The 20-Year Journey of The Meg, the Movie the Internet Wouldn't Let Die
The shark wasn't working.
It was the mid-'00s, and Jan de Bont—director of such big-screen velocities as Speed and Twister—was showing off a small sculpture of carcharodon megalodon, the ancient shark that was to be the star of his next film, Meg. Based on Steve Alten's 1997 book, about a deep-sea diver who encounters a prehistoric underwater beast, Meg had been the subject of a million-dollar movie-rights deal before the book was even published. In the nearly 10 years that followed, the film adaptation had worked its way through two studios and several screenplays, including one written by Alten himself.
Now, with de Bont in charge, there was hope that Meg would finally be brought to life. The director had even commissioned a maquette of the movie's massive creature, described in Alten's book as a "70-foot, 70,000-pound prehistoric cousin of the Great White Shark." When the director showed the mock-up to Alten, however, the author didn't see the same massive beast he'd described in his book. "It looked like a bonefish," says Alten now. "It was horrible."
Ultimately, de Bont departed the movie, leaving Meg dead in the water once again—the latest setback in what had become an almost comically over-complicated development process. When the newly retitled The Meg opens in theaters Friday, it marks the end of a two-decade journey, one that saw numerous dead ends. Yet throughout it all, Alten never gave up on Meg. The internet simply wouldn't let him.
To its fans, the appeal of Meg, says Nick Nunziata, comes down to a two-word concept: Jurassic Shark.
In the late '90s, Nunziata founded CHUD (Cinematic Happenings Under Development), one of several movie-obsessive websites launched in the pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era. Back then, outlets like Ain't It Cool News, Dark Horizons, and Corona Coming Attractions eagerly reported the latest scuttlebutt on long-rumored films like James Cameron's Spider-Man and, most notably, that infamously anticipated 1999 Star Wars prequel: The Balance of the Force (at least, that's what we thought it was called at the time). And many of these sites' message boards were filled with speculation (and sometimes indignation) about what movies were coming next.
The films that most often lit up webgoers' imaginations at that time were, not surprisingly, based on franchises, comic books, and TV shows. But amid all of the late-'90s chatter about a possible new Lord of the Rings or Blade Runner 2, there was always a smaller but sustained frenzy over Meg. In 1996, Hollywood Pictures, a division of Disney, had optioned the rights to Alten's book, which opens in the Cretaceous Period with the titular beast taking down a T. rex—and then cuts to the present day, when humans find the megalodon lurking in a massive undersea trench.
It's easy to guess what movie Disney had in mind when they bought Meg. "Because it has a giant fish, a lot of people compared it to Jaws," says Nunziata, who read Meg shortly after its 1997 release. "But Jaws is this primordial, character-driven thing that's much larger than the sum of its parts. Meg was an easy, pretension-free idea. You could enjoy it on a surface level, as long as you were able to embrace your inner childhood."
According to Alten, however, the early attempts at a Meg movie veered far away from his original novel. "They went through some subpar screenplays," says the 58-year-old author. "I had virtually no input." (One particularly out-there script equipped the creature with wings). Eventually, the movie stalled, in part because Disney couldn't make the movie fast enough to beat out 1999's Deep Blue Sea. The rights reverted later back to Alten, who in 2002 launched an online petition, asking fans to express their interest in getting Meg made. "That was the only option I had," says Alten. "I mean, there was no interest from Hollywood. I needed to really get the project out there again." The petition earned more than 65,000 signatures—an impressive-enough figure, given that the campaign was mostly promoted through Alten's site. The author had spent several years building up his online fanbase, even including his email address in his books.
"The MEGheads are very loyal," he says. "I keep them apprised of everything. I answer every email. I make them characters in my books. They are involved as much as any fan base is ever involved."
In one email newsletter, Alten thanked his followers for their support. "When the MEG movie eventually hits its big screens," he wrote, "I want you to watch the previews thinking, 'Hey, I get Steve's e-mail every month. I helped him spread the word about his books. Heck, I helped get this movie made!' Guess what? You absolutely did."
