When Universal Pictures set out to make a sequel to its blockbuster, Bruce Almighty, it faced a big problem. Jim Carrey wasn’t interested in reprising his signature role as Bruce, a TV reporter endowed with God’s powers. The hoped-for franchise appeared to stall after one movie.
Universal’s response: No star? No problem! It recast the film with Steve Carell in the title role of the now-renamed Evan Almighty and steamed ahead with a $175 million (Rs730 crore) project that is likely to rank as the most costly comedy ever made.
Gearing up for the summer of 2007, major movie studios aren’t letting anything stop them from putting their biggest brands on display. Hollywood is heading into what may be its biggest summer ever—both in potential ticket sales and what it spent to create an unprecedented crush of new titles and big-name sequels. Media analysts project that domestic box-office revenue could reach $4 billion for the first time.
May kicks off with a brutal smackdown featuring the third instalments of three of the biggest franchises in movie history: Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. And that’s just the start. Studios plan to roll out a dozen more sequels over the course of the summer: There’s a fifth Harry Potter, a third Rush Hour and Ocean’s, a second Fantastic Four and a follow-up to a series that started 20 years ago, Die Hard. The list extends all the way down to a Daddy Day Care sequel—Daddy Day Camp, originally intended as a direct-to-DVD title—and a ninth take on Halloween.
On top of that are new titles, all of them would-be franchises, built on well-known brands, including the Transformers toys and The Simpsons TV series, plus the latest animated offering from Disney’s Pixar, Ratatouille. While summers gone by have usually offered up about five mega-budget “event” movies, this season, the industry will roll out at least twice that many.
Soaring movie costs that once made headlines—the $200 million budget of Titanic drew gasps in the late 1990s—have become part of the landscape. A handful of this year’s films will easily top $200 million in production costs. And when tens of millions of dollars in global marketing are added in, the new Spider-Man and Pirates may, in fact, be the first $300 million-plus movies.
With the megabudgets putting so much on the line, Hollywood is seeking risk-aversion in its familiar brand names. And it is choosing to release these films in the summer, not just because kids are out of school but because it neatly sets up a title for a DVD release at the year-end holidays, something that is increasingly important to big studios under pressure to deliver timely results to their corporate overlords. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, for instance, was the biggest box-office and DVD hit of 2006. Walt Disney Co.’s response: Rush out another ‘Pirates’ movie the very next summer.
But in choosing what seems to be the safest path, the studios are also opening themselves up to ever-louder accusations of creative bankruptcy. One of Hollywood’s most profitable studios, Twentieth Century Fox, is also one of the biggest culprits this summer. Its big releases are sequels to Fantastic Four, 28 Days Later and Die Hard, as well as The Simpsons Movie.
The predominance of the tried-and-true is bound to upset filmgoers who are hungry for something more adventurous. In a neat trick, the big studios themselves will try to take advantage of that by counterprogramming smaller original fare against their own giant sequels. Two new comedies from The 40 Year-Old Virgin team are set to hit screens: Knocked Up and Superbad. Paramount Pictures, meanwhile, has shifted Hot Rod, a low-budget comedy in the vein of Napoleon Dynamite, to the same August weekend that Universal releases The Bourne Ultimatum . For the older, art-house crowd, that weekend also will see Becoming Jane , a romance about Jane Austen from Disney’s Miramax.
Still, having so many highbudget, high-hype movies on the schedule has some in Hollywood worried. “Everyone is going to see Spider-Man, Pirates and Shrek once,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation SKG, the studio behind the ‘Shrek’ series. “The question is which they’ll see a second and a third time.”
Here’s a look at some of the major movies this summer, what industry insiders say about them and a key metric for each:
THE PITCH: Spidey swaps his red-and-blue leotard for black as he confronts his demons.
THE BACK STORY: After coming close to hanging up his tights during a fierce renegotiation over the last movie, Tobey Maguire returns as the most commercially successful superhero in cinema history. This time, the web-slinging acrobat turns to the dark side as fame goes to his head. Despite Maguire’s previous objections that Spidey’s superhuman stunts were straining his merely mortal back, director Sam Raimi ramped up the action, with some particularly complex aerial battles.
THE BUZZ: It’s a harder sell when a superhero explores his inner self, as last summer’s Superman Returns proved. Sony Pictures isn’t leaving anything to chance: It has launched a bells-and-whistles marketing campaign aimed at kicking the summer off with a bang.
NUMBERS GAME: The last two Spidey movies brought in around $800 million each at the box office alone.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
THE PITCH: Captain Jack Sparrow needs rescuing from Davy Jones’s locker.
THE BACK STORY: Johnny Depp comes face to face with the wrinkly Rolling Stone on which he based his swaggering pirate shtick: Keith Richards. The filmmakers have been burning the midnight oil to get the movie to theatres less than a year after No. 2 last summer. They may not get much rest: Depp has said he wants to play Captain Sparrow again and again, though co-stars such as Orlando Bloom may be tempted to hang up their swords, say people involved in the project.
THE BUZZ: The studio spent months priming the pump for Richards’ cameo as Captain Jack’s father. Then the rocker made a careless joke about snorting the cremated remains of his father. It’s hardly the image Disney wants associated with its family-friendly brand.
NUMBERS GAME: The last “Pirates” movie topped a jaw-dropping $1 billion in world-wide ticket sales.
SHREK THE THIRD
THE PITCH: Shrek brings new friends to the party—and creates potential spinoffs.
