Why Steve Jobs Came Dead-on-Arrival at the Box Office

I awaited few fall releases with more anticipation than, the Danny Boyle directed, Aaron Sorkin penned film based on Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography. After all, as they say at Nate'n Al deli in Beverly Hills, "what's not to like" about that team?
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I awaited few fall releases with more anticipation than Steve Jobs, the Danny Boyle directed, Aaron Sorkin penned film based on Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography. After all, as they say at Nate'n Al deli in Beverly Hills, "what's not to like" about that team?

Walter is the Harvard/Oxford educated historian with a c.v. nearly as impressive as Bush 41's: former Managing Editor of TIME, ex Chairman/CEO of CNN and hugely successful biographer of Franklin, Einstein, Jobs & Kissinger. And as if that resumé wasn't enough, he's the current CEO of the Aspen Institute.

Then there's Danny, the brilliant Irishman by way of Manchester, whose filmography boasts the perfect nexus of indy auteur and box-office winner: Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire, winner of eight Oscars including Boyle for Best Director.

And don't even get me started on Aaron Sorkin, one of the highest paid and least re-written of feature film screenwriters. He first adapted his riveting courtroom drama A Few Good Men for the screen, followed by The American President, Charlie Wilson's War, The Social Network, and Moneyball - with years of Emmy winning television in between where he seemed to write every single syllable of The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom.

And given the subject matter: arguably the single greatest technology innovator of the last 30 years (See my Letter to Steve) how was it that in its first big opening weekend their collaboration took in an anemic $7.3 million?

"Only a little more than the $6.7 million that Jobs, a critically derided film about the iPhone father with Ashton Kutcher made in its initial weekend," wrote Brent Lang in Variety. Fewer than a million people saw Steve Jobs. How did a film with such early Oscar buzz go so wrong?


First, let me admit that the easiest thing in the world to do is sit in the dark, eat popcorn and later attack a piece of work on the order of Steve Jobs. Without insulting Mrs. Reilly who taught me how to write a sentence in the first grade, critics remind me of the dictum that "those who can do, those who can't teach and those who can't teach, teach teachers." So it can be said of critics.

But I put in 15 years in the Hollywood vineyard as a writer/producer of episodic drama and I know when a scribe of Sorkin's magnitude phones-in a script.

The first problem with Steve Jobs is that for 122 minutes of screen time we're subjected to a single "character" storyline intercut with three product launches: the original Mac in 1984, the NeXT in 1990 following Jobs' ejection from Apple at the hands of ex-Pepsi CEO John Scully and finally Jobs' return with the triumphant introduction of the translucent, colorful iMac in 2006.

In between, Sorkin uses Kate Winslet, playing Joanna Hoffman as his expositional touchstone and interface. Hoffman was a member of the original Mac team but Isaacson only quotes her about a dozen times in the book, noting she "briefly went to work" on NeXT. In short she was a bit player in the life of Steve Jobs. Poor Seth Rogan as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak struggles for screen time even though "the Woz" played a much more pivotal role than Hoffman in Jobs' ascendancy.

Winslet/Hoffman is in virtually every scene with Michael Fassbender, the gifted German-Irish actor who got the lead (according to Variety) after Leo DiCaprio and Christian Bale passed.

But not having an "above the title" star isn't what makes make Steve Jobs the Ishtar of the new millennium. It was Sorkin's script -- a series of turgid, multipage scenes that all seem to take place in the various green rooms of the auditoriums where the real Steve launched his products to the foot stomping glee of his Mac faithful.

Steve Jobs was a $30 million opportunity to capture the selfish genius of the man who rocked the planet with the Macintosh, the iMac, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad, Apple Stores, Genius Bars and the Apple TV - the visionary who built Pixar, the world's first great animation studio (sold to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion) but Sorkin decided to spend two hours reminding us of the shameful period in Jobs' life when he was an effective deadbeat dad to his daughter Lisa.

While Jobs' early denial of his fatherhood, despite a 95%+ paternity test confirmation and on-again/off-again relationship with his daughter were deplorable, one has to ask: Aaron, why select-out that limited portion of Isaacson's bio as the central focus of this film?

And why end it as you do with a scene moments before the iMac launch in which Fassbender/Jobs notices the Walkman on Lisa's hip and tells her that he has an idea that will put "1000 songs" in her pocket? The iPod is never mentioned and the film pretty much ends there: 1998, whereas Jobs' life after that - the 13 years he spent growing Apple into the world's largest tech company, despite multiple bouts with pancreatic cancer - is ignored.

Now that's the stuff of drama.


Why did Aaron Sorkin, the man who gave us one of the most iconic lines in film history, choose to leave out what Anthony Bourdain would call "the good stuff?" This is what he told Steven Levy, the ex-Newsweek tech writer who admitted that he "had a difficult time watching the movie," because he "knew Jobs."

Sorkin: "I wanted to do a new take on Steve Jobs, since a biography is available in a number of forms, whether it was Walter's book, Alex Gibney's documentary... any number of articles written by you and any number of other journalists. I didn't want to do something strictly journalistic because that's not what I'm good at and that's not why you would come to me."

Can we believe that from the show-runner of The Newsroom, who lifted virtually every beat of that series, which ran for three seasons on HBO, from the headlines? I don't think so. Then in that same interview, Sorkin gets falsely self-effacing, asking us to believe that he is "sort of faking" his "way through movies and television." He finally gets honest and admits that "As a playwright I like claustrophobic spaces." Later, discussing a pivotal scene in the film he says "I don't mind making (it) up."

Well Aaron, not that you'll ever read this, but when you enter the million dollar-a-screenplay ranks as you have, a Writers Guild member like you has a responsibility - not just to the studio but to the people who plunk down their cash at the multiplex. A responsibility to serve the medium you're working in - and then maybe, as an afterthought - the memory of the man you've decided to debase.

As I walked out of Steve Jobs I thought to myself, imagine spending your life creating so many tools that have exponentially advanced the capacity for self expression. You die young and one of the world's great biographers tells your story in book form. It's optioned by a major studio (originally Sony) and two of the most talented filmmakers alive set it to film. Then in 122 minutes your legend and your memory, is forever distorted because the screenwriter/playwright decided to go dark with your life.

What revenge do you have?

Shakespeare, or whoever wrote his plays, was one of those must-have-come-from-another-planet geniuses. But he had a good 250 year run before the Anti-Stratfordians began to question his authorship of the plays and sonnets. Still, he understood how fragile fame can be. "The evil that men do, lives after them," says Marc Antony in Caesar's funeral oration. "The good is oft interred with their bones."

Aaron Sorkin is another kind of genius and I hope he lives to be a hundred. But when his obit is written, his biography published, and some writer adapts it for the screen, he should "only be so lucky," as they say at Nat'n Al, to have that film honestly and truthfully reflect his life.

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