In 2010, producer Bud Yorkin and his wife, Cynthia, approached Century City-based Alcon Entertainment with an audacious proposal: to make a sequel to the landmark science fiction film “Blade Runner.”
There were abundant reasons to avoid the project. Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, about a futuristic society where androids known as “replicants” are almost indistinguishable from humans, is revered by notoriously protective science fiction fans.
Sequels rarely live up to expectations, especially when the originals are several decades old. Like the movie’s futuristic cops tasked with snuffing out rogue robots, moviegoers know how to tell a fake from the genuine article.
“We started off like, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing? This is a sacred thing. People are going to start throwing stones at us,’ ” said Cynthia Yorkin, whose husband died in 2015 at age 89. “The key thing was to convey that we were going to do this thing with integrity.”
Alcon is about to find out if its big gamble will pay off as the long-awaited sequel “Blade Runner 2049” hits theaters this weekend. The movie cost an estimated $150 million to produce after rebates and before marketing costs.
“Blade Runner 2049” illustrates how far entertainment companies are willing to go to generate so-called franchises that result in sequels and expansive “universes” of movies. Studios and production companies have to place big bets on well-known intellectual property to survive in today’s film industry, said Schuyler Moore, an entertainment attorney with Greenberg Glusker.
“These days, if you're going to make it in the film business, you either have to swing for the fences or go to Netflix on your knees,” said Moore, an expert in film finance.
Alcon, a 45-person company backed by FedEx founder Fred Smith, has invested tens of millions of dollars to develop and produce the movie, putting its future on the line in the hopes of a substantial payoff.
To help finance the sequel, Sony Pictures put up a hefty $90 million and is handling international distribution. Sony will get a cut of the movie’s profits and distribution fees. Warner Bros., which released the original film and had rights to do so for any follow-up, is releasing “Blade Runner 2049” in the U.S. and Canada and will collect a distribution fee.
Alcon had already done the heavy lifting by acquiring the rights, developing the story and packaging key elements. Those included securing Scott’s go-ahead and convincing Harrison Ford to reprise his role as Deckard, as well as getting Ryan Gosling to play the lead and tapping Denis Villeneuve to direct. Sony was already familiar with the French Canadian director from his work on “Arrival,” which Sony released internationally.
The deal was attractive to Tom Rothman, Sony’s motion picture group chairman, because it allowed the company to benefit from a well-known film property at a time when it badly needed franchises.
“The idea of putting one of the great emerging filmmakers together with this expansive universe seemed like the very thing studios search for — a movie that you must go out to see in a theater,” Rothman said.
For decades, it wasn’t clear that a “Blade Runner” sequel would ever happen. Billionaire Jerry Perenchio and producer Bud Yorkin, who invested in the 1982 movie, controlled the rights. Perenchio, who died this year, didn’t want anything done with the property, essentially freezing it in place.
But Bud and Cynthia Yorkin saw an opportunity. “Blade Runner” — although not a box-office hit in its day — had developed a devoted fan base through home video releases of Scott’s “director’s cut” and “final cut.” Its influence had also seeped into other films, TV shows and video games. Cynthia, who was an actress, wanted to get into producing and noticed that studios had been making sequels and prequels to virtually everything, but not “Blade Runner.”
“I thought, ‘This is timely, and it’s such a great film. Why not try to bring it back?” said Cynthia Yorkin.
The Yorkins convinced Perenchio to sell his portion of the sequel and other rights for $5 million in 2005.
Their options, however, were limited because Warner Bros. controlled the rights to distribute any sequels domestically. So the husband-and-wife team pitched Alcon, which has a distribution deal with Warner Bros.
Alcon founders Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson were on the hunt for badly needed “repeating assets” — previously tested ideas that could spawn film sequels and television shows. Alcon had previously produced the $29-million blockbuster “The Blind Side,” but had faltered with bigger projects, including its disastrous remake of “Point Break” and the Johnny Depp flop “Transcendence.”
“Blade Runner” was a fortuitous match because the original left so much of its story unexplained and unresolved, providing plenty of room to explore new ideas, Johnson said.
“The first movie had a fairly narrow scope as it relates to the world,” Johnson said. “They don't go outside downtown Los Angeles. In our movie, we expand a bit, but there's a lot of interesting story to be told.”
The producers knew they had to make a movie that was not just a replica of the original.
Alcon also tried to get as much of the original talent involved as possible. They won Scott’s approval during a three-hour dinner in London, where he regaled them with his ideas on how to expand the story. Hampton Fancher, one of the original writers, wrote the story for the new movie.
When Scott’s schedule conflicted because of “Alien: Covenant,” the producers hired Villeneuve, who had previously helmed “Prisoners” for Alcon and had a proven facility for noir-inspired films.
The filming locale also shifted. Although the first “Blade Runner” famously filmed in L.A., including at the Bradbury Building downtown, the follow-up was shot in Budapest, Hungary, where costs are lower. The filmmakers took advantage of Hungary’s brutalist architecture, such as an old Soviet cement factory, to capture the bleak aesthetic of the 1982 film.
“The use of practical locations and the use of miniatures were ways that we stayed true to how the original movie was made,” Kosove said.
All signs show that the film will be a solid performer at the box office. It’s expected to open with $45 million to $50 million in ticket sales Friday through Sunday from the U.S. and Canada.
Reviewers have praised the movie’s grand visual scope and expansive storyline. One challenge will be to attract female audience members, but having Ford, Gosling and Jared Leto in the cast is expected to help.
“This movie feels like there's really something special here,” said Jeff Goldstein, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. “We feel that the interest has steadily grown.”
Alcon and the studios have also waged an aggressive marketing campaign. Alcon set up an installation in San Diego during ComicCon that included a virtual reality component and re-created the downtown Los Angeles setting of the movie.
The early raves and audience interest come as a relief to Alcon and Cynthia Yorkin, who is credited as a producer on the new film, along with her late husband.
“It's been a labyrinth,” Yorkin said. “We honored the first film and expanded on it. All the things my husband and I started out with have been realized more than we'd ever imagined.”