Fox's success with lighter fare paves the way for darker films like 'Water for Elephants'

At a time when studios are obsessed with sequels, "reboots" and family-friendly spectacles, 20th Century Fox is releasing precisely the kind of film that has largely fallen out of favor in Hollywood: a dark adult drama.

News Corp.'s Fox 2000 division is bucking conventional wisdom with this weekend's debut of "Water for Elephants," a literary adaptation of Sara Gruen's tale of love set in the stark 1930s world of traveling carnies. The studio is betting it can succeed in attracting the millions of (mostly female) readers who propelled the book to bestsellerdom by remaining faithful to the tone and spirit of the story.

It's a strategy made possible because of Fox's success with more mainstream fare.

"The studio's profitability on movies that are less artistically ambitious is what gives them the ability to make a movie like this," producer Erwin Stoff said. For Fox "to have a machinery that is capable of turning this out, and being able to take this kind of artistic risk, is pretty extraordinary."

A big-studio film with artistic ambitions and brazenly aimed at adults would appear to stand little chance of success in a business in which animated films, raunchy comedies or superhero sagas rule the box-office roost. Yet movies made for the Chardonnay-and-brie set can occasionally cross over to the popcorn masses, as "Black Swan," "The Kings Speech" and "The Social Network" all recently proved.

Fox Studios Co-Chairman Tom Rothman said films "by grown-ups, for grown-ups" can be profitable when made on a limited budget. For example, "The Devil Wears Prada," the studio's 2006 adaptation of the novel lampooning the New York fashion world, was made for $35 million and raked in $327 million in global ticket sales. ("Water for Elephants" cost about $40 million, people familiar with the matter said.)

"We have had some very big, significant hits with exactly those kinds of films: grown-up literary adaptations. Whether it's 'Devil Wears Prada' or 'Marley & Me,'" Rothman said. "If you make them well, and you make them for an intelligent price, you absolutely can make intelligent movies."

The studio has taken licks for releasing its share of mindless, formulaic flicks like "The A-Team" and "Marmaduke." It has also relied on the appeal of digital animation, as in the "Ice Age" trilogy, and mined Marvel's "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four" comic books, as a bulwark for profits.

But studios don't like to be known solely for kids' stuff and teen fluff. Rothman said Fox's multiple divisions enable the studio to make movies for varying audiences, giving it latitude to release the acclaimed "Black Swan," which garnered actress Natalie Portman an Oscar, as well the popular "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," which didn't win any nods for either Alvin, Simon or Theodore.

"We couldn't survive as a company if we made only 'Water for Elephants' and 'Life of Pi,'" Rothman said. "Likewise, I don't believe we could survive as a company if we only made 'X-Men' and 'Mr. Popper's Penguins.'"

It took five years and numerous script revisions for "Water for Elephants," a story about the marginal lives of circus performers during the Great Depression, to reach the big screen.

Producer Andrew Tennenbaum had secured the film rights to the book and was working with Gil Netter, whose producing credits include "Marley & Me" and "The Blind Side." About the same time, Stoff's client, director Francis Lawrence, was interested in turning it into a film. Stoff called Netter and Tennenbaum about a collaboration.

The three producers and the director then banded together, Stoff said, to improve their chances of successfully pitching the project to a studio.

"On the surface, a book set during the Great Depression about a circus is not the most obvious sale in the world — in spite of the fact that it might have been a bestselling book," Stoff said.

Lawrence and Stoff approached Richard LaGravenese, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on "The Fisher King," to adapt Gruen's book for the big screen. The screenwriter made some changes to the story, combining two major characters: August, who in the novel is the head animal trainer, and Uncle Al, the book's abusive circus owner. LaGravenese also reworked how the central character, Jacob, recounts his experiences with the circus and his relationship with his longtime love, Marlena.

Fox 2000 President Elizabeth Gabler said she recognized it would be challenging to make a commercially viable film drawn from a story that unfolds during a bleak period in the nation's history. But she was sold by the filmmaker's decision to focus on the romance and the circus spectacle. "It was a love story, it was a story of redemption, it was a story of hope," she said, ticking off classic Hollywood crowd-pleasers.

Movie trailers and TV spots — the chief marketing tool to sell the movie to the public — play up the love angle and the vivid imagery of the big top. Missing from the promotional campaign is any hint of animal cruelty that is central to the plot.

Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, a website that tracks theatrical box office results, said movies based on literary novels rarely break the $100-million mark in domestic ticket sales. The ones that break out typically fit popular genres, such as Sony Pictures' adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love." Darker subjects, like the film version of Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," a tale of a child's murder, don't fare as well.

"It really depends on how the story translates to the big screen and whether it can have an appealing hook and deliver it in an appealing genre," Gray said. "In regards to 'Water for Elephants,' that's being pushed as a romance. I think we're looking at something that performs on the higher end, because it's a very striking-looking picture and has very appealing actors in it."

Fox was able to attract top-flight talent to "Water for Elephants." Reese Witherspoon, who received an Academy Award for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in the Fox 2000 film "Walk the Line," was the first to commit. She was joined by "Twilight" heartthrob Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz, fresh off his Oscar win for "Inglourious Basterds."

Gabler said the filmmakers were able to deliver the movie on its modest budget by making cost-conscious decisions, including shooting the film's numerous train scenes meant to be depicted along the Eastern seaboard on an old rail line that runs through citrus groves in Ventura.

"There's only one way to make this movie," said Gabler, noting that Fox's box-office smashes like "Alvin and the Chipmunks" give her division the freedom to pursue less obviously commercial projects. "It makes it easier for them to say yes to me when I come to them with these difficult films."

dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

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