H’w’d’s new toga party

Defying tentpole tenets, studios revive orgy of costume epics

The studios have clear mandates for their tentpole pics: The films must lend themselves to sequels, fast-food tie-ins, endless merchandising possibilities — and controllable budgets.

So why are so many majors about to make mega-films that meet none of these criteria?

For various reasons, Hollywood is hitting the history books. Not since the early-1960s have the studios been so go-go-go for togas.

Warner Bros.-Village Roadshow’s tentatively titled “Troy,” Fox-Universal’s “Alexander the Great” and Revolution/Sony’s “Hannibal” are just three of the B.C. biggies in store.

And, broadening its History 101 curriculum, studios are prepping a dozen more period epics covering, for example, the Civil War (“Cold Mountain”), Napoleonic Wars (Fox’s “Master and Commander”) and the Texas Revolution (“The Alamo”).

The reasons? Success breeds success — they hope.

The $458 million global B.O. for DreamWorks-Universal’s “Gladiator” encouraged studio brass to dust off toga pics stuck in development hell; now, 18 months later, the scripts have been written and the talent deals are in place.

Directors and producers also are enamored with their new techno toys. CGI can create crowds, combat, countrysides, chariot races, and even pull off a minor miracle or two: Techies found a way to insert Oliver Reed into key “Gladiator” scenes after the actor had died.

Epic pics also create bragging rights, offering a studio the kind of prestige that often eludes other tentpoles: “Gladiator” got good reviews and a slew of Oscars, including awards for best pic and actor.

This history movement is a throwback to 50 years ago, when Hollywood’s long love affair with Biblical epics blossomed, partly as a desperate (and unsuccessful) way to lure audiences from their TV sets.

The 1950s saw a flood of such pics as “The Robe,” “Quo Vadis” and “Ben-Hur.”

And soon, “runaway production” meant shooting in Italy or Spain, such as Samuel Bronston’s behemoths “El Cid,” “Fall of the Roman Empire” (which featured some of the same characters and incidents as “Gladiator”) and “55 Days at Peking.”

But Hollywood should take a history lesson from the recent past.

By the early-1960s, audiences tired of the genre thanks to a market flooded with cheapo “epics,” dull Biblical films and “Hercules” ripoffs; even big-scale sagas like the 1963 “Cleopatra” proved disastrous, so Hollywood hung its togas in the closet.

Until now, that is.

Among the projects expected to begin shooting by mid-2003:

  • Wolfgang Petersen put the brakes on “Superman vs. Batman” to direct Warner Bros.’ and Village Roadshow’s “Troy,” an adaptation of “The Iliad,” which depicts the dueling rivalry between Achilles and Hector during the Trojan War. Brad Pitt is slated to star as one of the two heroes in the David Benioff-scripted project.

  • Baz Luhrmann and Dino De Laurentiis have teamed to spearhead the Fox and Universal co-production “Alexander the Great,” a biopic of the Macedonian king, who conquered the known world in his 20s.

    Leonardo DiCaprio is interested in starring in the Ted Tally-scripted project. But he also has been attached to star in Martin Scorsese’s Alexander epic across town. Both are competing with a similar project from Intermedia, which Oliver Stone wants to direct and have Colin Farrell lead.

  • At Sony-based Revolution Studios, Vin Diesel is set to play Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who traversed the Alps with elephants to attack Rome in the 3rd century B.C.

    Sony’s own Columbia Pictures had been developing its own pic about Hannibal with producer Doug Wick for the last five years, as did Fox, with Denzel Washington once attached. “Gladiator” co-scribe David Franzoni has been hired to wrestle Ross Leckie’s novel “Hannibal” into a script.

  • Michael Mann is looking to direct “Gates of Fire” for Universal, with George Clooney potentially leading 300 Spartans and 7,000 allied Greeks, to hold back an army of over 2 million Persians for several days in 480 B.C. at the Battle of Thermopylae. David Self is adapting the Steven Pressfield novel.

    At the same time, Fox has already begun developing its own version of the siege, with Erik Jendresen scripting “The 300 Spartans.”

  • Jumping a few centuries later, Disney is remembering Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie’s Mexican standoff at “The Alamo,” with “The Rookie” helmer John Lee Hancock set to direct. Imagine Entertainment’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are producing from a script by John Sayles and Stephen Gaghan.

