‘Spider-Man’ film team is squashed


Peter Parker can catch all sorts of villains in his webs, but the one thing Spider-Man couldn’t bring to Sony Pictures was a workable script -- and budget -- for the $2.5-billion franchise’s fourth installment, derailing one of the most lucrative movie series in Hollywood history.

Less than a week after the studio said it was postponing production on the fourth web-slinger movie over story problems, Sony on Monday pulled the plug on the project as it was being conceived with director Sam Raimi after he told the studio he wasn’t comfortable moving forward with the sequel, originally scheduled for release in May 2011.

Star Tobey Maguire, who has played the arachnid superhero in the previous three “Spider-Man” films, is also bowing out, as is his on-screen love interest, Kirsten Dunst. The studio said it would hire a new star and director and re-boot the movie as a story about Parker’s early life as a “teenager grappling with contemporary human problems and amazing super-human crises.” Because Sony is essentially starting from scratch, the studio has pushed the picture’s release to 2012.

The resulting film is expected to be far less costly than the production Raimi had envisioned for his version. Sony wanted to make the picture for about $230 million, which the director thought was not enough given his ambitions.

“ ‘Spider-Man’ will always be an important franchise for Sony Pictures and a fresh start like this is a responsibility that we all take very seriously,” Sony Chairman Michael Lynton said in a prepared statement. “We have always believed that story comes first and story guides the direction of these films.”

The studio declined to elaborate on the decision. But several people familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter said Sony hopes to find a new director and actors quickly, with filming expected to begin before the end of the year. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt (“Zodiac”) has been hired to write the script, and “Spider-Man” veterans Marvel Studios, Avi Arad and Laura Ziskin will return as producers, the studio said.

The postponement of such a lucrative franchise leaves Sony with a huge hole in its 2011 schedule, especially in the summer, when the studios release their big, expensive -- and often highly profitable -- event movies. The first three “Spider-Man” films grossed nearly $2.5 billion in their worldwide theatrical releases and generated hundreds of millions of dollars more in DVD, TV and merchandising sales.

Despite the studio’s corporate parent’s massive size, the “Spider-Man” films have had a material impact on Sony Corp.’s bottom line. In the quarter ended Sept. 30, 2004, for instance, Sony said that initial returns from “Spider-Man 2” were one of the main factors in the studio’s quarterly swing from an operating loss to a profit.

The first three movies also made a significant difference to the income at the previously publicly traded Marvel, which is now less reliant on “Spider-Man” earnings since recently being acquired by the Walt Disney Co. Thanks to royalties from Sony as well as its 50% cut of merchandise on 2007’s “Spider-Man 3,” Marvel reported $122 million of revenue.

Sony and the filmmakers have been scrambling for weeks to keep “Spider-Man 4” together, according to people close to the project.

There have been four writers on the sequel. In addition to a draft by Vanderbilt, the studio hired Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) and Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) to revise the script. Alvin Sargent (who has writing credits on the last two “Spider-Man” films) then spent the last six weeks trying to pull the disparate screenplays into a cohesive whole.

But neither the studio nor Raimi could agree on the ultimate direction of the script, which was centered on the legendary comic book character’s becoming reinspired and falling in love with a new girl, said people close to the situation. Because the film involves extensive special effects, complicated battle sequences and elaborate sets, Raimi would have had to start shooting in March to make Sony’s proposed release date in May 2011. The director felt that didn’t give him enough time to solve the screenplay problems, said people familiar with the matter.

Time wasn’t the only obstacle. Raimi, who declined to comment, had other concerns. He was unwilling to agree to the budget constraints Sony had set. The studio wanted “Spider-Man 4” to cost less than “Spider-Man 3,” which was closer to $300 million.

Over the weekend, the parties tried to figure out a way to get “Spider-Man” flying but without success. On Monday morning Raimi called Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures, and Matt Tolmach, a top production executive, and informed them he wasn’t going forward.

The studio’s new plans are reminiscent of what other studios have done in reconfiguring similar franchises. Sony and MGM were able to breathe new life into the James Bond franchise by showing 007 as a rookie agent in 2006’s “Casino Royale.” Warner Bros. was able to resuscitate its Batman movies (on life support after 1997’s “Batman & Robin”) with the origin story “Batman Begins” in 2005.

But Sony faces a tricky problem with “Spider-Man” in that Raimi’s first film in 2002 was also about Parker’s teenage days, the very premise for Vanderbilt’s new screenplay. That script was originally going to be the premise for “Spider-Man 5.”

Sony now has only one movie scheduled for release in summer 2011: an animated update of “The Smurfs” in 3-D. Last week, Paramount and Marvel quickly pounced on the “Spider-Man 4” release date, pushing up “Thor,” which commenced production Monday, to May 6 from its original May 20 slot.

This is not the only setback for the world-famous crime-fighter. A “Spider-Man” Broadway musical (in which Sony is an investor) has been delayed by creative and financial problems and with a budget in excess of $50 million is the most expensive musical in theater history. It’s unclear when -- or even if -- the musical will open.

Times staff writer Ben Fritz contributed to this report.