Film franchises set to do battle
LOS ANGELES ó Hollywood executives didn’t invent hyperbole. They just perfected it.
Still, they may finally have a valid reason to wield their arsenal of tired superlatives such as “must-see,” “can’t-miss” and “the event picture of summer.”
That’s because the three films expected to rule 2007 óSpider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s Endó storm theaters not only in the same month, but within weeks of each other.
How May became so log-jammed with behemoth films is the result of hubris, superstition and the confidence of studio chiefs that their film has the goods the competition lacks.
It has created perhaps the highest-stakes game of chicken in industry history. And it could pose a dilemma for theater owners gathering in Las Vegas next week for the ShoWest convention over which movie will get the best and biggest screens.
“Do I wish there were a few more weeks between our movies?” asks Laura Ziskin, producer of the Spider-Man franchise. “Absolutely. I wish summer were six months long.”
But with just 21 days separating the third installments of the franchises, studios are waging fierce ad campaigns, scheduling celebrity promo appearances and conducting market research over who has the biggest core demographic.
“It’s crazy,” says Cameron Diaz, a star of Shrek. “I can’t wait to see Pirates. I love Johnny Depp. But I’m sure there’s a hidden clause in my contract that says I have to see Shrek at least twice as much as the other movies.”
If there are likely winners in this battle royale, it’s moviegoers and popcorn peddlers. The three franchises have earned sizable followings with strong reviews, and ticket sales sailed past $2.2 billion domestically.
“These are movies that not only have made a ton of money, but have been good to boot,” says Paul Dergarabedian of the industry analysis firm Media By Numbers. “This could easily be the biggest May of all time.”
Those stakes are not lost on studio chiefs. As May goes, so typically goes the summer box office ó and the year. Executives are hoping that a blistering month will help continue the industry’s rebound; last year, theaters reported a 3% increase in attendance, ending a three-year slump.
“May is huge because the kids are getting out of school and it’s the start of the summer season,” which accounts for about 40% of Hollywood’s ticket sales, says Gitesh Pandya of industry tracker BoxOfficeGuru.com. “If these movies somehow don’t do well and we go staggering into June, business could be in trouble.”
And forget it if your name isn’t Spidey, Shrek or Jack Sparrow. “I wouldn’t want to be a smaller movie trying to find an audience in May,” Pandya says. “This is about being big.”
Just like the risks. The month, analysts say, amounts to a high-dollar poker tournament with Sony, Disney and Paramount/DreamWorks at the table. Combined, the movies cost well over $750 million.
And that doesn’t include the effect a weak opening could have on a studio’s stock value. When Cars premiered last year to $63 million, below most projections, Disney’s stock fell.
Studio officials are quick to dismiss a competition between the movies ó and each other.
“You guys in the press like to make it a horse race,” says Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures, which is releasing Spider-Man. “But we all want each other’s movies to do well, and there’s plenty of room for all of them.”
But Geoffrey Rush isn’t buying the peacenik talk.
“The people in the button-down suits act calm and collected,” says Rush, who plays the villanous Hector Barbossa in Pirates. “But you can be sure there are a lot of nails getting bitten down to the quick.”
With that, here’s a look at our May contenders, their secret weapons and their hidden weaknesses:
Release date: May 4
Franchise box office (domestic): $777.3 million
Secret weapon: Comic-book devotees
Hidden weakness: Comic-book devotees’ expectations
Shortly after the impressive debuts of the previous two Spider-Man films, filmmakers and executives gathered to talk about, of all things, what went wrong.
“It’s the only way to get better,” says producer Avi Arad. “Every time you raise the bar, it means you have to raise the next one even higher.”
Which may explain why Spider-Man 2 became a critical favorite, although its ticket sales dropped slightly from $403.7 million for the first movie to $373.6 for the sequel.
Even star Tobey Maguire concedes it will be tough to match the quality of the second film.
“I know we have better sequences in this one,” he says. “There are darker scenes, funnier scenes. Whether they’ll all come together to make them better than the second, I’m still not sure.”
After Spider-Man 2 opened, the consensus among Arad, Ziskin and director Sam Raimi was that the next film needed more complex character turns and better special effects.
“The one thing we’ve always wanted to get right were the vertical fights Spider-Man would have between skyscrapers,” Ziskin says. “We pretty much had to give that up in the first one because it was too hard. But we’ve got it now.”
