get the money, we’d have to shut the film down, we’d get sued for pay-or-play by Henson and we’d end up with nothing. He was livid. I said ‘Raymond, you can fire me later but right now we need to salvage this.’ He asked me what would happen with the film if we go forward and I told him that he would get his money back. He said ‘okay, give me 24 hours’. 24 hours later, he called me and he had the money.

The other saving grace was New Line Cinema. They gave me a couple of million bucks to finish production and they had distribution rights. New Line Cinema’s biggest movie up to that point was A Nightmare on Elm Street at $50m.

In Las Vegas, they have a film expo and we had an early screening of the film there with loads of kids in there and we also got lots of jaded film exhibitors to watch the film with them. That’s when I knew the film was going to be a smash. After that, all of the exhibitors booked it. That was in February 1990 and our release date was in March 1990.

Traditionally, March was not a good playing time as it’s a week before the Easter break. I came from distribution working with studios overseas and I’ve always felt that I’d rather have the biggest picture and the crappiest date than the other way around. So I took the March date.

 At a basketball game, I bumped into a guy from Paramount who turned the Turtles down and I said ‘congratulations on the opening for The Hunt For Red October’. That had just opened and broke the non-holiday best opening record with $18m for the weekend. He said ‘yeah, we’re going to own the spring’. I just smiled and said ‘we’ll see’. The next weekend, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles opened at $26m and smashed that record. The following week was the school holidays so we only fell to about $24m.

So coming out of a nightmare horror story – the worst time of my entire life where I thought I was going to lose everything – we ended up doing $134m which held the US record for the highest grossing independent film for nine years until Good Will Hunting broke it. For Mr Chow’s investment, he got 15 times his return on investment.

It all goes back to the classic William Goldman book on screenwriting that says nobody knows anything in this business. My whole mantra was that if we execute with Jim Henson and the toys are selling and the syndication is huge, why wouldn’t a movie work? Everyone said ‘you’re right; we just didn’t want to take a chance with that title. It was too goofy’. Studios are always covering their ass and they don’t want to step up. The debacle of Howard the Duck soiled everyone when it came to getting involved in this genre.

Mark Freedman of Surge Licensing is the genius behind the whole thing because he was the guy who picked up the comic book, made the deal with the creators and then was able to make the deals for toys, TV and with me for the movie.

How did the movie do elsewhere?

The movie never did anything overseas. In the UK, it was called the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. We had the same trouble when we were taking Bruce Lee movies to the UK with nunchuks, which were banned. That’s why they changed the Turtles name.

In the rest of Europe, no-one had heard of the Turtles. It never got released in Japan and in Korea there was a ban on anything Japanese culturally because of war reparations, so it didn’t make it there because of the ninja link.

When did talk of the sequels start?

Once we opened in the US, the next day we started writing the sequel. From the day that we started writing, we opened with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze one year later in 1991. That is probably the weakest film but it did $84m.

After the second one, we decided to give it a bit of air so we came out with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III in 1993. That was the most expensive one and after that, I could see we were trending in the wrong direction.

The first one cost $10.5m to make and made $134m. The second one cost $16m to make and made $84m. The third one cost $21m to make and made $43m. We were going in the wrong direction.

We spun out of making the Turtles and went off to China and Vietnam and made movies over there as that market was starting to open. We then let the rights to the Turtles expire and several others tried to put it together – New Line Cinema tried to do one with John Woo – but nothing happened until 2004.

I was back at a Hong Kong animation company called Imagi and we decided to make an animated version of it. It was released in 2007 as TMNT and it did $100m worldwide which was fair, not great. It cost $32m to make and we lost a bit of money but it helped to set up a couple of other animated pictures.

We let the rights expire again and then Nickelodeon acquired it for $60m. I have nothing to do with the new films but the new ones are films for this generation and I wish them well.

So were the Turtles movies the only English-language productions for Golden Harvest?

No, in 1980 when we formed the company, our first movie was The Cannonball Run. We came to LA, asked who the biggest star in America was and people said ‘Burt Reynolds’. We wanted to hire Burt but they said ‘he makes $5m a picture’. We said we’ll pay that. We went out and cobbled together this horrible script and loaded it up with Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise and other actors and it made $200m from a $13m production. We got a sequel and thought we were hot shit and started making crap like MegaForce and David Niven’s last film Better Late Than Never, which was a disaster.

We got too big for our britches and then there was a change in production. I moved from London to take over and my first film was a Keanu Reeves movie called Flying or Dream to Believe – it had about six or seven titles.

Then I made a series of small films and a political thriller called A Show of Force that starred Andy Garcia, Kevin Spacey and Amy Irving which I sold to Paramount. The reason Paramount picked that film up from me was that they were making The Godfather Part III and they wanted to get Andy Garcia off the market. So to stop me pre-empting it, they bought my film. When The Godfather Part III tanked, they dumped my movie in the shitter. I ended up on late night cable which is probably what I deserved anyway.

Did the Turtles series change the way you approached movies at Golden Harvest? Did you consider doing more films based on pre-existing brands?

Not really. We could’ve dabbled in that cause Playmates had some stuff in the looker and we looked at Hasbro but we had a reality check with regards to how lucky we got with the Turtles.

We were an independent company that financed our movies by selling off foreign and domestic rights. It’s hard to go into the big markets and pitch a movie off a brand or a toy that they might not have heard of.

