Fresh ideas, few sequels in store from studios

Now that studios have mastered the idea of sequels and three-quels, here comes the rub: Next summer will be remarkably sequel-lite, meaning back to the drawing board all over again — or to dusty libraries.

Another concern from this past summer — an overcrowded marketplace — could get even more serious, with a bevy of biggies scheduled to face off on the same weekend, such as “Speed Racer” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in late May, and “Get Smart” and Mike Myers’ “The Love Guru” later in June.

Most studio execs believe that films will shift dates to avoid these head-on collisions, but the point is clear that it’s impossible to find a lot of breathing room for the films.

To get them through their busiest season, studios will bank plenty of comedy (including two from current golden boy Judd Apatow), stand-alone event films and revivals of long-dormant franchises, such as “Indiana Jones 4″ and “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”

There are only two pure sequels skedded at this point: Disney-Walden’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” skedded for May 16, and Warner Bros.’ Batman follow-up “The Dark Knight,” set to unspool July 18.

It’s not necessarily an unwelcome challenge.

“What you don’t necessarily have is a monolith, suck-all-the-air-out-the-box-office sequel,” says one marketing veteran. “At the same time, you can’t watch the same three or four movies over and over again, summer after summer.”

“This is where the fun starts,” says Walt Disney prexy of production Chuck Viane. “It will be a unique summer in that it gives us all an opportunity to showcase new ideas. It shows off the ingenuity of the creative guys and the films, and how we market them.”

It’ll be the first summer in recent years when there wasn’t an entry from “Spider-Man,” “Pirates” or “Shrek” (or some combo of those). Sans the best-known franchises, will moviegoers still turn out to the degree they did this past summer? Critics may bash Hollywood for churning out one sequel after another, but the pics have built in brand awareness and the results are indisputable.

The upside: Summer 2008 will give studios a chance to birth new franchises, as well as resurrect once-lucrative properties.

“As it looks right now, the summer of ’08 will have a lot more original programming than the summer of ’07,” says 20th Century Fox prexy of distribution Bruce Snyder.

The summer sesh kicks off May 2 with Marvel Studios’ adaptation of comicbook “Iron Man,” toplining Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. Pic will be distributed by Paramount.

Skedded to bow the next weekend are Warner Bros.’ “Speed Racer,” based on the 1960s Japanese animated TV skein and directed by the Wachowskis, and Fox’s Keanu Reeves starrer “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” director Scott Derrickson’s remake of the sci-fi classic.

With the release calendar still in flux for next summer, it wouldn’t be surprising if one of these two movies moved, although “Speed Racer” will be more of a family draw.

Several films are based on “well-known” properties, but the question is whether younger auds are even aware of the previous incarnations. They include “Speed Racer,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and WB’s feature adaptation of 1960s television comedy “Get Smart,” starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway.

By the time Steven Spielberg’s “Indy 4″ opens on May 22, it will have been 19 years since Harrison Ford last appeared as the adventuring archaeologist. For Universal’s “Mummy” franchise, it will have been eight years since the last release.

“Does a franchise have an expiration date? It’s a valid issue,” says one studio exec.

Summer 2007 proved that earlier hit properties can be brought back to life, considering the successful revivals of the “Die Hard” franchise at Fox and “Rush Hour” at New Line.

Marvel and Universal are again going to be doing some reimagining next summer when they try again with “The Incredible Hulk,” this time starring Edward Norton and coming five years after Ang Lee’s darker version of “Hulk” yielded only modest results. Pic, which takes a purely comicbook approach, is set to bow June 13, going up against M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening,” which Fox has presently slotted for that date.

Bringing another comicbook anti-hero to the bigscreen, Sony has set Will Smith-Charlize Theron starrer “Hancock” (previously titled “Tonight He Comes”) for the July 4 frame.

The following weekend, New Line’s family action-adventure “Journey 3-D,” based on Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” is skedded to unspool. Other family titles include DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda,” which is set to bow June 6, and Disney-Pixar’s “Wall-E,” which opens June 27.

Comedy will be a main attraction of summer 2008, beginning with Sony’s romantic laffer “Made of Honor,” starring Patrick Dempsey, which opens against “Iron Man,” and Fox’s Eddie Murphy starrer “Starship Dave,” skedded to unspool May 30. On June 20, Paramount’s Myers starrer “The Love Guru” is set to go up against “Get Smart.”

Other laffers include Sony’s Adam Sandler starrer “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” set for release June 6; Fox’s Cameron Diaz-Ashton Kutcher comedy “What Stays in Vegas …,” skedded to bow June 27; DreamWorks-Par’s “Tropic Thunder,” directed by and starring Ben Stiller, set for release July 11; and Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly starrer “Stepbrothers,” which Sony has skedded to open July 25.

Apatow is producing two pics targeted for next summer, Universal’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and Sony’s “Pineapple Express.”

The unusual concentration of franchise sequels bowing in summer 2007 was neither ideal nor avoidable.

“It is interesting that you would have one summer where there are six or seven and then the following summer, have only two. It is unique. Usually, you try to find a happy medium,” Viane says.

Still, it could prove hard for the film biz to match the record-breaking domestic box office of summer 2007, which crossed the $4 billion mark for the first time and saw four titles cross the $300 million mark in a historic display of power: “Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates of Caribbean: At World’s End,” “Shrek the Third” and robot actioner “Transformers.”

“Transformers” was the only non-sequel.

Studios are quick to remind, however, that box office receipts don’t equal profitability.

“Fresh ideas,” says a studio topper, “don’t normally cost you as much to make.”

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