That was the fall of 2004—eight years after Alten sold the film rights. By then, he'd written his own screenplay for Meg. He'd also teamed with Nunziata, whose film-geekery bona fides allowed him to bring the movie to Guillermo del Toro, the director of Cronos and Hellboy (and eventual Oscar winner for The Shape of Water). The filmmaker got the attention of New Line Cinema, which hired de Bont to direct the movie. But while Alten was happy with de Bont, the development process itself was choppy. According to a 2008 Los Angeles Times account, New Line executives became nervous about the film's budget, trying to get the price down to $100 million. And Alten's screenplay was jettisoned in favor of a new script, which the author didn't like ("it was like Moby Dick with a shark," he says).
In some ways, the timing for a Meg movie simply wasn't right. "Post-9/11, audiences did not want to see fun disaster-type stories that didn't have a somber tone," Nunziata says. "It took a while for people to be able to leave their cynicism at the door, and embrace a really pulpy monster movie." There were also studio politics to deal with, as the movie accumulated multiple producers. While several movie-news sites excitedly reported that Meg was back again, New Line never went ahead with the film. Del Toro departed the project, as did Nunziata. "We were as close to a green light as you could possibly get," says Nunziata, who remains friendly with Alten. "We saw Hollywood at its most cartoonish–except our futures were hinged on that stupidity."
Even though it had been a long time since the publication of Meg in 1997, fans still clamored for a film version: As one Ain't It Cool commentator asked in 2008: "Where is the MEG movie?". But after the New Line project dissolved, Alten's best answer was a succinct promise he posted to MEGheads on his website: "Stay Tuned Folks ;)"
Jaws of Life
"Maybe it's fate," says Alten, looking back at Meg's long and torturous development. It's late July, just a few weeks before the release of the now-retitled The Meg, starring Jason Statham, Rainn Wilson, and Ruby Rose, and directed by Jon Turteltaub, who made the two National Treasure movies and the John-Travolta-is-telekinetic-now flick Phenomenon. The film's trailers play up its digital effects, which Alten notes wouldn't have been anywhere near as advanced 20 years ago. Plus, he points out, The Meg has the advantage of coming out in the social-media era. It's much easier to get the word out about a giant-shark tale than it was in the '90s. Perhaps 2018 is the year Meg was destined to arrive after all.
But that didn't make the last decade or so any less trying. After the movie rights again reverted back to Alten, he put his faith in Belle Avery, a producer whose work includes the 2007 Sidney Lumet drama Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. "I trusted her to safeguard the project, and make sure nobody does anything stupid," Alten says. In the meantime, the author continued to write books and correspond with his fans—even holding contests that allow their name and likeness to be used in his novels—while also informing them of his progress after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease in 2007. Finally, two years ago, the trades confirmed that a Meg movie was finally happening, co-financed by Chinese company Gravity Falls. "It took Belle seven years and a lot of hard work, but she managed to get it done," says Alten.
The arrival of The Meg marks the end of one the longest movie-waits of the web era. There are still a handful of obsessed-over films that have yet to be made—projects that have been scrutinized online for decades, like the long-rumored adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's legendary tale At the Mountains of Madness. But so many of the films that fans clamored for in the '90s and early '00s have already been realized: The Dark Tower, John Carter, Watchmen, a second Blade Runner. That makes The Meg, appropriately enough, one of the last of its species: A movie made, in no small part, because of the fans wouldn't let it sink. But there's no way of knowing how two decades of online anticipation will play out at the box office. "Meg always felt like an underdog," says Nunziata, "and I think that's something that will help it. Its hardcore fans are powerful, and they really connected with Steve. They became a security blanket."
Which is partly why, to this day, Alten is still writing back to anyone who drops him a line. "My philosophy is they've taken time and expense to buy my book and read it, and deserve a personal response," says Alten. "And I've stuck with that for 22 years. People give me a hard time and say, 'Why are you still using AOL?' Well, because that's the email address in all my books. And it's the only one I've ever had."