Elsewhere, there are the Civil War dramas “Cold Mountain,” with Anthony Minghella at the helm for MGM-Miramax, and “Ghosts of October” at DreamWorks.

Focus Features and U.K.-based Granada Film are eyeballing a new version of “Vanity Fair,” which like “Commander” is set during the Napoleonic Wars. Mira Nair will helm from Julian Fellowes’ script.

As with all period pics, one stumbling block for many of these films is the going price to make an epic these days.

With A-list screenwriters, stars and directors attached, many of these pics have seen their budgets balloon to epic proportions even before costly production shoots in faraway lands can even take place.

The Alexander the Great pics are said to come with $140 million pricetags. Warner’s “Troy” is easily calling for a budget north of $100 million. And the sea battles being staged for “Master and Commander” won’t sail for less than $135 million.

The costs have made some studio bosses balk.

Having struggled to turn a profit on the epic “Pearl Harbor,” Disney’s Michael Eisner had issues with Howard and Grazer’s $125 million budget for “Alamo.” Requests to trim the budget to $75 million and reduce upfront fees in exchange for back-end participation resulted in Howard ankling the director’s chair and Crowe leaving the film.

However, advancements in special f/x are giving filmmakers the ability to cost-effectively create, inside a computer, armies of elephants crossing the Alps, the glories of Babylon, or thousands of Macedonian troops trekking across the desert (though Luhrmann and De Laurentiis say they have use of the Moroccan army in filming their Alexander scenes).

After “Gladiator” bowed, a slew of A-list helmers, especially names not known for being familiar with technology, flocked to Industrial Light & Magic and other f/x powerhouses to see if their visions were feasible.

It happened again after the bow this summer of “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones,” whose locations and battle sequences are mostly digital.

“Directors are trying to get an education about how you can make a film and not need to go to 80 locations and recruit huge armies,” says ILM CEO Jim Morris.

“More and more directors are trying to understand how to use digital tools to tell stories. Creative people see a movie like ‘Gladiator’ and realize that they can now make the movie they’ve always wanted to make.”

The f/x biz is welcoming these projects with open arms.

“It’s cool to make ‘Star Wars’ movies with aliens and splashy f/x,” Morris says. “But the tools are equally applicable for historical movies and epics. They can transport you to another time and place. And that’s what directors and producers are beginning to realize.”

And unlike such pricy tentpoles as “Spider-Man” and the “Star Wars” pics, these films are unlikely to become franchises.

Once the Trojan War has ended, and after Davy Crockett has kicked the bucket, there’s no sequel. And while there could be some merchandising, it’s hard to imagine a Hannibal Happy Meal.

Fox’s “Master and Commander” is one of the few period pics that lends itself to sequels; the Peter Weir-helmed pic is based on the first of a series of 20 novels by Patrick O’Brian.

Still, the heroics of historical figures like Alexander the Great, Davy Crockett or Hannibal make for easily marketable must-sees at the multiplex and offer the promise of a career bump for helmers, scripters and thesps.

Having been branded the next action hero, Diesel is looking at “Hannibal” as a way to b
e taken more seriously and to prove to auds that he has acting chops. After all, historical epics proved big boosts to Mel Gibson with “Braveheart” and Russell Crowe with “Gladiator.”

At the very least, they offer enough eye candy to guarantee B.O. gold.

Consider the way Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos describes “The 300 Spartans”: “It’s a bloody, macho tale filled with honor, sacrifice, swords, arrows and spears.”

What more does a moviegoer want?

Historical epics may have become some of Hollywood’s biggest hits, but they also have contributed to its biggest failures (“Cleopatra,” “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Heaven’s Gate”). Yet at the end of the day, spending the money needed to make these epics may be worth every penny.

“Getting past the dollars and cents, these projects will give a studio cachet,” says one major studio topper (who ironically doesn’t have an epic in the works).

“That buys you a lot. Studio execs who can say they made ‘Alexander the Great’ will have every director and star wanting to work with them, whether they made money on the film or not. You can attract whomever you want because of that. If it gets nominated for Oscars or wins them, that’s even more cachet.”

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