'Knocked Up,' other pics try to break through

Here is a truism about 21st century summer moviegoing: Audiences often spark to well-executed sequels, but what they really treasure is an original idea.

Such was the case last summer, when “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Break-Up” emerged as darlings, as did “Wedding Crashers” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” in 2005.

Not only did their midrange budgets allow for bigger profit potential, but they also had an abundance of what might be called the freshness factor. As big-budget fare gets increasingly derivative, the size of its B.O. footprint seemingly preordained by focus groups, a reservoir of goodwill is expanding for lower-profile releases able to use their unique wiles to outmaneuver the tentpoles.

Given the mother lode of potent sequels on tap this season, there could see an all-time high for such counterpoint cases, B.O. mavens say.

That doesn’t imply counter-programming, which is something else altogether. But there are times when titles with distinctly different DNA will open in close proximity to one another — namely, Universal’s “Knocked Up,” opening June 1, in between “Pirates 3″ and “Ocean’s Thirteen.” Others include the Catherine Zeta-Jones romantic comedy “No Reservations” opposite “The Simpsons,” or “Hairspray,” which comes one week after “Harry Potter.”

“Many times, a (highly anticipated) sequel doesn’t come with a great deal of joy,” says one studio exec. “With those super epic tentpole movies, you are dealing with such high expectations and what gets written is whether they lived up to them. But this summer is the most extreme in movie history. I think any movie that’s not a super tentpole will have to work very hard to get noticed.”

While there are ample examples of original projects getting lost in the summer shuffle — Universal’s 2005 “Cinderella Man” comes to mind — last summer it was these mid-level movies that seemed to save Hollywood’s hide, whether it be “Prada” or “The Break-Up.”

At ShoWest, the pics on everyone’s lips were still sequels. The biggest are new entries in the “Spider-Man,” “Harry Potter,” “Shrek,” “Pirates,” “Fantastic Four,” “Rush Hour” and “Bourne” franchises. But “Knocked Up,” which world-preemed recently at the South by Southwest fest, is getting tabbed early on as a potential heir to the studio sleeper throne.

Pic is the latest from Judd Apatow, the helmer who came out of TV (“Freaks and Geeks”) to provide Hollywood with the sleeper hit “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” in 2005.

“Virgin,” budgeted at around $25 million, hit over $109 million.

“Films that come to the market with big expectations are a bit of a double-edged sword,” says U marketing prexy Adam Fogelson. “If you are not one of those films, though, you’ve got other issues.”

In terms of publicity, however, the upside of the freshness factor is clear. A rave Variety review predicted “Knocked Up” would “likely will remain in megaplexes throughout the summer and, possibly, into the fall.”

Universal is hoping that the sequels fuel B.O. for a whole swath of pics, as “300″ has been doing for the top 10 over the past couple frames.

“It’s clearly possible for lots of films to perform well at the same time,” Fogelson says. “We picked the beginning of the summer because this is a movie with playability. Judd has created a brand of comedy that is so fresh and relatable.”

“Knocked” — which stars “Virgin’s” Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl of “Grey’s Anatomy” in the story of a one-night stand that leads to pregnancy for a seemingly mismatched couple — isn’t a sequel, but it falls into a specific brand of comedy. These anti-romantic comedies include films, typically R-rated, that draw male and female auds in the vein of “Crashers” “Virgin” and “There’s Something About Mary.”

“Crashers” wound up at $209 million-plus domestically, and played from July through the end of the year.

Even a gross for “Knocked Up” that’s closer to “The Break-Up’s” $119 million would help lift spirits at U, which has released a string of also-rans (“Man of the Year,” “The Black Dahlia, “Smokin’ Aces”) and modest successes (“Children of Men,” “Breach,” “The Good Shepherd”).

On the downside, Fogelson concedes that, unlike, “Crashers,” “Prada” and “Break-Up,” “Knocked” lacks topliners with proven opening clout. “Wedding Crashers” came into its weekend “at a whole different level,” he says, in part because of the talent. “But with this film, the center is a couple, so you are starting out much more balanced (demographically).”

Along with “Knocked,” there is a growing sense that “Hairspray” could prove a summer surprise.

While not entirely original — like “The Producers,” it is a musical remake of a stage smash remake of a movie — the spirit of “Hairspray” impressed many attendees at ShoWest. John Travolta and other cast members came to town for a review of clips punctuated with live song-and-dance routines.

Studio’s marketing topper Russell Schwartz, who presided over “The Lord of the Rings,” insists “Hairspray” is a “four-quadrant movie” that will be able to exploit a multigenerational cast to reel in different demos, even as turnstiles continue to spin for “Harry Potter.”

By offering blockbuster-battered auds an alternative, New Line certainly hopes to be humming one of “Hairspray’s” best-known numbers: “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more