To reignite its creaky “Star Trek” movie series this weekend, Paramount Pictures must beam up young moviegoers who may have never heard of Captain Kirk, Spock or the starship Enterprise, and international audiences who have been indifferent.
Paramount, despite having one of the most recognizable titles in entertainment, must overcome a perception that its new movie in the decades-old franchise will appeal only to aging Trekkies and not younger Twitter fanatics. The studio walks a fine line between attracting the under-25 crowd, which drives ticket sales in the crucial summer movie season, and keeping loyal followers of Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi classic on board.
The solution? Inject “Star Trek” with the kind of fast-paced action, effects trickery and superhero antics that more contemporary spectacles such as “Transformers” and “Iron Man” feature. And hire hip director J.J. Abrams and hope he can bring along with him the rabid fans of his TV shows “Lost,” “Alias” and “Fringe.”
To get what it wanted, however, Paramount ended up making the most expensive “Star Trek” ever.
“If you want me to do this, you need to do it right and give me the kind of resources that will allow for that,” Abrams recalled saying in an interview.
Paramount delivered, spending some $30 million on visual effects alone -- three times what was spent for the last “Star Trek” in 2002. The newest installment of the franchise that spawned five TV series and 10 movies cost about $140 million to make and $150 million to market and distribute worldwide, according to people familiar with the situation.
“Our goal was to go back to the beginning and relaunch this for a broad audience,” Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore said. When “Star Trek” opens on 14,000 screens worldwide, it faces stiff competition for the testosterone crowd. It will be up against 20th Century Fox’s sci-fi sequel “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which grossed an estimated $87 million in its opening last weekend.
But “Wolverine,” which has had three previous hits in recent years, had a ready-made audience. Paramount has to work harder, considering its last “Star Trek” movie, in 2002, grossed just $67 million worldwide and that only one in the series -- “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” -- hit $100 million in U.S. ticket sales.
More problematic, none of the “Star Trek” movies has ever grossed more than $58 million overseas. Filling theater seats abroad is crucial since international ticket sales account for as much as 65% of overall box-office revenue. “Star Trek” historically has resonated only modestly overseas despite a cast of characters as diverse as the United Nations.
Hoping to drum up early international buzz, Abrams went on a road show to Rome, Berlin, Madrid, Paris and London to screen 20 minutes of footage from the movie -- an unusual move for a studio, which also screened the four scenes in nine other countries.
In April, Paramount hosted three back-to-back premieres in Australia, Germany and Britain after research showed that those were the countries where “Star Trek” had the highest profile outside the U.S.
“We want to introduce the movie to a younger audience in the U.S. who didn’t go to see the last ‘Star Trek’ movie and international audiences who don’t have any awareness of it,” Moore said.
Although the film has no big stars, Paramount is hoping that its young cast will have drawing power. Starring as Capt. James T. Kirk is young heartthrob Chris Pine. Spock is played by Zachary Quinto from “Heroes.” English comedian Simon Pegg, who is cast as Scotty, and Australian Eric Bana, who plays the villainous Nero, are popular actors in their native countries.
If “Star Trek” is a hit, it could give Paramount a lucrative franchise that eluded it earlier as the distributor-for-hire on “Iron Man” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Nonetheless, Paramount won’t get to keep all the proceeds because it enlisted a partner, Spyglass Entertainment, which paid for 25%, or about $35 million, of the production budget.
When Paramount began developing “Star Trek” three years ago, the studio knew it had a famous title but one that had fallen into disfavor among critics and fans. The studio took note of how Warner Bros. revitalized its “Batman” franchise a year earlier by signing up director Christopher Nolan, better known for offbeat independent films, to make “Batman Begins.”
Paramount approached Abrams, who had just directed the studio’s big 2006 sequel “Mission: Impossible III,” and had a loyal following of viewers from his TV series “Lost” and “Alias.”
But Abrams, not a fan of the “Star Trek” TV series or movies, needed convincing.
“I didn’t get it,” he said. “I always felt it skipped over the reason I needed to care about the characters and always felt kind of phony.”
After developing a script with frequent collaborators, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Abrams was satisfied he could take a “cartoony and campy pop-culture icon” and make it relevant enough to withstand scrutiny from both younger filmgoers and older fans.
In writing the prequel, Orci and Kurtzman invented back stories for the well-known characters of “Star Trek,” imbuing them with flaws, contemporary issues (flight surgeon Bones had a drinking problem), emotional conflicts (Kirk has anger management issues) and irreverent humor that were absent from the one-dimensional profiles created in the original 1960s series.
Grinding up the publicity machine, Abrams got early word out to the fanboys as soon as he cast the film. In July 2007 he went to geek central -- the Comic-Con comic book convention in San Diego -- with Quinto of “Heroes” in tow to tout the new young Spock. Leonard Nimoy, who plays old Spock in the film, came along as a surprise guest.
The event, as anticipated, incited fan press that culminated this spring when movie blogger and science fiction fan Harry Knowles hosted a screening of the new film in Austin, Texas. Knowles invited attendees to view 10 minutes of the new “Star Trek,” but instead Paramount surprised them by screening the entire film. The ploy worked: Knowles gushed about the movie on his Ain’t It Cool website, which triggered an online frenzy among bloggers and Twitterers buzzing at warp speed.
Much of Paramount’s marketing campaign -- featuring high-octane action sequences -- is targeted squarely at young males: One TV spot announces: “This is not your father’s ‘Star Trek,’ ” a clear allusion to the perception that the movie is only for their parents.
But Moore said that from the outset the studio was mindful of the film’s core audience of older males and aging fans.
“We wanted to show we were building ‘Star Trek’ from the ground up but with an affection for the property,” Moore said. The movie’s first trailer shows the Enterprise “under construction,” concluding with a voice-over from the show’s classic opening line, “Space, the final frontier.”
Taking the stage at Thursday night’s Hollywood premiere of the movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Abrams paid homage to Nimoy, who was in the audience, saying he was the inspiration for the movie. The crowd went wild.