Booking a blockbuster
It was a seminar that top executives at Sony and Paramount couldn’t afford to miss. Forty-six of them -- including Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton, co-Chairman Amy Pascal, Paramount Film Group President John Lesher and marketing teams from around the globe -- crowded around a table recently in one of Sony’s conference rooms.
The reason: to hear a presentation on Tintin, the 80-year-old comic strip series by Belgian artist Herge about a boy reporter and his loyal dog, Snowy. Sony and Paramount are jointly producing “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” a 3-D film directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. The $200-million production is set to be one of the big event movies of 2011 and the first in a planned trilogy.
Despite the pedigree of the filmmakers, “Tintin” presents a difficult challenge for both studios: The comic is widely popular abroad but is largely unknown in the U.S.
So during the meeting in Culver City, the studio executives were given a backgrounder by two representatives of the Herge estate, who touched upon everything Tintin, including the comic strip’s history and its cultural significance. At the same time, the executives debated how to prime the U.S. market for “Tintin” and discussed possible release dates.
Sony and Paramount aren’t the only Hollywood movie studios that are studying childhood classics and plotting strategy. Others are working on “Yogi Bear,” “The Smurfs,” “The Lone Ranger” (with Johnny Depp as Tonto) and a live-action adaptation by director M. Night Shyamalan of Nickelodeon’s animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
Big-screen versions of popular children’s books are also being readied, including last century’s classic “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien and current favorites such as “Goosebumps” by R.L. Stine and Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”
The studios want to be ready when a gaping hole opens in the family movie market: In 2011, “Harry Potter,” the second-highest-grossing movie franchise in history, will end with its eighth installment, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II.” The first five Potter films have generated $4.4 billion in global box-office receipts and billions more from DVD and merchandise sales.
As the recession forces studios to make fewer pictures, a new generation of movies based on popular children’s books is emerging as a keystone of the studios’ strategies. With built-in “brand awareness” -- widely known stories that have broad audience appeal -- family films represent a safer bet than many of the big-budget movies that have been made for young adult and teen audiences over the last decade.
“There’s an attraction to having global interest and appeal to as many quadrants as possible, male and female, young and old,” said Alan Horn, chairman of Warner Bros., which owns the rights to the “Potter” films.
Warner Bros. as well as Pixar Animation Studios, which produced “Toy Story,” “Ratatouille” and “Wall-E,” have proved to Hollywood that family movies don’t have to bear the Disney imprimatur, or evince only sweetness and light, to be embraced by large audiences.
Their success “really cemented the idea of parents and kids really enjoying the shared experiences,” said Doug Belgrad, co-president of Sony’s Columbia Pictures. The “Potter” series and Pixar flicks broke ground by making films ostensibly aimed at children that weren’t “too soft or unsophisticated for the parents.”
The economic downturn is only burnishing the appeal of a comparatively low-cost family outing.
“Audiences today are looking for family experiences,” said Elizabeth Gabler, president of production at Fox 2000 Pictures, which is producing the live-action “Percy Jackson.”
One result of the recession is the rise in ticket sales, as movies remain one of the relatively cheaper forms of entertainment.
“With market and world conditions, it’s a much easier form of entertainment for a whole family to do together. It’s almost like a sporting event,” Gabler said.
All the movie studios are hunting for existing properties with tested concepts -- at least as books -- that can be turned into films, though none exist on the scale of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” with its more than 400 million copies in print and vast cultural footprint.
But the films must hit a sweet spot that is deceptively difficult to find: They can’t skew too young or too old. And the marketing must clearly tell parents what to expect, studio executives say.
“There is a level of trust that families have to have with a movie,” said Columbia Pictures co-President Matt Tolmach. “They have to know it’s safe to take the kids to the movie and that [studios] aren’t going to do something that they’re going to regret the experience and have to apologize to the kids. That’s a serious pact that you make with the audience. We’re always looking for a balance of intensity.”
When Mark Johnson was producing “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” released in 2005, he and Walt Disney Pictures were careful to hew to a PG rating.
“We were always concerned that we didn’t want to make it too young, and were worried in our campaign about exposing some of the talking animals. We thought an older audience might say it’s just for little kids,” Johnson said.
He found the problem reversed for last year’s film sequel, “Prince Caspian.”
“The second was accused of being too old. What happened [is that] it was less about the Narnian creatures than human creatures,” Johnson said.
The second film grossed $420 million at the global box office, while the first raked in $745 million.
Mistakes in the family film arena are costly. Fairies and fantastical creatures don’t come cheap, and movie budgets usually run between $100 million and $200 million. Expensive disappointments include “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” and the $180-million version of Philip Pullman’s novel “The Golden Compass,” which helped capsize New Line Cinema as an independent entity.
Studios aren’t the only ones pursuing family films -- so are filmmakers who want to make movies their kids can see. Consider “Goosebumps,” the popular book and TV series.
To prepare to adapt the series into a movie (slated for release next year), screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander watched 1980s flicks like “Gremlins,” “The Goonies” and “Poltergeist.”
“They’re more realistic than a lot of the family films today,” Alexander said. “The kids feel like real kids. They mess with each other. They swear. They’re uninhibited. There’s an appealing level of chaos.”
Chaos may be acceptable; blood and dismemberment aren’t.
“Horror movies have been taken over by slashing and dicing,” Karaszewski said. “What we’re trying to do is make it scary but creepy and funny at the same time without gore.”
Alexander added: “I had to reassure my oldest son that it wasn’t going to be little kiddie or cute.”