Studio plans a summer without sequels

Universal Pictures doesn’t have any big sequels or franchise movies on tap this summer. And the studio thinks that’s fine.

At a time of year when the Hollywood studios typically roll out new installments of established series to take financial advantage of theaters swelling with vacationing children and teens, Universal is placing its bets on three unconventional comedies and an adult gangster movie.

Universal’s plan runs counter to conventional industry wisdom, which dictates that youth-dominated summer audiences often embrace familiar popcorn fare more readily than untested concepts.

The studio, however, in a strategic decision earlier this year to avoid the logjam of other big summer movies, shifted the sequel “Fast & Furious” to early April from June -- a move that helped push the picture’s box-office take to nearly $350 million worldwide.


“It was a clear run both domestically and internationally,” said Donna Langley, president of production for Universal. “We took a flier on it and it paid off.”

But the gambit left Universal in the risky position of not having an easily recognizable movie on its schedule at the peak of the summer season, which accounts for about 40% of annual ticket sales. Nonetheless, the studio contends that its films are strong enough to go up against the franchises that dominate the market.

“We believe we have a great lineup of product and we are going to compete successfully through the summer season,” Universal Chairman Marc Shmuger said.

Although executives say the studio has had record profits for the last two years, Universal remains under pressure from parent General Electric Co. to cut costs.


“Every studio is feeling the pinch in one way or another,” Langley said. “Resources are absolutely tighter.”

Still, Universal has invested heavily in its summer movies, spending about $200 million alone to produce, market and distribute “Land of the Lost,” a comedy starring Will Ferrell in an adaptation of the cheesy 1970s sci-fi TV show about three people transported into a universe populated by dinosaurs and reptile creatures.

“Lost” is making its debut in theaters today -- and for it to succeed, it must appeal not only to Ferrell’s core audience of 18-to-28-year-olds but also to younger moviegoers who don’t ordinarily go to see his movies. Signs of whether the movie will enjoy success aren’t encouraging: Reviews have been blistering, and some prognosticators believe that Walt Disney Co.'s animated hit “Up” will again win the weekend and that “Lost” will have to duke it out for second place with the Warner Bros. comedy “The Hangover.”

“The challenge is taking Will and transitioning his brand of humor into something that is more family or general audience friendly while still preserving the integrity of his comedy and delivering that for his core fans,” Langley said.

The R-rated comedy “Bruno” may be the closest thing Universal has this summer to a sequel. It’s filmmaker and star Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to his 2006 comedy “Borat.” The two movies follow the same format: Baron Cohen plays an eccentric, vulgar character who confronts real-life people on social issues as a way of exposing bigotry.

In “Bruno,” set to hit theaters July 10, Baron Cohen plays a flamboyantly gay Austrian who interviews unsuspecting folks about homosexuality, celebrity and fashion.

Even before 20th Century Fox released “Borat,” Universal executives were eager to get their hands on Baron Cohen’s next film, paying a steep $42.5 million in a bidding war for “Bruno” distribution rights. The hunch Universal had about Baron Cohen turned out to be correct: “Borat” grossed almost $262 million worldwide and became a pop cultural phenomenon.

Some rivals question whether Baron Cohen can pull it off again and wonder if moviegoers will be put off by his exaggerated homosexual character. Langley said that although Baron Cohen’s films are “certainly polarizing and not everybody is going to like the movie,” test audiences have enthusiastically embraced it.


But because Baron Cohen and his films are a magnet for media attention, Universal has taken a restrained approach in marketing “Bruno.”

“We have forever believed that one of the risks with highly anticipated movies is audience fatigue before they come out,” said Adam Fogelson, president of marketing and distribution for Universal.

Indeed, Baron Cohen has no problem generating publicity without Universal having to spend a dime. At last Sunday’s MTV Movie Awards, a thong- and angel-wing-attired Baron Cohen flew into the audience and landed face first in rapper Eminem’s lap with his bare butt mere inches away from the musician’s face. Footage of the incident swept the Internet.

While fans know exactly what to expect from Baron Cohen and his films, it’s unclear how those who normally flock to writer-director Judd Apatow’s R-rated comedies, including “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” will respond to the more serious “Funny People,” a comedy starring Adam Sandler as a famous stand-up comic who struggles with a near-death experience.

Given that “Funny People” cost $70 million to produce, Universal is keeping its fingers crossed that Apatow’s and Sandler’s fans will get on board despite the existential crisis plot. When Sandler stepped out of straight-up comedy roles in “Spanglish” and “Punch-Drunk Love,” the box-office results were disastrous.

Langley says “Funny People,” set for a July 31 release, is a hybrid of comedy and drama that doesn’t forsake Apatow’s core brand of ribald humor, adding that “it plays like gangbusters” with test audiences.

Meanwhile, it’s unknown how well Universal’s gangster picture “Public Enemies” -- debuting July 1 -- will do. Directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp as 1930s gangster John Dillinger, the thriller could be a sizable gamble at a time when dramas have had a hard time drawing audiences. After state tax rebates, the film cost Universal $100 million to produce and tens of millions more to promote.

“In general, people have been going to see lighter movies,” says Bruce Nash, founder of website The Numbers, which tracks box-office and DVD sales. “More serious adult-targeted movies have not been doing particularly well,” including Universal’s recent dramas “State of Play” and “Duplicity.”


Nonetheless, Shmuger, the Universal chairman, remains high on “Public Enemies.”

“It’s a great gamble and we couldn’t be more excited about it,” he said.