But studio doesn't forsake serious fare
If the recession has taught Hollywood anything this year, it’s that moviegoers don’t want to take life too seriously when they’re at the megaplex.Just ask Universal. Over the past month, the studio has seen the fourth installment of its “Fast and Furious” franchise rev up the box office with a surprise $229 million worldwide haul to date, while its political thriller “State of Play” is struggling despite strong praise from critics. “We’re all watching a shifting marketplace,” says Marc Shmuger, chairman of Universal Pictures. “The degree of difficulty for an adult-targeted picture to break out and succeed” has increased. It’s a tough lesson for a studio that prides itself on prestige pics. In past summers it’s unspooled smart counter-programming pics like “Seabiscuit” and “Cinderella Man.” But, in a cyclical biz, U has had a string of pics aimed at older moviegoers, including “Duplicity” and now “State of Play,” that delivered the goods artistically, if not exactly boffo at the box office. Indeed, Universal is working hard to change the face of its slate, pursuing projects with broader appeal and potential durability even as it promises it hasn’t forsaken serious dramas and thrillers. It’s a task that seems tailor-made for Universal’s toppers. Marc Shmuger, who oversaw marketing for the studio before landing the chairman spot, still calls marketing one of his first loves and is always looking for projects that are easy to sell. His counterpart, David Linde, is a former Focus Features exec with expertise in international film and distribution. Shmuger and Linde are both chairman of Universal Pictures. Both execs are have strong business savvy, with a sense of what will appeal to audiences, which they’re combining with creative decisions as they work with production prexy Donna Langley, a U.K. native who had been exec VP of production under Mary Parent and Scott Stuber’s regime. Langley’s well respected for her taste and ability to juggle a wide-ranging slate of pics and not stand in the way of creatives. They’ve aggressively pursued and locked down potentially lucrative deals with toymakers, comicbook publishers and videogame companies for properties that Universal can exploit not only in theaters but across its various divisions, including the theme parks it operates around the globe. And the shift toward more popcorn fare gives the studio’s more prolific producers — Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, Working Title, Scott Stuber and Marc Platt — a new mandate. They’ve gotten the message, returning Robin Hood to the bigscreen, seeking to launch new franchises as with comicbook pic “Wanted” and snatching up rights to videogames like Electronic Arts’ “Army of Two.” “Marrying that talent with properties that can create worldwide events and be sequelized has been a priority,” Shmuger says.
- Hasbro may have teamed with DreamWorks and Paramount for “Transformers” and the upcoming “G.I. Joe,” and was courted by every major around town, but U locked down the toymaker in a six-year deal for at least four films based on brands including Monopoly, Candyland, Clue, Ouija, Battleship, Stretch Armstrong and “Magic: The Gathering.”
- As if one major toymaker wasn’t enough, Universal also brokered a deal with Mattel to turn its vintage astronaut action figure Major Matt Mason into a starring role for Tom Hanks. U distribs the company’s direct-to-DVD “Barbie” toons.
- After its success with the Jason Bourne franchise, U secured a deal with Robert Ludlum’s estate to mine his library of 25 or so yet-to-be adapted books into potential franchises. A fourth Bourne adventure is in the works, while the studio is developing “The Sigma Protocol” with Strike Entertainment.
- Dark Horse Comics made the studio its new home after Universal agreed to back last year’s sequel of “Hellboy” (the original was produced by Revolution Studios and distribbed by Sony in 2004). The first pic is expected to be “Umbrella Academy,” about a disbanded group of superheroes, which will mark one of the studio’s rare forays into the genre outside of “The Incredible Hulk.”
- U is also ramping up its efforts to adapt more vidgame franchises into pics. It’s readying a bigscreen version of Take-Two Interactive’s hit sci-fi horror title “BioShock,” with “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise helmer Gore Verbinski at the helm.