Sony Relying on a Compact Import for Next 'Godzilla'

Remember when Sony insisted "Size Matters"?

Now, apparently, it no longer does.

Two summers ago, Sony Pictures Entertainment made a gigantic investment in a newfangled Hollywood version of "Godzilla," spending more than $200 million on an extravagant special-effects movie and an oversized marketing campaign--all done in the name of creating a movie franchise.

The problem was, the unsatisfying movie became the franchise that never happened.

This summer, the studio is banking on a different "Godzilla" strategy. Sony is releasing a cheapie Japanese production of "Godzilla," a new installment in the classic monster series that it picked up for under $500,000 from the original producers and copyright holders, Toho Co.

Sony says its 1998 film was profitable, citing $375 million in worldwide box-office revenues. But on a pure return-on-investment basis, the studio's bonanza could ironically come from its campy little foreign import.

So, is "Godzilla 2000," which Sony will dub in English and release Aug. 18, a poor excuse for a sequel?

No way, said Sony Pictures Chairman John Calley, insisting that the two movies are "utterly disconnected," and that the upcoming release, featuring the fire-breathing lizard crushing a Japanese city and battling a giant rock-shaped alien, doesn't preclude the studio from someday making a sequel to its 1998 summer movie. Though with no script in sight and admittedly very little enthusiasm at Sony for anything of the kind, that day seems far off.

Meanwhile, there's "Godzilla 2000," which Sony is targeting to young boys and baby boomers who grew up watching the classic Japanese "Godzilla" movies that originated in the 1950s.

"This is an anti-special-effects movie," said Sony's distribution chief, Jeff Blake, "It's the classic rubber-suit monster stomping around Tokyo, and that's the fun of it." And that's exactly how Sony is selling it. The tag line of its campaign: "Get Ready to Crumble."

Sony has made a small side business out of releasing Toho "Godzilla" films, made between 1991 and 1996, directly to video, DVD and television in the U.S. The studio acquired the domestic distribution rights to the films on the cheap, around $500,000 each.

"This business has been profitable for us," Blake said, noting that the seven titles released have collectively sold more than 400,000 units.

Of the nine titles Sony acquired, "Godzilla 2000" is the first to go into theaters in the U.S. The 23rd installment of the Toho monster series that began with "Gojiran" in 1954 turned heads at Sony when it set box-office records in Japan.

"When I visited Japan in December during the opening week of 'Godzilla 2000' in Tokyo, there were huge lines, standing-room- only crowds, and [a] huge [number of] standees. It just struck me as being a very marketable idea," Blake said.

The last time a "Godzilla" classic played here was 15 years ago when "Godzilla 1985" was released by the now-defunct independent distributor New World Pictures. The first U.S. release of a "Godzilla" movie was in 1956 with scenes of Raymond Burr inserted to increase its appeal to Americans.

Blake said that in Japan, "Godzilla 2000" grossed an impressive $15 million.

Sony is likely to spend $12 million to $15 million to market "Godzilla 2000"--a fraction of the more than $50 million it laid out for its "Size Matters" campaign two years ago. Although the campaign was clever, it was viewed as highly problematic in that it delivered more than the movie itself. Sony was blasted in the media for overhyping the movie, for which the studio had lassoed a number of corporate partners, including Taco Bell, Hershey and Duracell, to kick in more than $150 million in promotional tie-ins.

When Calley joined Sony in 1996, it was his stated priority to develop lucrative franchises for the studio, which had blown opportunities to maximize profits on box-office hits such as "Jumanji."

It was "Godzilla" that was to be the catalyst for finally building an infrastructure at Sony that could rival Disney and Warner Bros. in exploiting movies through consumer products, publishing and interactive games.

It still hasn't happened.

A "Godzilla" sequel, Calley admitted, "is not a priority at this time. It's not a picture that people are rushing around the studio trying to get made." Rather, he said, the studio is more focused on building franchises of the recent family hit "Stuart Little" and the forthcoming "Spider-Man." He said Sony does plan sequels for "Men in Black" and "Jumanji."

Any sequel to "Godzilla," however "would be made for much less money," assured Calley, noting that the original "cost too much, took a lot of time, a lot of marketing and a lot of technology development. It was a killer."

Sony wound up with a box-office hit of $136 million that fell way short of its own expectations.

"It didn't live up to expectations creatively and never bounced back from the initial perception in the press that it was a box-office failure," said Dean Devlin, who co-wrote and produced "Godzilla."

Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the team behind Sony's upcoming Mel Gibson period epic "The Patriot" and 20th Century Fox's 1996 summer blockbuster "Independence Day," had envisioned their "Godzilla" as a trilogy. But, after the film's cool reception, the studio downsized its ambitious plans for the next two installments.

"They wanted to tailor it budget-wise, so it didn't make sense for us creatively," said Devlin, who along with his co-writer-director partner Emmerich announced months ago that they would not be involved in any "Godzilla" sequels at Sony.

Devlin said that he thinks it's a great idea that Sony is releasing the classic "Godzilla" movie this summer and that he and Emmerich had always encouraged Sony to do so as a way to keep the franchise alive between sequels.

So maybe now it's "Size Doesn't Matter."

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