Written by Kevin Baxter
Published: May 22, 2005 at 1:59 AM
NBC UNIVERSAL'S FILM DIVISION
Otherwise known as Universal Studios. Duh.
People have wondered what effect penny-pinching General Electric would have upon Universal Studios when they became the parent company of the newly merged NBC Universal. This year may tell the tale. Just check out this summer's schedule for the film studio:
13 - Kicking and Screaming
3 - Cinderella Man
17 - The Perfect Man
24 - George A Romero's Land of the Dead
12 - The Skeleton Key
19 - The 40 Year-Old Virgin
First, I cannot tell you how much the punctuation of that last one irritates me. Without a dash between the 40 and the Year-Old, this looks like a movie about forty virgins who just had their first birthday but they left the s off the end of "Virgins". (It's funny how anal I am about dashes when I have joined a very small group of writers who refuse to use periods at the end of abbreviations.)
Anyhow, notice anything weird about that list up there? Where's this year's Van Helsing? The Chronicles of Riddick? The Bourne Supremacy? No tentpoles. No sequels. No insanely-budgeted action films. In fact, the biggest budget of the bunch may be Cinderella Man, but its budget was shared by Universal and Miramax (Universal will make the money domestically). Universal doesn't even have a film bowing in almighty July this year!
Is this a sign of the future for the studio? It very well could be. Reports have already circulated that GE is belt-tightening, but these films were probably mostly in production by the time GE showed up. In fact, these may be the films that were decided upon by Vivendi to prove what a desirably inexpensive studio Universal was.
It's not like Universal doesn't have a history of turning low-budget films into money-making machines, though. 2003 was the first year a single studio had five summer films hit the $100M mark, and The Hulk was the only film with a crazy budget ($150M). Bruce Almighty had a budget of $81M, 2 Fast 2 Furious - $80M, American Wedding - $55M and Seabiscuit - $80M (and those costs were split by Universal and DreamWorks).
Strange as it may seem, massive budgets are actually very rare for Universal. Van Helsing and Riddick were the only big-budgeted films of 2004 for the studio (Universal shared costs once again with DreamWorks for Cat in the Hat's bloated budget). 2003's other big budget, after Hulk's, was Peter Pan, which Universal shared with two other studios. So history actually shows that pre-GE Universal feared out-of-control budgets before the merge. Will any of the summer movies mentioned be lower-budget hits like those from 2003? Considering last summer's two $100M-plus films were both action films - Van Helsing and Bourne Supremacy - chances aren't great. Not when Universal's offerings this summer are one Oscar-bait film, two horror films and three comedies filled with television stars.
The Oscar-bait film - Cinderella Man - is getting a lot of marketing, which isn't unusual for Universal. The studio can afford to spend on marketing since they have a much lower output than most of the other big studios, and this ability has certainly helped Universal become one of the best marketers - if not THE best marketer - in the movie business. Still, Cinderella Man is clearly getting the summer focus. Many think it is a weird time to release the Russell Crowe/Renee Zellweger film, but Universal is no doubt trying for a Seabiscuit repeat. Also, Russell Crowe's shoulder injury during filming pushed back filming a few months, but the film was ready to go in March, its original date, so it appears that Universal is really high on this project. Its new date is a fairly good one, though it follows right on the heels of yet another sports film, The Longest Yard. Still, people stand in line to see Crowe, and boxing films are now seen in a different light after Million Dollar Baby (another film in need of a dash!!!). IF YARD IS ACTUALLY GOOD, THIS WILL TOP OUT BEFORE $100M, IF YARD DESECRATES THE ORIGINAL (WHICH IS MORE THAN LIKELY), THIS WILL HIT $100M.
The two horror films - George A Romero's Land of the Dead and Skeleton Key - are more problematic. Horror films in the mid-budget range usually make a good amount of money, but they rarely hit the $100M mark, so their scheduling here is odd. At least Skeleton Key is in the iffy month of August, since Kate Hudson is still closer to being The Next Julia Roberts than to being Julia Roberts, at least if the moviegoing public has anything to say about it. But trailers are playing up the fact that it was written by the guy who wrote The Ring and the trailer does its damnedest to give us that semi-known-blonde-in-a-freaky-situation that worked so well for that modern horror classic. I think Universal is missing the boat by playing up the freakiness and not playing up the haunted-houseness of the film, as the only horror film to do well this year has been another haunted-house film - The Amityville Horror. WILL BE A HIT, BUT IT WILL BE GONE IN A MONTH.
Land of the Dead on the other hand, has a SPECTACULAR trailer, almost half of which plays up both the pedigree and history of Romero - the godfather of zombie films. And it ends with the seriously excellent Dennis Hopper with one of his most spectacular line-readings ever: "Zombies, man... they creep me out." Excellent beginning and ending, but the middle of the trailer is also good as it not only features the usual scary quick cuts, but it actually throws in pretty camerawork ("Remember how much you loved 28 Days Later?"), zombies doing different things ("They're not just running around! They're walking UNDER water too!") and enough story to figure out what's going on (unlike the quick cuts in Skeleton Key). My ONLY complaint is the footage of the zombie-gauntletmobile, which looks a little too Dawn of the Dead remake to me. And looking like that film, which opened big then disappeared, is something that should be avoided. What also should have been avoided was opening the week before the scaryish War of the Worlds. This film will benefit, though, from not only the teenage audience, but from older zombie nerds who were around for the seminal Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead films. Still, its first week needs to be Donald Trump yooge if this film expects to hit $100M, for it should also die fairly quickly. CLOSER TO $100M THAN TO THE DAWN REMAKE'S $59M.