THE BACK STORY: In the last instalments of this series, a suave kitty, Puss in Boots, shot to fame and earned himself his own film. This sequel sees the arrival of a new posse of characters, including young Arthur, voiced by Justin Timberlake, and a gaggle of fairy-tale princesses voiced in part by ”Saturday Night Live” veterans. Also new is the directing team after the franchise’s original director, Andrew Adamson, went off to make Disney’s Chronicles of Narnia series. Expect more from the affable ogre: The studio is working on a fourth iteration for 2010 and has plans for a fifth.
THE BUZZ: DreamWorks is crossing its fingers that its family-friendly PG-rating and a trim 1½-hour length will keep Shrek going in theatres.
NUMBERS GAME: The second movie did almost double the business of the first, with a $920 million box-office haul. Its $441 million domestic total ranks it the biggest movie of the past decade.
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
THE PITCH: The formerly pint-sized Harry is more of a man in movie No. 5.
THE BACK STORY: The Potter juggernaut switched directors again, this time to television veteran David Yates. It was a bold choice: Yates came with little movie experience and his most notable TV work has been edgy fare like Sex Traffic, about young women forced into prostitution. Not that Harry is a sweet innocent anymore. In Order of the Phoenix, he grows more intense and mature as his world teeters on the brink of war.
THE BUZZ: Potter fever could get crazy this summer with the final book coming out a week after this movie. The cast has signed on for the final two films. But they are growing up—fast. Daniel Radcliffe, who first appeared as Harry at age 12 and is now 17, made headlines recently by appearing naked on stage in Equus and toying with a condom in a skit on the HBO show, Extras.
NUMBERS GAME: None of the sequels have topped the original’s world-wide ticket sales of $976 million. The last, Goblet of Fire, got closest with an $892 million haul. Still, the first four movies have brought in more than $3.5 billion.
THE PITCH: Optimus Prime and his boy-toy friends get an adult makeover.
THE BACK STORY: Steven Spielberg brought in Armageddon director Michael Bay to add sizzle to Hasbro’s robots in disguise. To keep costs down, Bay avoided established stars, but he didn’t skimp on locations: The crew went as far afield as the Arctic and Holloman Air Force base in New Mexico, where Bay used actual airmen and fighter jets. He also got permission to film a helicopter cruising over the Pentagon.
THE BUZZ: Transformers could give birth to a new franchise. But it comes with baggage: Many moviegoers assume the latest iteration of the toy brand is a) animated and b) only for kids. Early trailers have tried to quash such ideas. The challenge is keeping both hard-core fans of the toys and older moviegoers happy.
NUMBERS GAME: Despite effects galore and big-bang action scenes, the filmmakers say they managed to keep the budget to $145 million.
THE SIMPSONS MOVIE
THE PITCH: Homer & Co. migrate to the big screen.
THE BACK STORY: The Fox Network’s satirical comedy has been on the air for almost two decades, so the movie’s task is to spruce up an aging franchise. To build suspense, the producers have prevented any major plot points from leaking out; about all that’s known is that Homer tries to save the world in what writer/producer Al Jean calls “a voyage of self discovery.” Cameos include many old favourites such as Albert Brooks.
THE BUZZ: The challenge will be keeping audiences gripped by a single plot stretching over the equivalent of four TV episodes.
NUMBERS GAME: The Simpsons crew produced nearly 400 TV episodes on the road to the first feature film.
THE PITCH: Bruce Almighty’s TV anchor friend Evan has his own adventure with God.
THE BACK STORY:Morgan Freeman returns as God, appearing before Evan (Carell) with orders to build an ark. The filmmakers built an actual ark to near-Biblical specifications: 450 feet long and five stories tall. They also employed more animals than almost any film in history. To make the scenes more realistic, the animals were filmed separately and the shots were layered on top of each other—a painstaking and costly process.
THE BUZZ: The filmmakers took a big risk picking a then-relatively unknown actor to replace Carrey in the lead role. But they’ve been lucky. Thanks to The 40 Year-Old Virgin and the NBC series The Office, Carell’s star has since ascended. Still, he doesn’t have Carrey’s international drawing power.
NUMBERS GAME : The price of faith is going up— Bruce Almighty cost about $84 million to make in 2003, while Evan Almighty is said to cost at least $175 million.
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
THE PITCH: Jason Bourne comes home.
THE BACK STORY: Amnesiac agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) dodges more bullets and trained killers in his quest to find out who he is. The third movie in the series is based on the last book by Robert Ludlum about an assassin forced to return to his game after being framed. This time, his efforts to fill in the blanks take him on an emotional journey back to the U.S. Director Paul Greengrass keeps up the signature fast-paced action, staging an ambitious car chase in New York and filming scenes in Morocco, Spain, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
THE BUZZ: For many fans, the Bourne franchise is a rare example of the movies topping the books. But where does it go from here? One clue: Universal has the option on the books that Eric Van Lustbader wrote after picking up the novels where Ludlum left off.
NUMBERS GAME: The last sequel beat the 2002 original, with $288 million in world-wide ticket sales.
Old heroes, new baddies
Ocean’s Thirteen: 8 June
This will be the final instalment of the Ocean’s trilogy, says Steven Soderbergh. A very villainous Al Pacino has ruined an ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ mate and George Clooney will avenge the treachery.
Fantastic Four, Rise of the Silver Surfer: 15 June
Four friends who have been touched by cosmic rays on a space mission acquire superpowers to battle evil men. They return after two years to battle Dr Doom yet again and also fight a bonus villain, Silver Surfer.
Live Free or Die Hard: 29 June
Eighteen years after he undid a nasty bomber’s plans, Bruce Willis returns to save the US from bad men who are out to wreck the entire country, this time using the Internet.
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