We thought it would be best not to push our luck. We never made a merchandising driven film because it is so difficult. I couldn’t believe that The LEGO Movie would make any money but everybody loved it. In our business, we’ve arrived at a point where if you make enough noise and it looks good, you have a good chance of making money on it. That’s why the studios have gone away from making smaller films.

The only original property to crack the top ten highest grossing films of 2015 was Disney’s Inside Out. The other nine were either sequels or based on existing books or brands. Is a reliance on licences good for the film industry?

This is what studios do. They go into the vault, find something, give it a $150m budget, spend $100 on promotion and advertising and blast it out on July 4th. That’s what’s happened to our business. It’s why all the great filmmakers are going over to Netflix and Amazon Prime. That’s the most seminal change that’s happened while I’ve been in the business.

It’s slowly happening, and it will happen in my lifetime thank God, where one window will allow you to see something anyway you want to. The biggest change is that this generation has grown up on the small screen. I’ve always said ‘why do movies have to be 90 minutes?’ Why can’t we do it in 30?

If the studios want to go and make 12 big franchise films a year, God bless them. I’m a writer doing things for the small screen on lesser budgets and Amazon and Netflix are willing to come out and say ‘you go and make your movie’. You don’t get to be in the Odeon Leicester Square that way but we do get our films seen by more people than we would ever have if we’d gone down the theatre-by-theatre route.

Amazon and Netflix have the biggest stones in town. They thought ‘if we’re going to break into this market, we can’t fuss around’. Look at House of Cards, they just said ‘here’s your money, give us 26 episodes.’ You would never get that at the networks.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of the last films to handle a major brand in an indie film production rather than a mammoth budgeted studio effort. How key was the independent sensibility to the success of the project?

The indie side was interesting because New Line Cinemas was a small indie that had a good track record making small horror movies and blaxploitation films. New Line founder Bob Shaye’s whole mantra was make it cheap and cheery and get your money back. When they came into the Turtles, no-one there thought it would do $134m.

One of the reasons that New Line didn’t try to open it in the prime holiday spot was because they didn’t have enough money to compete with the studio pictures. They took the off-holiday and sensed that we could start a revolution here. New Line realised that the independents could stand up as strong as any studio as long as it markets a film correctly.

But you don’t talk to one guy who greenlights a project now, you talk to a committee in charge of revenue streams. I’m doing a French farce at the moment, and a 12 Years a Slave type film for the Chinese in the US, looking at how the Chinese helped to build America but never got any credit for it. Someone came to me and said: ‘the Chinese in America are only seven per cent of the population so I don’t think it’s a big market’. I said, ‘schmuck, I’m writing this for white America. This is an American story.’ They said ‘make the people Irish and then you can get Julia Roberts to play a part in it.’ I said ‘go fuck yourself.’

But these are the cranks that run the studios. They aren’t filmmakers. They come from law or Harvard Business School. They’re not filmmakers and they don’t even really like films, they like deals.

You can go into a studio with an envelope with a logline – ‘it’s Star Wars in South Dakota – and they’ll ask whose the director, what’s the cast and what’s the budget. When it’s all there on the plate, they go out and decimenate your script among the seven revenue screens – merchandise, TV rights etc. Then a few months later they come back and say the numbers don’t add up. Maybe one of the actors wouldn’t go down well in the Baltics – it’s as stupid as that. But that’s how films get made. Films get made for the wrong reasons nowadays.

So did you swerve all of those issue on the Turtles as a result of it being an indie production?

It only came into play from the actors who wanted to come out of the Turtle suits. They wanted to take the heads off, but every Turtle had three or four stunt actors. The real heroes were Henson’s puppeteers doing everything, so it would’ve been unfair to them if the heads had to come off.

Judith Hoag, who was April O’Neil in the first film, didn’t make the cut on the second film because her manager wanted to give her a nice raise. I said ‘she didn’t sell one ticket. Next!’ It was the first time that I was ever in total control in that way because usually, actors control your life.

Did Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles change the film industry in any way?

There was always the perception that Indies would never be able to muscle into the big theatre chains. You’d have to play in the small indie circuits. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles turned that on its ear. It changed the perception forever. After that you had the Weinsteins come in with Miramax, but it all started with New Line. After that Ted Turner bought them out and New Line is part of Warner Bros now.

I still dine out on the Turtles. When I call up an agency to pitch a project to a director and I get a 23 year old Comparative Literature Major on the phone, they ask ‘who are you?’ and I say ‘I did the Ninja Turtles’. No one knows me anymore but I can still dine out on it. And in this business, your credits are everything, not money. That’s why you get 17 people producing movies these days because the credit is the most valued thing. It’s gotten stupid now, with dentists putting up $100,000 to be an executive producer and they want to go to the premieres.

What do you make of the new Turtles movie?

The new Turtles movies are interesting. It was the right movie for this generation. What we made was very primitive. They’ve taken it to the next level and I think that’s the right way to go. I wish them well.

Everything evolves, everything moves forward.

I know this as I worked on Bond movies with United Artists, working from Diamonds Are Forever and through the Roger Moore era. I couldn’t watch the new Bond movie. I love Connery and I liked Roger because I toured with him many times in the Far East during filming and became friends with him. He’s a sweetheart. But where Bond is going now, they want it to be fresh and current but it’s gone away from made it so British and beautiful. But the kids don’t know Dr No or You Only Live Twice, so to each his own.

About Rachael Simpson-Jones

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