Then we have the three comedies. Kicking and Screaming is already proving that Will Ferrell's celebrity is already on the decline as both his post-Elf films (excluding the Woody Allen one) have only been mild hits. In fact, the public's take of Kicking has been as bad as the critics', if not worse. $60M BARELY MAKES BACK ITS BUDGET, BUT IT'S PROBABLY THE MOST THIS CAN HOPE FOR.
Even worse is The Perfect Man. Hilary Duff. (More like Hilar Enuff!) When will she go away? While the rest of the cast is more worthy than that talentless ho - Heather Locklear, Chris Noth, even Carson Kressley - the whole thing seems very TV and not big-screen at all. Especially not big-screen IN THE MIDDLE OF SUMMER. Kudos to Universal for attempting a little counterprogramming by putting this out against Batman Begins. Definitely two different crowds for these films: BATMAN WILL GET BIG CROWDS, PERFECT WILL GET NONE.
Then we have the unknown, The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Steve Carell stole Bruce Almighty from Jim Carrey and has so much buzz that he could be the next Will Ferrell. Speaking of buzz, this film is getting all kinds of it, and Universal moved it up from late fall to August, which is filled with lots of frightening comedies like Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo and Dukes of Hazzard. The film is basically a partnership between Carell and Judd Apatow, the guy behind the beloved television series Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, so I'm expecting hilarious things from it. The idea alone could fill a trailer with loads of laughs. UNIVERSAL'S SUMMER DARK HORSE. $100M IS NOT OUT OF THE QUESTION.
Then there are the other eight months of the year, which usually constitute 50% of the annual box office. The first four weren't bad at all. They weren't great either. White Noise made more than its budget, The Wedding Date doubled its $15M budget and The Interpreter made $63M, which was probably just over its budget.
As for the last half, who knows? The Universal site, which is far more informative than the Disney site, lists the following:
Serenity - Sept 30
Two for the Money - Oct 7
Doom - Oct 20
Jarhead - Nov 11
King Kong - Dec 14
The Producers - Dec 21
So things apparently get better as they go along. Serenity is the movie version of the failed Joss Whedon (of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer fame) series, Firefly, and it shouldn't do a whole lot. But they sure aren't playing up the Firefly angle, so it SHOULD MAKE BACK ITS $35M BUDGET JUST BECAUSE IT'S SCI-FI, BUT NOT MUCH BEYOND THAT.
Two for the Money has Matthew McConnaughey (blech) but Al Pacino too, so who knows. The site calls it a "who's conning whom?" drama (Awwww, they used "whom"!!!), and the whole thing sound very marketable, so IT WILL BE A MILD HIT.
Doom again??? Okay, this isn't the dooomed Doom, the weird sci-fi film from many years back, but the filmed version of the super-popular videogame. Sure, most videogame films don't exactly rack up the greenbacks, but this one does have the Rock, which should help. Still, IT SHOULD PERFORM LIKE MOST DECENT-BUDGETED HORROR FILMS BUT NO BLOCKBUSTER.
Then Jarhead. I dunno. It's got the pedigree: Jake Gyllenhaal, redhot Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard and Chris Cooper starring with Sam Mendes directing. With three Oscars right there, this is clearly Universal's OTHER Oscar-bait film, but is it box-office-bait? It involves a Marine sniper during the Gulf War, but it sounds more like Full Metal Jacket than Platoon, with very little actually taking place during wartime. Which will make the film less one-note, but will potential viewers know that? SHOULD BE GOOD, WHICH WILL MAKE IT A HIT, THOUGH NOT A HUGE ONE.
Then we got the sure thing, King Kong. If it weren't directed by Peter Jackson, I would wonder why it was scheduled in December. But since Jackson has become the King of December, that may be why this film is here, instead of summer, where it most certainly should be. Then again, the effects-heavy film was at WETA (Jackson's answer to George Lucas's ILM) at the same time as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, so that may have had something to do with its late appearance. Still, this WILL BE YOOGE... YOOGER THAN KING KONG HIMSELF. YOOGER THAN THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING! (PETER JACKSON... YOU'RE HIRED!)
Then there is The Producers, the film version (featuring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick) based on the hit Broadway musical (featuring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick) based on the non-musical film (not featuring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick). Yeah, it's a musical, but it will still be big. Like Chicago big. But don't expect it to be showered with Oscars like that musical was, though Lane and Broderick could definitely be in the running. The play's pitfalls - pedestrian songs, way-way-WAY-over-the-top characters and it not being live theater - won't much impress critics. Still, reviews won't be bad enough to keep people away. BIG HIT, AT LEAST FOR A MUSICAL. CERTAINLY NOT KING-KONG-SIZED.
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