No horror story for studio genre labels

Diverse slate helps specialty banners adjust

Ever cyclical, the film industry uses up movie genres like Kleenex, crumpling and tossing them away until audiences are ready for a fresh box. Sword-and-sandal epics. Buddy-cop pics. Gross-out teen sex comedies. Torture porn.

With hard-R horror pics hitting a hard patch of late, you’d think all the startup companies that hoped to milk the genre might be wringing their hands right now.

But execs at such specialty banners say they saw signs of the horror burnout coming, insisting that their labels were never devoted exclusively to horror in the first place.

The slates of the studio genre labels — Fox Atomic, Focus Features’ Rogue Pictures, Sony’s Screen Gems and the Weinstein Co.’s Dimension — are full of genre films: teen comedies, PG-13 thrillers, urban actioners and yes, a few horror survivors, ones deemed hardy enough to cut through the product glut. Execs hope that remakes and titles branded with such names as Stephen King and Rob Zombie will cut through the marketing clutter.

“The audience needs a new destination,” says Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice, whose Fox Atomic label got off to a rocky start with two horror pics.

Back in the day, the studios released a few B-movie horror titles a year to rake in some extra coin with minimal risk. Indies like Avco-Embassy, American Independent Pictures and New World Pictures also relied on horror staples. Every few years, a horror hit like John Carpenter’s “Halloween” or George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” would inspire a tide of horror imitators, which would ebb and then flow again.

New Line Cinema built itself on the backs of Freddy and Jason; another “Friday the 13th” sequel, as yet untitled, is scheduled for 2009.

Indie Lionsgate sparked the most recent horror craze. The new genre labels hoped to repeat Lionsgate’s success, anchored around the hardcore “Saw” and, to a lesser degree, “Hostel” franchises.

Lionsgate prexy of theatrical distribution Tom Ortenberg saw that the horror market would become saturated. Hence, Lionsgate is adjusting its gameplan. Studio is looking to mix things up and make psychological thrillers, for instance, as opposed to only hardcore horror.

“We are going to continue to be leaders in the horror genre for the foreseeable future,” Ortenberg says.

Horror also drove — and continues to drive — countless homevideo sales.

Entrepreneurial execs started genre labels when they saw niche opportunities in the marketplace. Bob Weinstein launched Dimension, which allowed Miramax to keep its identity as a quality label. Steady grosses for the likes of “Children of the Corn 2,” “Hellraiser 3,” “Highlander 3” and the “Scream” and “Scary Movie” series helped to buttress riskier Miramax fare; the recent $68.5 million hit “1408” was a welcome boon for the fledgling Weinstein Co.

One of the fathers of the current horror wave is Clint Culpepper, who started the Screen Gems label in 1999 at the behest of Sony’s John Calley. Culpepper, prexy of the division, figured out which pictures he could make without stepping on the toes of big Columbia and little Sony Pictures Classics: horror, urban and teen pics.

While Screen Gems earned a fortune on horror fare like “The Cell,” “Resident Evil,” “When a Stranger Calls” and “Emily Rose,” Culpepper and marketing president Marc Weinstock say they figured out a year ago that the horror market was weakening. Sure enough, Screen Gems pics like “The Messengers,” “The Covenant” and “Vacancy” all came up short relative to expectations.

While good genre movies feed a hungry audience’s appetite, a line of stinkers turns them into fussy eaters — a lesson the Screen Gems team takes to heart.

“Now you need movies with good concepts to work,” says Weinstock, “and to reach audiences in innovative and clever ways.”

Screen Gems is pulling out the promotional stops for its “Resident Evil: Extinction” the third in the vidgame-based franchise, with star Milla Jovovich attending Comic-Con for the first time this year. The pic’s trailer has drawn 600,000 downloads in the first five days on Yahoo Movies. The norm for most pictures is 25,000.

Going forward, Culpepper has lined up a more diverse slate. There’s the female action pic “The Crossing”; “Armored,” an urban heist pic; a remake of “The Stepfather”; Stephen Frears directing a David-and-Goliath trial story, “The Burial”; the Lawrence Kasdan-blessed remake of “The Big Chill” aimed at African-American auds; a true-story Holocaust reparations drama based on a documentary; and two teen comedies branded with the Maxim men’s mag: football players at cheerleading camp and a Mardi Gras-centered pic. In development: an untitled burlesque movie with 12 musical numbers.

