With century's end imminent, studios are grabbing the concept with the release of . . . : Movies for the Millennium

For The Times

At the turn of the millennium, Satan will decide to destroy the world--or so goes the plot to "End of Days," a supernatural thriller now in production at Beacon Pictures. Only one man can stop the Prince of Darkness and, luckily for the planet, he's being played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Another movie planned for a late 1999 release is "Duke Nukem." Based on the computer game of the same name and produced by Threshold Entertainment (the makers of the "Mortal Kombat" franchise), Duke is being billed as the most politically incorrect action hero ever--a drinking, smoking womanizer whose motto is "A man for whom the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is a convenience store."

Then there's "The Sky Is Falling," now in development at New Line Cinema. In this scenario, the world's religions have unified into one huge church that controls the world. New Line production chief Mike De Luca calls the film a "classic end-of-the-world movie" that follows two priests who discover proof that God is dead. But if "Sky" doesn't come together before the end of next year, De Luca says, it won't get made at all.

"Once people cross the barrier of the millennium, anxiety about the end of the world is probably going to calm down a lot," De Luca said. After that, "it's probably a good idea to have a lot of comedies in the pipeline for 2001 and 2002. Hopefully, we'll have another Adam Sandler movie. They always work."

Studio executives and movie producers are always trying to read the future--to put movies into production now that they hope will click with the public's imagination a year or more later. In the waning days of the 20th century, that already imprecise science has gotten even more squishy. Will moviegoers be in a different mood in 2000 and beyond? Some people think so. For industry insiders who routinely try to tap into the Zeitgeist, the millennium has become a factor to consider.

"You hear it crop up now in development-speak," said David Friendly, a veteran producer ("Dr. Dolittle"). Friendly said he recently pitched to a creative executive at 20th Century Fox a book he wanted the studio to option about a 40-year-old woman who dies and comes back in the body of a 22-year-old.

"The book asks: Do we exist in just one body for our entire existence? It ties in to the whole issue of reincarnation and the afterlife," Friendly said. "The exec said, 'This feels like an interesting concept for the millennium.' I just nodded. I didn't know what he was talking about. But hey, if it helps. . . ."

Apparently, it did: The book--"This Body," a first novel by Laurel Dowd--got optioned last month for a six-figure sum.

Indeed, if there is one thing that many studio executives agree will have large appeal in the 21st century, it is spiritually themed films--a genre that one producer dubbed "wouldn't-it-be-wonderful-if movies."

"There's a noticeable shift in the appetite of the moviegoing audience," said John Goldwyn, president of Paramount Motion Pictures. "I can't tell you if it's related to the millennium, but people want warmer stories . . . and are looking toward spiritual values in films. They're contemplating the idea that there are forces greater than [those that] exist in the temporal world."

Movies Exploit Both Hope, Fear for Future

Goldwyn offered a few examples. In another time, he speculated, "City of Angels," this year's Meg Ryan-Nicolas Cage film about an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman, "could have struck audiences as very hokey. But I think people are prepared to embrace ideas like that today. And if 'Ghost' were to come out today it would be an even bigger hit than when it came out [in 1990]. And it was huge."

Producers Stephen Simon and Barnet Bain agree, which is why they founded Metafilmics, a production company devoted to creating "visionary" movies. "What Dreams May Come," the company's first film, which opens this October, stars Robin Williams as a man who dies and goes first to heaven and then to hell in the hopes of reuniting with his wife and kids. Other Metafilmics projects include "Between Lives," a comedy with a very New Age conceit: that the recently deceased get to choose who their parents will be in the next life.

"Millennium consciousness is generally negative and fear-based. That's why you see movies about a destroyed future," said Simon, who said his goal was to offer an "antidote" to that. "People are really looking for some hope and empowerment that can lift them beyond their fears. That's what we think is coming for the millennium."

David Vogel, president of Buena Vista Motion Pictures, says the impending change in the calendar has definitely been on his mind as he decides which movies to green light--not just for release around New Year's Eve 1999 but for several years to come.

"The millennium, for me at least, is not the year 2000. It represents a change in orientation, and within the whole first decade we need to be responsive and thoughtful," said Vogel, who heads Disney's three film production divisions--Disney, Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures. "We're still seeking an explanation about our place in the cosmos. [Movies] need to talk about a search for meaning, not necessarily just outside ourselves but inside."

A Robot Learns What It Means to Be Human

The futuristic "Bicentennial Man," for example, to be released next year, is the story of a robot (Robin Williams again) who wants to be human. It is, Vogel says, an examination of "the essence of being a man" in which the robot discovers that "what makes one human is the acceptance of death."

Meanwhile, Vogel is also hoping to make several movies set in space because, he says, this is a time when "everything involves looking up, outside of ourselves and beyond." Among the projects he has in the works to address such yearnings: a movie about a manned mission to Mars, another about a cop investigating a murder on a space station and a Buck Rogers action adventure set in the 25th century.

(The latter has a direct millennium tie-in, but in the form of a flashback. It seems that Rogers saves the world in 1999 by using his plane to destroy threatening technology, seemingly dying in the process. In fact, he is preserved in a cryogenic pod, found by space pirates and thawed in time to lead a revolt against aliens who have enslaved humans while stripping the planet of its natural resources.)

Many in Hollywood worry that films with too many millennium references will be immediately dated on New Year's Day 2000. Producer John Davis, for example, said he has toyed with including the so-called "Y2K" computer problem in a script he's developing at Paramount called "The What If Guys" about a clandestine branch of the government whose members test the nation's security by dreaming up elaborate attacks on the United States. So far, however, the much ballyhooed millennium-related computer collapse is not working as a plot point.

"It's so prevalent, you can't put it in a script because it feels cliche," Davis said.

Studio Marketers Cater to New Age Awareness

Which may explain why several studios are planning to exploit the new age in marketing campaigns, but not on the big screen. MGM has plans for "WarGames 2000," the sequel to the 1983 hit about a teenage computer hacker who inadvertently starts the countdown to World War III. But Amanda Marashinsky, MGM's senior vice president of worldwide publicity, says that at present, the movie's only millennium reference is the title.

Disney, meanwhile, will unveil "Fantasia 2000" in a series of festive premieres in December 1999, with a release date of Jan. 1, 2000. But executives acknowledge that the timing of the project, which updates the 1940 classic with new animated segments just as Walt Disney originally envisioned, is largely a fluke and was not intentionally pegged to the millennium.

DreamWorks SKG's "The Road to El Dorado," scheduled for release in late 1999, makes reference to an earlier century in our millennium: the 16th. The animated "El Dorado"--which follows two friends, a schemer and a dreamer, as they foil Spanish adventurer Hernando Cortes in his conquest of a mythic kingdom--is set in 1519.

"Some fear the future. But I do not," one character--an American Indian chief--says at one point, using words that 21st century moviegoers may be comforted to hear. "When the next age dawns, I have no doubt the gods will bless this city and its people with another thousand years of peace and happiness."

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. Pictures has not revealed any millennium-themed films to date, but the company is about to unveil a new marketing strategy to keep the Looney Tunes characters fresh. Its title: "Mil-Looney-um."

"Everybody's going to be talking about the millennium, and we're going to make fun of that. That's our plan anyway," said Bob Schneider, Warner's senior vice president for worldwide corporate promotions, who described the campaign as an irreverent look at the centennial shift through the eyes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird and the rest of the gang.

And what will Warner Bros. get out of this? Increased sales of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner dolls, perhaps?

"Don't forget: Our studio store, [located at] 1 Times Square, is where the ball drops" on New Year's Eve in New York City, Schneider said.

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