Studio splitting 'Poseidon' pricetag with newcomer

In a summer populated with buccaneers, mutants and monks, Warner Bros. is betting big on a movie starring a luxury liner.

WB is splitting the $150 million production pricetag on “Poseidon” 50-50 with a new co-financing entity, Virtual Studios. But the film is a huge gamble for the studio.

Unlike rival tentpoles, pic has neither the built-in branding of franchises like “X-Men” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” nor the heavy buzz that has preceded “The Da Vinci Code” and “Superman Returns,” WB’s other summer tentpole. Plus, there are no marquee names — and remakes are iffy propositions at the box office. Remember “The Stepford Wives”?

So what does the Wolfgang Petersen-helmed pic have that the others don’t?

According to one studio exec, it’s a special-effects extravaganza and “the adrenaline rush of the summer.”

In an age of CGI effects, “Poseidon” puts a big emphasis on real spectacle. For the production, two soundstages on the Warners lot were converted into gargantuan water tanks; in one, the liner was upside down, in the other, right side up.

The upside-down ballroom was flooded with 90,000 gallons of water, captured by 10 cameras in one take. At any given point, there were 15 stuntpeople on the set, although the stars did perform some of their own maneuvers. And the production spilled over into three additional soundstages to re-create the feeling of being on an ocean liner.

“The boat is the star. Add in the special effects, which is what movies are about now, and you have a hit at the box office. It’s what people want to see,” says one person who was involved with “Poseidon” but claims to be objective.

Another exec adds, “Disaster movies almost always work.”

Studio will release “Poseidon” May 12, one week after “Mission: Impossible 3″ bows and a week before Sony opens “The Da Vinci Code.”

Warners is looking to the formula so successfully executed by 20th Century Fox with “The Day After Tomorrow.” That film, released in May 2004, nabbed $542.7 million globally.

There were no major stars in “Tomorrow.” The cast of “Poseidon” includes Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss and Emmy Rossum.

“Poseidon” is a redo of 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure,” a huge hit at the time ($84.5 million domestically) that has become a camp classic, if only for Shelley Winters’ swimming scenes.

Yet Petersen has repeatedly said his isn’t a remake in the strictest sense.

Last fall, TV viewers showed up in only so-so numbers for NBC’s “The Poseidon Adventure.” (NBC bought rights to the book, though WB owned remake rights to the film.)

NBC’s telepic was blasted by critics for updating the storyline to have the Poseidon capsize after a terrorist attack. In Petersen’s film, the liner capsizes after being hit by a rogue wave, as in the original.

The German-born Petersen views “Poseidon” as the final piling in his trilogy of water pics, after 1981’s “Das Boot” and 2000’s “The Perfect Storm,” also a WB pic.

One exec at a rival studio, citing “Storm” and “Day After Tomorrow,” observes, “There hasn’t been a movie featuring a big wave that hasn’t opened.”

(Gabriel Snyder contributed to this report.)

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