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The wild, 20-plus-year journey of the most snakebit movie in Hollywood: The Six Billion Dollar Man

As Bumblebee director Travis Knight takes over the Mark Wahlberg movie, will it finally make its way to the big screen?

The wild, 20-plus-year journey of the most snakebit movie in Hollywood: The Six Billion Dollar Man
Lee Majors as Steve Austin (right) and guest star Britt Eklund as Katrina Volana (right) in The Six Million Dollar Man TV movie, Wine, Women and War. [Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images]

What do a Nike heir, Mel Gibson, and a 1970’s action hero all have in common? 

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They’re all part of the strange and twisted backstory behind The Six Billion Dollar Man–the big-screen adaptation of the cheesy 1970s hit TV show The Six Million Dollar Man–which is poised at long last, at least if there’s a dramatic reversal in karma, to be one of Hollywood’s next, IP-driven tentpole movies thanks to the unlikely confluence of characters. 

The latest chapter in the film’s saga came this week when it was announced that Travis Knight is now turning his attention to Six Billion Dollar Man at Warner Bros. Knight is the son of Nike founder Phil Knight, as well as the newest entrant into Hollywood’s A-list director’s club, thanks to his latest–and first–major directing gig: Bumblebee, the Transformers spinoff that grossed $466 million at the box office.

The news that Knight was next turning to another action blockbuster-to-be wouldn’t be all that newsworthy if it weren’t for Knight’s unlikely rise to Michael Bay-level heights. The Nike heir stubbornly refused to follow his father’s footsteps in the sneaker business, instead toiling away as an animator and then becoming CEO of Laika Studios, the Portland-based animation company behind Coraline, the dark and quirky, critically-beloved stop-motion film directed by Henry Selick. More recently, Laika has had less fortune: The just-released Missing Link is undergoing a rough opening at the box office. 

As he told Fast Company in a 2007 feature story: “Phil’s my father. He’s a part of who I am. But I don’t want to be defined by that.” If all goes as planned, Six Billion Dollar Man will be Knight’s dad-defying achievement, further proving to his old man that there’s more than one way to just do it.

At least if the film manages to reverse its ill-fated trajectory.  

That is the other wildcard element here: Bumblebee might have been a risk in rebooting Transformers so soon but Six Billion Dollar Man has become arguably the most inane/comical example of Hollywood development hell of all time. Here’s a timeline of events for Six Billion Dollar Man, which is based on the 1972 Martin Caidin novel Cyborg. The book spawned the 1970’s TV series Six Million Dollar Man starring Lee Majors, who played Steve Austin (Majors), a severely injured astronaut who was rebuilt with bionic implants that gave him super-human strength, speed, and vision.  

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Nothing much happened on the film front until 1998, when Kevin Smith took a stab at a script for a movie adaptation for Universal, a few years into the childhood junk food pop culture of Gen X making its way to the big screen. “When I turned in a script for The Six Million Dollar Man . . . there was an exec who dismissed it as being more like a comic book than a movie,” Smith later recalled. 

Two years later, when the rights to Caidin’s novel reverted back to Caidin’s estate, Bob Weinstein (brother of that other Weinstein) jumped into the picture, wresting away some of those rights and turning Six Million Dollar Man into a Dimension-Universal co-production. “Six Million Dollar Man is a franchisable film that we have been wanting to make for a long time now,” Weinstein, co-chairman of Dimension Films, told Daily Variety. “We’re elated to have worked out a partnership with Universal.” 

In 2002, the film turned into a comedy vehicle for then top-of-his-game Jim Carrey. Road Trip director Todd Phillips was hired to direct. Now Weinstein said, “The teaming of Jim and Todd is the perfect creative combination to launch this franchise. Todd is a director with proven instincts, and Jim is a superstar.” 

In 2010, Dimension and its sister company Miramax split from owner Disney. Weinstein takes Six Million Dollar Man with him. Rights revert back to the Caidin estate and Weinstein fights to renew them. More scripts are written; more headlines run in the trades: Are Bryan Singer and Leonardo DiCaprio Teaming for Big-Screen Six Billion Dollar Man? (Let that one sink in for a moment.)

But there is still no movie. 

In 2014, Mark Wahlberg and director Pete Berg sign on, and a release date of 2016 is targeted. Think Lone Bionic Survivor. 

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In 2015, Argentine director Damion Szifron (Wild Tales) is hired to write the script. A few months later, Berg exits and Szifron assumes directing duties as well. The release date is pushed to 2017. 

In 2017, rather than the film’s release, we get this: As The Weinstein Company (and with it Dimension) are collapsing in the wake of the #MeToo charges against brother Harvey, Warner Bros. swoops in and takes over the project. 

Last year, Warner Bros. courts Mel Gibson for a role in the film alongside Wahlberg. As per the Hollywood Reporter: “Sources say Wahlberg is pushing for Gibson after working with him on the Paramount comedy Daddy’s Home 2, in which the pair played father and son.”  

Smash cut to this week and Knight is announced as the new director, with Wahlberg still cast in the main role. Bill DuBuque (The Accountant) is writing the script. 

The Knight piece is another surprising twist to the saga, given the director’s relatively new status as Hollywood “It” director. Although Bumblebee is considered a critical and commercial hit, the film was Knight’s first major directing gig. His only other time behind the camera was on the animated film Kubo and the Two Strings, which made $69 million at the box office. 

Will the fifth time (that a director’s been announced) be the charm? Does anyone still care now that the nostalgic crowd who might have flocked to this in 1998 are now around 50?

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The title’s inflation from six million to six billion applies to far more than just what a full bionic get-up might cost.    

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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