Studio looks to rebound from forgettable season

For Twentieth Century Fox, 2008 was the summer of its discontent.

The studio entered the frame solidly on top, with a No. 1 market-share lead thanks largely to the success of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Horton Hears a Who.”

But before the first heat wave descended on the nation, the mighty Century City hit factory was looking uncharacteristically cold. Unlike previous summers, the studio — headed by Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairmen and CEOs Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman — had nary a tentpole on the horizon.

While rival studios were serving up edgy R-rated comedies like “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder,” Fox looked almost retro with such mild retreads as “Meet Dave” and “The Rocker.” That left “What Happens in Vegas” — the studio’s top pic of the summer with an $80.2 million domestic haul — to battle opponents. Of the six majors, Fox was the only studio that failed to launch a $100 million domestic earner this summer (by contrast, Warner Bros., Paramount and Universal each had three).

In defense, the studio’s allies point out that the overall year’s results will make up for the summer, that releases like “Australia” will help erase the studio’s down-market image and that Fox Searchlight has an array of fourth-quarter projects that will add luster to Fox’s year.

Nevertheless — what went wrong with Fox’s summer?

  • Bad buzz: Of the eight films Fox released between May 2 and Sept. 1, only “Vegas” benefited from good word of mouth — which was reflected not only by the box office, but by critical reaction. M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” drew abysmal reviews (19% positive reviews according to Rotten Tomatoes) and took in just $64.5 million. “Space Chimps” ($28.9 million, 33% positive rating), “Mirrors” ($25.4 million, 16%), “X-Files: I Want to Believe” ($20.8 million, 33%), “Meet Dave” ($11.7 million, 20%), “Babylon A.D.” ($11.5 million, 5%) and “The Rocker” ($5.8 million, 36%). Conversely, critics fawned over such summer performers as “Dark Knight” (94%) and “Wall-E” (97%).

Marketing couldn’t open anything: In the past, Fox’s marketing team — headed by Pam Levine and Tony Sella — transformed many a frog into a box office prince. But this summer, only “The Happening” made a splashy bow with $30.5 million in its opening weekend. Three of Fox’s eight pics failed to crack double-digits in their debut frames.

However, overseas is buoying tallies: “Vegas” is heading toward $140 million internationally, “Happening” nearing $100 million, etc.

No films from Fox 2000: Elizabeth Gabler’s division, which in the past has provided some of the studio’s lower-budget sleeper hits like “Alvin” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” was a non-factor this summer. The comedy “Marley & Me,” which bows Christmas Day, marks the next offering from Fox 2000.

The strategy of being cheap and eschewing top-tier filmmakers came back to bite the studio: Although Fox has been the envy of many for its remarkable box office consistency and profit margins, many producers, agents and managers have been less than charmed. Complaints about the studio’s tendency to lowball talent — particularly writers — and Rothman’s micro-managing of productions have become widespread. A broad spectrum of reps say they are reluctant to place clients on Fox projects, citing a talent-unfriendly atmosphere. Two recent productions, “Babylon A.D.” and “Wolverine,” were rumored to have gone through Fox’s on-set maelstrom.

On the eve of the film’s release, “Babylon” helmer Mathieu Kassovitz publicly claimed the studio ruined his longtime passion project. “Wolverine” helmer Gavin Hood was nearly fired, according to sources, because of squabbles with the studio, and two backup directors were in place before Richard Donner — who is married to the film’s producer Lauren Shuler Donner — flew to the Australian set to smooth things over. At the time, Fox insisted that Richard Donner was on-set because he is a producer on the film. However, current credits for the film list various producers, but Donner is not one of them.

  • The ‘Australia’ domino effect. Fox’s “Australia” was delayed by bad weather and Russell Crowe’s exit. When Hugh Jackman was cast, that in turn delayed “Wolverine,” which had been targeted for this summer (which could have significantly changed the studio’s summer tallies). So the studio moved pics like “X-Files” into summer slots, rather than the fall, which would have been a better fit.

Development snags. While the studio is bullish on its late-2008 and ’09 slate, it simply didn’t have the pictures to move into the summer vacancy created by “Wolverine’s” delay.

Further compounding Fox’s summer woes was a backlash last month from the fanboy community, which is incensed by the studio’s lawsuit over Warner Bros.’ right to make the film “Watchmen.” Fans of the graphic novel have threatened to boycott Fox films like “Wolverine” if Fox’s legal maneuverings prevent the film from opening on schedule March 6 — though most consider that unlikely.

But if there were any lessons learned from summer 2008, Fox doesn’t appear to be altering its course. Producers, agents and managers see business as usual on the Century City lot, with the only exception being a drastic strategic makeover for Fox partner New Regency, which is moving into more highbrow fare. One agent says former Fox exec and current Regency co-chairman Hutch Parker has made it clear to the community that he is looking forward to working with the kinds of directors he never could at Fox and that Regency will now be the filmmaker-friendly part of the Fox family.

Parker told Daily Variety last week, “We want New Regency to be a first stop for top-flight filmmakers.”

To be fair, Fox’s repeated mantra is that market share is less important than profitability, and the studio’s investment on many of these pics was relatively low. “Meet Dave” was co-financed with Dune and New Regency, while “Mirrors” and “Space Chimps” were fully financed by third parties.

Though Fox has no plans for a major overhaul, the studio has scheduled a strategy meeting to assess the status of its superheroes, a group sorely missed this summer. On the agenda, Fox will mull the possibility of more “X-Men” spinoffs, including a young-X-Men project as well as “Deadpool,” based on a character played by Ryan Reynolds in “Wolverine.” The studio is even considering reviving the “Daredevil” property.

“I don’t see Fox changing anything,” says producer-manager JC Spink. “Just because it didn’t work this summer doesn’t mean they should change anything. Everyone has an off season. But look at how many summers in a row it has worked for them.”

And on paper, the year-end looks good with “Australia” and “Marley and Me,” and so does next summer, with the studio releasing no fewer than three tentpoles: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on May 1, “Night at the Museum 2: Escape From the Smithsonian” on Memorial Day weekend and “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” on the Fourth of July weekend.

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