The film also has new characters, including Thomas Haden Church as Sandman, Topher Grace as Venom and Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy.
And it has the advantage of being the first big film of May, the one that kicks off the summer season.
The question is whether Spidey’s box-office numbers will hold up. “This one may have the most specific fan base of the three” movies, Pandya says. “But it’s hardly just comic-book fans. It’s spread to the general public. It will be interesting to see how much of the public is dying to see how the story goes.”
Shrek the Third
Release date: May 18
Franchise box office (domestic): $708.9 million
Secret weapon: Adults
Hidden weakness: Risky release date
Even DreamWorks executives were stunned when Shrek 2 became the third-highest-grossing film of all time, raking in $441 million.
“Kids just kept coming back,” says Jim Tharp, chief of distribution for DreamWorks, which was later purchased by Paramount. “And they were bringing new friends.”
But it worked well beyond the child factor. The film’s cutting-edge computer effects and its skewering of pop culture and fairy tales gave adults reason to come, sometimes alone.
“It wasn’t parents twiddling their thumbs while their children watched it for the millionth time,” Diaz says. “It’s very contemporary, more than a lot of other animated movies.”
This time around, though, first-time feature director Chris Miller plans to drop some of the topical spoofs in favor of more classic themes, including meaty, comical roles for Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty.
“We said, ‘Let’s bag all of those pop-culture references,’ ” Miller says. “I think it can date a movie. And Shrek has a lot of classic themes to explore.”
Like Arthurian legend. Among the twists of the new film will be a skewering of the King Arthur tales, with Justin Timberlake as Artie, a reluctant heir to the throne.
“He’s a gifted actor who’s funny,” Miller says. “That’s what makes our movie stand out. It’s the only bona fide comedy.”
It’s also the only movie with a risky release date. Shrek’s opening means that it has only one week before Pirates sails in, gunning for young audiences.
But studio execs say the weekend before Memorial Day is plenty big for two blockbusters.
“I’d say, even after Pirates opens, there’s still $150 million in business up for grabs,” says Rob Moore, Paramount’s head of worldwide marketing. “We opened Shrek and Shrek 2 on those weekends, and it worked out great.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Release date: May 25
Franchise box office (domestic): $728.7 million
Secret weapon: Johnny Depp
Hidden weakness: Pirate fatigue
Among the Big Three, expectations are highest for Pirates, which snatched the crown from 2002’s Spider-Man for biggest debut when last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest opened to $135.6 million.
“We tapped into something that the public was really hungry for,” says producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
But what about a successful trilogy finale? Third installments have a spotty track record: just ask Godfather 3 or Matrix: Revolutions.
Rush says that one of Pirates’ advantages over the competition “is this is the last one, and it ended on a cliffhanger. If you watched the first two ó which a lot of people did ó you’re going to want to see how this one turns out.”
And apparently, people are fond of Depp. “He’s the one thing we’ve got that no one else has,” says Mark Zoradi, president of Disney’s Motion Picture Group. “He’s a lot more than a Hollywood star. He works everywhere in the world.”
Pirates may also have an advantage of being the last big film out of the gate. No film is seen as giving Pirates a run for a similar audience until Fantastic Four 2 arrives June 15.
But even Disney executives concede it’s risky to assume that Shrek’s audience will jump ship after just one week. “We think we’ll be No. 1 the weekend we open, but there’s no guarantee with a movie like Shrek,” Zoradi says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this May we have three $300 million movies.”
So who is the favorite? A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll conducted March 2-4 found that 29% of Americans plan to see Pirates in theaters, 24% plan to see Spider-Man and 23% plan to see Shrek. With the poll’s margin of error at 3 percentage points, it’s anyone’s race.
“There’s no way I’d get into selling movies or betting who’s going to win something like that,” Maguire says. “That’s why I act.”
Here’s how the big three stacked up at the box office in the past:
-Spider-Man (2002): $403.7 million
-Spider-Man 2 (2004): $373.6M
-Shrek (2001): $267.7M
-Shrek 2 (2004): $441.2M
-Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Blakc Pearl (2002): $305.4M
-Dead Man’s Chest (2006): $423.3M
Number of tickets sold: 2003=1.57 billion; 2006= 1.45B
Source: Media By Numbers LLC; Box Office Mojo; Motion Picture Association of America
Get ready for the battle to begin, this May at a theatre near you!!
Film franchises set to do battle