The Case of the Disappearing 'The Onion' Movie
The newspaper satirists got a film deal, made a movie, then never saw it released. Not funny
By Mickey Rapkin
It seemed like a can't-miss idea: the smarty-pants writers from The Onion teaming up with Airplane! producer David Zucker to shoot a sketch-comedy movie. Brilliant. Film was shot, and Fox Searchlight, fresh from the success of Napoleon Dynamite, set a release date for November 2004. Then, well, nothing. The directors walked. And the project was, as they say, tabled. Why? It wasn't very good. Scott Aukerman, a vet of Mr. Show who circled the project for a while, saw fifty minutes of the first cut. "It wasn't really Onion-style humor," he says. "It was all pee-pee/poo-poo stuff and pop-culture references. Steven Seagal was in a lot of it." Huh? "There was a fake trailer before the film for Cock Puncher—starring Steven Seagal. Then he showed up again in the climax." (The plot, such as it was, revolved around an Onion News anchor balking at an executive's plans to put more boobs on-air.) What went wrong? Sean Mills, the president of The Onion, admits the movie just wasn't funny. "We really got an appreciation for the translation from script to live action," he says. When Searchlight shelved it, thanks to the vagaries of the film business, the movie found itself the problem of New Regency Productions. To its credit, it didn't just throw the thing on DVD. Actually, executives were willing to spend an additional $6 million to $10 million to reshoot the thing, one source says, hoping this would be the start of a franchise. To date, that hasn't happened.
This was not The Onion's first Big Media stall. In 2000, DreamWorks optioned the rights to two articles, "10th Circle Added to Rapidly Growing Hell" and "Canadian Girlfriend Unsubstantiated," and a first-look deal with Miramax followed (neither bore onions). If nothing else, the lost Onion movie laid the groundwork for the very funny Onion News Network, a series of sketches that premiered in late March on TheOnion.com. (Some 500,000 people watched the clips in the first twenty-four hours.) "There's a safety net in video," Mills says. "You can shoot a scene, not use it, move on, cast different people, and shoot it again. The Web is a good place to be."