Dimension is going strong, thanks to “Scary Movie 4” and “1408.” Bob Weinstein says he doesn’t pay any attention to the market, he just follows his gut. Having invested in the “Halloween” franchise that spawned “Halloween H2O,” he decided he liked Rob Zombie’s “Devil’s Rejects” and hired him to direct a reimagining of the Carpenter original. Tyler Mane stars as killer Michael Myers, while Scout Taylor-Compton assumes the plucky Jamie Lee Curtis role.

Dimension also has writer-director Frank Darabont’s “Stephen King’s The Mist” — a more traditional monsters and cataclysm pic — on tap for November.

“We don’t make any rules or pick movies by any particular genre,” says Weinstein. “Projects come to me and I do them regardless if there are 50 horror movies. If I like it, I do it.”

Less secure going forward are the new kids on the block, Rogue and Fox Atomic, which are playing catch-up as they figure out the competitive landscape.

Rogue’s co-presidents, ex-Dimension exec Andrew Rona in Los Angeles and Andrew Karpen in New York, learned that just sticking the name of a familiar title on a Michael Bay Platinum Dunes production and executing it stylishly won’t make up for an out-of-date concept audiences don’t want to see; its remake of “The Hitcher” was DOA.

Rogue is in the hunt for a marketing chief to better exploit the likes of Sarah Michelle Gellar in “The Return.” More gratifying were the boffo worldwide results for Edgar Wright’s genre spoofs “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” There’s more comedy to come in the Labor Day release of slapstick PG-13 ping-pong comedy “Balls of Fury,” from the team behind “Reno: 911,” as well as the Wayans’ brothers’ R-rated slapstick actioner “Dynomite,” based on their comics series “Super Bad James Dynomite,” starring Marlon Wayans as the New York ex-cop hero.

Rona insists the label isn’t worried about selling Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in 2008’s thriller “The Strangers,” or Platinum Dunes’ upcoming remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark.” “It’s more action than horror,” he says.

Rogue also picked up rights to the vampire videogame “Castlevania” for Paul Anderson to produce; “Sanctum,” a high-def 3-D underwater action movie co-written and produced by James Cameron; Guillermo del Toro’s production of “The Changeling”; and the Random House Films thriller “Infested,” about a spreading zombie parasite. The label’s big-budget $33 million play, the most ever spent on a Rogue film, is “Doomsday,” about an epidemic that cuts London off from the rest of the world. It’s directed by “The Descent” helmer Neil Marshall.

Twentieth Century Fox rewarded Rice’s stellar performance at Searchlight with a second label, Fox Atomic. To run it, he brought in John Hegeman, who made his name as a marketer of “Blair Witch Project.” But the label’s “Turistas” was no “Blair Witch,” nor were the two horror sequels to Searchlight pics “28 Days Later” and “The Hills Have Eyes.”

“Too much of a good thing loses its appeal,” says Hegeman. “When we launched the company, our focus was not on a specific genre. We’ve targeted making movies for 17- to 24-year-olds since day one: horror, action, comedy. Unfortunately for us, the first couple of movies were horror, which define who you are. We’re emphasizing quality — five or six films a year — over quantity.”

Having canceled Atomic’s remake of “Rev
enge of the Nerds” two weeks into production, Rice invested in a major piece of exec power to run production: Fox production’s Debbie Liebling, who backed “Borat,” “Dodgeball” and Comedy Central’s “South Park.”

“She’s the best comedy exec in town,” says Rice. “She kickstarted an aggressive development of comedies.”

Laffers in the pipeline include the inspirational sports goof “The Comebacks”; “The Rocker,” starring Rainn Wilson and Will Arnett; the action comedy “Smash and Grab”; and “The Simpsons” writer Larry Doyle’s “I Love You, Beth Cooper.”

One thing you can count on: Horror will be back, in all its guises.

“A slowdown,” says Hegeman, “will get the appetite going again down the road.”

Adds Culpepper: “Everything old is new again. It always comes back.”

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