Word is studio trying to lock down a Singer for a sequel

Will “Superman Returns” return?

Warner Bros. Pictures execs are mulling whether to go ahead with a planned sequel and ink another deal with director Bryan Singer.

The film is not such a blockbuster that a follow-up is inevitable — but not such a disappointment that a sequel would be ludicrous. After all, the first “Austin Powers” pic was a modest hit that begat two huge grossers.

Word on the Warners lot is that the studio is trying to lock down a deal with Singer for a sequel.

Many speculate that WB has invested too much time and money to walk away. What’s more, the film fuels a number of Time Warner outlets, including homevid, ancillaries and merchandising — even subsid DC Comics.

Warners and co-financing partner Legendary Pictures have a shot at breaking even on “Superman” once all the revenue streams are accounted for, but it’s going to be a long, tough haul.

Warners and Legendary — which splits all profits with the studio down the middle — are counting on strong home entertainment sales to make up for slower-than-expected box office. (WB’s 2005 “Batman Begins,” whose B.O. was comparable to that of “Superman,” earned $167 million in DVD sales, according to estimates by Variety sister pub Video Business.) Then there are the various TV windows.

There’s no doubt that with Legendary as a partner, Warners has a far easier time justifying big-budget efforts like “Superman.” At the same time, Legendary has investors to answer to.

Officially, Warners says it’s premature to talk about any sequel, since “Superman” has yet to open in certain key international territories.

Last month at the fanboy gathering Comic-Con in San Diego, Singer enthusiastically predicted the second film would bow in 2009. He promised fans more action, saying he used the first pic to “lay the foundation” for the relaunch of the franchise.

Singer said he’ll “go all ‘Wrath of Kahn’ ” on the next installment — a reference to the fact that Paramount’s long-running “Star Trek” film franchise really kicked in with its second installment, which was tighter, faster and better received than the original “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

Negotiations between Singer and the studio would get delicate if Warners wants to include over-budget penalties. Warners certainly can’t wrest control away from a director like Singer, but it can try to make sure the budget stays under a certain level.

Word is that WB and Legendary will want to keep the budget of the next one at $200 million or below, but the studio denies any such cap.

Sequels are generally costlier than the original pics, since they need more action and more special effects to tempt auds. In theory, a “Superman” follow-up could be cheaper, since expensive sets are already built, and some CGI experimentation is out of the way (e.g., how does his cape look when he flies?).

On the other hand, Universal threw in the towel with the Hulk after the first pic in the potential franchise failed to wow.

But is the character too retro? While “Superman Returns” received better notices than nearly all of the other 2006 summer tentpoles, some reviewers questioned whether the superhero is too stolid for modern-day fans, who favor darker, more complicated characters, such as Batman or Spider-Man.

Warners had believed that Superman, because of his good-beats-evil mythology, would appeal to a broader audience than Batman.

WB’s “Batman Begins” grossed $203.5 million domestically and $166.5 million overseas. “Superman Returns” could edge past its predecessor. It has grossed $190.5 million in the U.S. and $146.5 million overseas, where it has yet to open in several key territories. Conservative estimates are that the pic will gross at least $170 million overseas, bringing its worldwide total to about $360 million.

But “Superman” was far more expensive than “Batman,” whose sequel, “The Dark Knight,” was just announced by Warners. Pricetag for “Superman” included a production budget of at least $223 million, offset by $20 million in Australian tax breaks. The P&A budget was well north of $100 million.

There is an added $40 million in previous development costs for earlier aborted attempts to resurrect the superhero. The studio wrote off those costs in previous years.

Top studio execs, along with Legendary, insist they will make money on the pic when all is said and done.

But some have speculated that — based on box office alone and just counting the production budget — Warners and Legendary could each be out more than $20 million. Those losses could rise sharply when factoring in marketing costs.

Strong DVD sales could lessen the gap. In it deal with Legendary, Warners also gets a theatrical and home entertainment distribution fee.

In “Superman Returns,” the question is posed: Does the world still need Superman?

The answer isn’t clear, at least in the real world. But the world — along with Warners, Legendary and Singer — may have another chance to find out.

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