Jean-Claude action figures. Jean-Claude trading cards. Jean-Claude’s face in a video game. A burger, fries and cola with a Jean-Claude figurine to go.
All those items will soon be coming to a store and restaurant near you as Universal Pictures attempts to turn Belgian-born action star Jean-Claude Van Damme into its latest “franchise.”
Buoyed by the $12-million opening last weekend of Van Damme’s futuristic picture “Timecop,” the MCA Inc. unit believes it is poised to reap even bigger dividends from the star in the future. After releasing three Van Damme films to date, the studio plans to release three more, with Van Damme merchandise on the shelf as early as Christmas.
“It isn’t often that a studio gets the opportunity to build up an actor because they usually are pretty free-lance. We don’t even have a deal with him,” said Tom Pollock, MCA’s motion picture chief. Indeed, Van Damme, 33, will be moving on eventually to projects at Columbia Pictures, where he has some previously negotiated commitments.
The meaning of a “franchise” star is open to interpretation, but a good part of it involves having the clout to get a film made, being a low-risk bet for a studio and opening revenue streams such as merchandising, like the kind that will proliferate with “Street Fighter"--a Van Damme movie based on the hugely popular video arcade game--that is set for release Dec. 23.
It’s quite a leap for someone who not long ago was known mostly for the Van Damme-age he did with his fists and feet in B-level martial arts films.
It’s also no accident but part of a long-range plan Van Damme, his advisers, agents at International Creative Management and studio executives devised to broaden his appeal and push him into the higher budget films with more mainstream appeal and better directors. As Van Damme puts it, the plan is “to go from simple cruddy movies to special effects and science fiction with a good story and a big cast.”
Van Damme’s Hollywood career started in the 1980s when he dropped by the office of independent producer Moshe Diamant. Diamant didn’t see much star potential in the muscular actor until Diamant noticed his young son kept watching on videocassette a rough cut of a film Van Damme had just completed called “Bloodsport.”
Diamant eventually became the former cab driver and bouncer’s mentor, cleaning up his contract obligations by buying out a firm Van Damme had signed with when he needed money. Van Damme’s relationship with Universal was formed when the studio picked up “Lionheart” and subsequently released another film, “Hard Target.”
Both films performed modestly well in the United States, but Van Damme was primarily seen as a foreign star until “Timecop.” Universal’s immediate challenge with “Timecop"--a $30 million film in which Van Damme plays a policeman in 2004 who is able to travel back in time--was to broaden the previously narrow demographics for Van Damme movies domestically.
Research showed the audience for his films tended to be heavily skewed toward young males, typically from 15 to 24 years old, who make up the primary audience for action films. Perry Katz, Universal’s marketing chief, said one key goal was to reach a potential audience of women aged 20 to 50 by playing up in ads the romantic angle of the story. (In the film, Van Damme is tempted to travel back in time to prevent his wife’s murder a decade earlier.)
The next step involves putting Van Damme into his first PG-13 movie, which will be “Street Fighter.” In other words, a lot of action without much blood. The goal: expand Van Damme’s audience to take in kids from 8 to 15 who are probably familiar with the video game.
“It’s absolutely going to reach the young teen-agers and the video game audience,” promises Pollock.
The film, being bankrolled by Japanese video game maker Capcom and distributed by Universal, is the biggest-budget Van Damme film to date at an estimated $40 million. It’s also his biggest paycheck, at an estimated $8 million. The PG-13 rating opens up merchandising possibilities, since the target audience is 17 and under.
Despite the merchandising pegged to “Street Fighter,” both Van Damme and Diamant say that they are sensitive to the risk of overexposure.
“You’ve got to be careful,” Van Damme said. “There can be too much exposure with toy and video games. So many people in the past came to me with toys and video games, and I always refused.”