Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fox Demonstrates the Madness of the Film Industry as They Plan a "Relaunch" of the Fantastic Four


There are times when studios completely drop the ball and need to remake movies, or reboot franchises. Sometimes the source material underperformed because the initial attempt to tell a story fell short of the mark, either financially or creatively. A perfect example is the 1980s film version of Captain America. The 80s film version of everyone's favorite All-American Hero is arguably the worst superhero film ever made. It was a failure both financially and critically.

Typically, film studios could care less about whether a film fails critically, as long as it succeeds financially. As long as the film brings in money, they'll be satisfied. Likely, they'll make sequels. That seems to be changing. Now the studios seem to be becoming obsessed with making "re-envisionings" of moderately to very successful franchises. First, Marvel decided to remake the Hulk. They argued that the Ang Lee version lacked the quintessential "Hulk Smash" qualities they and fans were looking for, and that the film underperformed financially. Therefore, it was "necessary" to have a remake in the theaters a mere 5 years after the last version of the film.

This was, naturally, a load of crap. Sure, the Ang Lee film wasn't what comic book fans wanted or expected (that includes the good folks here at Cinerati). It wasn't really a Hulk film. As comic book fans, we don't know what it was. But that doesn't matter. There are only 200,000 or so of us comic book fans, and that only comes to $2-million of any superhero movie's box office. For a superhero movie to succeed, it has to appeal to non-comic book fans and put rears in the seats. Did Ang Lee's film, universally panned by critic and fan alike, succeed? Yes. The film made $132-million domestically, and had a world-wide gross of almost $242-million. Enough money that any DVD sales were all gravy.

But they made a re-envisioned remake anyway. Did The Incredible Hulk do scads better than the Ang Lee's Hulk? Critically? Yes. The new version is closer to what people expected in a Hulk film. The film has its problems, not the least of which is the abandonment of the Hulk as metaphor for Nuclear Arms for the more topical Hulk as metaphor for performance enhancing baseball players. That and the conversion of the Hulk's cold-war anti-thesis into a British special forces guy who doesn't like the fact that he is aging. So...it's not the comic book Hulk, but who cares. As I wrote earlier, there are only 200,000 of us comic book fans anyway. Did The Incredible Hulk do better financially? No. It cost $150-million, which given that dollars decrease in value with time means the films cost similar amounts. $132-million in 2003 is approximately $150-million in 2008. But The Incredible Hulk made $254-million in world wide box office, which is also similar to the $242-million that Ang Lee's version made.

While it might have been silly from a certain point of view for Marvel to give us a remade Hulk, it was profitable and it gave us a Hulk film where the first hour was actually fun and where we didn't have to watch killer poodles, so it didn't seem ridiculous for the studio to make the move. If only we had known what was coming down the pipe.

What was coming down the pipe was a re-envisioning of The Punisher in last year's Punisher: War Zone. Never mind that Thomas Jane was compelling as Frank Castle. The film only managed $34-million in domestic box office and had little appeal overseas. Add to that the fact that some fans panned the film as not at all like the comic book. A claim that is patently false. Excepting the lame and over-the-top performance by John Travolta many of the scenes were cut straight from the Marvel Max series. No one understands why anyone hires John Travolta to play villains, he can't pull it off. Cast him as a nice guy and it's often a real treat, but as a villain he's like nails on chalkboard.

The Thomas Jane Punisher was the Punisher of the couple Garth Ennis series and not of the older Steven Grant or Mike Baron issues. So that explains some of the fan backlash. Older fans, who no longer buy comic books, didn't get what they expected. Newer fans got the Punisher of the books, but sadly they also got a villain who was out of the old Batman television series. So...with critical and financial "failure" Lionsgate decided a remake was in order and made Punisher: War Zone. .

If they wanted to make a better Punisher movie... they failed. If they wanted to make more money... they failed. The new Punisher film cost Lionsgate $22-million and made a whopping $8-million. There were some fun elements to the new film, but the box office demonstrated that the character only had so much appeal to him beyond the comic fan base.

That's really the crux of the issue. Some characters have a limit to how broad an appeal they have. The Hulk? He's worth around $250-million. The Punisher? $30-million if you're lucky.

The same is likely true of the latest re-envisioning coming down the pipe. Fox plans to make a whole new Fantastic Four movie with a new cast and a new vision -- less "bubble gum". I guess $329-million and $280-million aren't profitable enough for Fox. They have to dive in with a re-envisioning to make the title less "bubble gum." Because, you know, the Fantastic Four is known for its super grim story lines.

[sarcasm]Super grim stories are so easy to write when one of your characters' superpower is elasticity. Yeah, comics are filled with grim stretchy guys like Plastic Man and Elongated Man. Those guys make Rorschach look like Jerry Lewis. [/sarcasm]

It just doesn't seem to make sense, even given lukewarm critical and fan acceptance of the current Fantastic Four -- especially given how perfect Chris Evans is as the Human Torch. It doesn't make sense...unless you're a Hollywood studio who might have to turn the rights over if you don't make a film using the intellectual property and you think that a sequel might not play as well marketing wise as a re-invention.

The marketing shift for a reboot makes sense when thinking about a studio desperately clinging to IP rights. This quote from ICv2 might help to put a little light on the subject, "with Marvel eager to reclaim its properties for its Marvel Studios moviemaking arm, Fox is in a situation of “use it or lose it” with the FF and Daredevil. Since the Fantastic Four films were far more successful that the ill-fated Fox Daredevil, it makes sense for the studio to concentrate its efforts on the FF first."

You see Marvel wants those rights back and Fox has a limited window to keep that $300-million a film franchise in its stable. They have to make something and make it fast or rights return to Marvel. So instead of negotiating with the cast of the prior two films, who are more expensive now and might have scheduling conflicts, you sell the public on the re-envision angle. You kill three birds with one stone. You potentially make the movie cheaper, you talk the people who were critical of the first two into giving you another chance, and you retain the rights for another sequel if this one makes another $300-million. Win-win for Fox.

You know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of the Roger Corman version of the Fantastic Four. You see...he made that one on a tight schedule just so someone could keep the option.
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