Summer Promises a Flood of Movie Sequels

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Thomas Haden Church and Tobey Maguire square off in the special effects-heavy Spider-Man 3. Columbia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Columbia Pictures
spiderman3

Thomas Haden Church and Tobey Maguire square off in the special effects-heavy Spider-Man 3.

Columbia Pictures

Hollywood studios are betting that audiences will crowd into theaters this summer — and they'd better be right. They're gambling more than a billion dollars to make and market big sequels, and that's just counting the three that open in May.

First out of the box is the third Spider-Man; if insiders have the numbers right, it's probably the most expensive movie ever made. Sony says the budget was about $270 million, but several industry sources say the number has passed $350 million. That would be a record.

But Sony is hardly the only studio to spend vast amounts trying to create a spectacle that will satisfy the audience's appetite. Disney is also believed to have crossed the $300-million mark on the latest in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Disney studio chairman Dick Cook says the technology that makes it possible to put almost anything on the screen has created daunting challenges for film executives. In the old days, if a director didn't like the way some footage came out, it simply wound up on the cutting room floor.

"Now, though digital ... you can take something and change it around, move it," Cook says. "[With] today's technology, you can do almost anything."

And the ability to do almost anything opens the door to constant — and expensive — tweaking.

Even before a studio gets to that challenge, though, it has to deal with human performers — filmmakers and stars like Tobey Maguire and Johnny Depp, who demand big fees and pieces of the profit. Stacey Snider is chief executive of DreamWorks, which has another effects-driven film, Transformers, coming out in July. With success, she observes, a studio must pay to keep that talent in the sequels.

"When Tobey started ... he wasn't a big star," Snider says. "Now he is a big star. And the expectations for the effects are greater also."

The studios struggle to give up no more than 25 percent of the profit to key filmmakers and actors. But while the cost of the talent is enormous, at least it's predictable. Snider says the price of special effects is very difficult to know in advance.

"When you get an effects budget for a film that ... relies on effects for a big part of its value, you have to view that budget as a range," she says.

The high-octane directors who have the skill to get these types of movies made also have the clout to push for the shots they want. Their goal is to achieve the maximum bang without necessarily worrying about the buck. Shooting a big effects sequence can easily cost more than a million dollars a day. As Disney's Cook knows, that can put a studio on a treacherous path.

"You go that direction, and once you get into it, then it just starts to multiply and add up," he says. "And before you know it, you're not only exceeding your budget, but you're way over budget, and it's like there's no turning back because you're already into it so deeply.

Cook says the studio can only try to hang onto control. Thorough planning is imperative to ensure that the studio and director share one vision from the start. And then the studio has to keep a careful eye on the director.

"You want someone who's gonna constantly push the envelope," he says. "And at the same time, you want either a producer or a production manager or someone that's there every step of the way, saying 'Yeah, we can't afford that; we have to find a different way' — or 'If you want this, here's what you're going to have to give up.'"

In the second Pirates of the Caribbean, Cook says, the studio had to bite the bullet when it came to creating Davy Jones, the complicated, many-tentacled character played by Bill Nighy.

Davy Jones has an even bigger role in the new movie, so Cook says it was essential to get the character right. Disney tried to control costs by making the second and third installments at the same time; Cook says the savings turned out to be minimal, though there was some advantage in that the studio kept a stable of stars lined up for both sequels. Rather than waiting a couple of years or more between films, Disney had the second Pirates movie last summer, released the DVD during the holidays, and will open the next installment this month.

"It's just kind of a rolling thing, and as long as the marketplace was still on fire for Pirates, it's great to be able to do that," Cook says. "We don't have to rekindle it."

Despite all the planning, Disney is still racing, expensively, to finish Pirates. The same thing happened to Sony with Spider-Man. Since the summer is short and very crowded, changing the release date of one of these big movies is not an option. This spring every special-effects house in the business has been jammed with work. DreamWorks' Snider says that can push the studios into reckless spending.

"The price of each shot can go up, because you cannot afford to push off the release date to accommodate a more rational post-production schedule," Snider says.

Some are wondering which studio, if any, will get hurt in a summer that includes so many big films. But while the studios may have laid out record sums on their films, industry analysts are predicting a record box-office take as audiences line up to be dazzled — or at least distracted.

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