'Avatar,' 'Benjamin,' 'Wild Things' are gambles

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

The figure that haunts every studio chief’s dreams is a high-profile auteur whose artistic vision outweighs his financial constraints.

Sometimes the gamble on a marriage of artist and epic pays off. James Cameron’s “Titanic” went way over budget and behind schedule, but resulted in $1.85 billion at the worldwide box office, the highest-grossing blockbuster of all time.

On the other hand, execs can’t forget “Cleopatra” and “Heaven’s Gate.”

Blood pressure has risen for execs at Fox, Paramount and Warner Bros. over, respectively, “Avatar,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” The studios say that the cumulative budget of the three is $500 million. Others say the pricetags total closer to $800 million.

Each film represents a different set of risks — technological, artistic and, of course, fiscal. Each film started big and got bigger.

While the studios will continue to push for new eye-popping ways to lure audiences into massive event-movies, the days of lavish spending on high-end dramas is under scrutiny by conglom parents.

One note of caution: The major studios, notoriously secretive by nature, are especially protective when it comes to their high-budget entries. Many studio execs associated with these films were reluctant to give details, so the information was augmented by talk with the craftsmen themselves and their supporting casts.

THE TENTPOLE

Fox execs are sweating as Cameron again pushes the frontiers of f/x and motion picture technology with the CG/motion-capture/live-action 3-D “Avatar.” The filmmaker worked on advance R&D for six years — incredibly, studio execs say they plowed only $10 million into that, gambling that Cameron’s new process would even work.

The director, working with VFX whiz Rob Legato, showed the studio advance pre-viz footage demonstrating how high-def video cameras could track actors moving inside a virtual CG set. Initially budgeted at $200 million, the sci-fi epic was pushed back from May to December 2009 to give the director more time to combine in the computer all necessary elements: 3-D motion-capture data of the actors on bare sets, CG environments, and final animation of the human avatars (Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver) and alien characters (Teresa Saldana, CCH Pounder). The photo-real digital film is 20% live-action with humans shot on location and 80% live-action mixed with CG elements. “It’s a CG film with live-action in it,” Legato says.

Sources close to the studio admit there was a time when it was terrified that Cameron’s process wouldn’t work. Execs relaxed a tad when they got to see finished footage. Giving Cameron and Weta Digital in New Zealand (where substantial rebates make everything cheaper) extra post-production time made sense.

The later release date leaves exhibitors time to add more 3-D screens. The movie could go out on a three-tiered basis: high-ticket super-charged Imax 3-D, regular 3-D and old-fashioned 2-D — unless Cameron gets his way and refuses to show the movie on 2-D. That’s a tough one, as 3-D capability exists in only about 1,000 North American screens and a few hundred overseas.

More are scheduled to be built in the next year, but several senior execs at rival studios predict Cameron will persuade Fox to push the movie back, because the prospect of releasing a $300 million movie on 1,500 screens worldwide is too nerve-wracking.

Fox is sharing the negative cost with several hedge funds to protect its downside. With 14 months to go, the final budget is hard to estimate, depending on whether Cameron does a lot of last-minute tweaking, and the film’s running time, which should wind up at about 2½ hours.

ESTIMATED COST: $250 million to $300 million. Cameron knows how to play to the mainstream — fanboys, soccer moms, trailer park dads, city folk and overseas auds. His goal is to change motion pictures as we know them. Fox could score another global commercial blockbuster.

THE KUDOS PLAY

David Fincher is whittling down “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” starring Brad Pitt as a man who ages backward, to about 2½ hours.

“Button” had a long and tricky gestation before Paramount gave it the greenlight. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall brought the movie to Fincher, who brought in Pitt, but cost and visual effects concerns bedeviled the project until Brad Grey took over as chairman of the studio and asked, “Do we have anything for Brad Pitt?”

Trained at ILM, which Fincher has called his film school, the filmmaker was well-suited to meeting the greatest challenge: creating a believable Button from his birth as an old man/baby to his death as a baby/old man. The use of Digital Domain CG and makeup effects to put Pitt’s head on varying-sized bodies is not an issue, judging by the 20 minutes of footage screened at the Telluride Fest Aug. 29 (which Fincher described as a “palate cleanser”).

Shot in New Orleans, the movie starts at the end of World War I and moves through Button’s life (WWII, romantic entanglements with Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, etc.) all the way to his deathbed. It has taken the director some time to trim the movie to two hours and 38 minutes. He loses his final cut above 2½ hours, but the studio has worked with him. Meanwhile Fincher is taking his next, “Heavy Metal,” to Sony. (Par passed.)

Fincher’s previous film, “Zodiac,” grossed $84 million worldwide. The question is whether “Button” is a $150 million art film, or an emotionally accessible movie with broad appeal. Par exec Brad Weston insists it is both.

“It has an old-fashioned, epic, feel-good quality,” says Weston. “It’s not dark or brooding. It’s a big movie about life that will be appealing to everybody.”

One on-lot recruited test screening went well enough to push the studio to open the movie wide on Christmas Day.

ESTIMATED COST: $150 million-$170 million. The studio is sharing 50-50 with Warner Bros. In order to make back its costs (including marketing, especially through award season), the movie has to win over critics and audiences alike.

THE OXYMORON

Director Spike Jonze has never made a wide-audience commercial studio movie. His highest-grossing pics, New Line’s “Being John Malkovich” and Sony’s “Adaptation,” were considered arthouse crossovers, grossing $46.4 million and $32 million worldwide, respectively.

He has never made a family movie, nor a visual effects picture.

Thus it is not a huge surprise that his and Dave Eggers’ adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” has run into some turbulence at Warner Bros., which took the $75 million-budget movie in turnaround from Universal.

Jonze’s initial idea was to shoot the wild things in nine-foot suits with animatronic faces in the jungles of Australia and New Zealand. CG-faces would be required. After a disastrous December 2007 preview of Jonze’s first cut, the studio shut down the project. The movie is “dark, adult and deep,” wrote Cinemaniac1979 on aint-it-cool-news, “heart-wrenching and scary. This isn’t a movie for children — it’s a movie about childhood.”

Jonze did reshoots a year after he first shot the movie, mostly of the young lead, Max Record. About 10 minutes were added: two scenes at the start and one at the end.

“We wanted more emotion for the story on the whole,” says Warners president Jeff Robinov, who will screen the new cut this month. “He’s making a Spike Jonze family movie. I can’t tell you how young it’s going to play or its intensity. It’s magical and beautifully shot. It was a long process to end up in a good place.” The visual effects won’t be added until Jonze has locked the final cut.

ESTIMATED COST: $78 million-$80 million. While the studio is aiming for a fall 2009 release, the movie doesn’t seem to be the family-friendly commercial picture the studio had in mind.

The above “estimated costs” are from within each studio, but the figures may be much higher. While some are likely to fret over such pricetags, it’s doubtful if these mark the end of this trend. Megabudget pics may be another signal that Hollywood is moving in two simultaneous directions: behemoth event pics, and smaller personal films — with little middle ground.

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