In 2015, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seems like a lazy way for a studio to inject rebaked brand awareness into an action movie to guarantee decent box office returns and jump start several years of franchise profitability. But back in 1990, imagine the reaction of studios (or anybody for that matter) being pitched on the concept. (“They’re turtles… who are ninjas… and also mutants?”) Similar to Ed Neumier’s discussion of trying to sell a script titled “RoboCop,” people just weren’t buying the idea, despite the cartoon and action figures doing a brisk business at the time.
The Hollywood Reporter has published interview excerpts with many of the people who fought to get the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles up on the big screen. And fight they did; major studios wouldn’t touch the project with a 10-foot bo-staff, and even a Hong Kong martial arts movie studio had to be walked through the economics before saying yes. (“This is nothing more than four of our Chinese stuntmen in rubber suits. We can make this movie for peanuts in Hong Kong.”)
Turtles creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were completely nonplussed by the original script, and had to be sold on their own storylines by the director, Steve Barron. After seeing panels from the comic, Jim Henson had reservations that he would ruin his own image with a violent action movie. Once sold on a family-friendly adventure, the amount of animatronics still almost chased Henson away.
After running out of money, the producers got into some last-minute negotiations with New Line to start filming. Asking for $6 million, they eventually got a much smaller sum, but were able to roll cameras. And that’s when it was realized that poorly ventilated, 70-pound costumes were going to be a challenge for the actors.
Fortunately, the film overcame its series of hurtles, and the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles opened to a record-breaking $25 million. That’s probably why filmmakers practically tripped over themselves to get The Secret Of The Ooze in theaters 12 months later.