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.

These activities come on top of U’s plan to increase its presence in the family arena, inking a deal with Sid and Marty Krofft for this summer’s “Land of the Lost” and kidshow “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” as well as a slate of animated pics from Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment, beginning with next year’s animated comedy about a plot to steal the moon, “Despicable Me.”

The studio is also trying to breathe new life into its classic monsters, with a reboot of “The Wolfman” tearing into theaters in November and updates of “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” and “Frankenstein” in the works.

“We don’t have a DC or own a Marvel,” Shmuger says. “We have the monsters, and that library is a real treasure. They’re hugely and forever appealing, but they’re one little corner of the intellectual property world. We recognized the need to broaden our access to rich properties that can compete globally and form the future of franchises.”

The studio didn’t have a choice but to go after such high-profile properties, especially as it looks to fill a pipeline of 15-16 pics per year. Altogether, with its distribution pact with Focus, Relativity-owned Rogue and others, it unspools 23 films annually.

Franchise fever hasn’t cut into the studio’s interest in comedies. Its slate is still filled with Judd Apatow-produced pics like the upcoming “Funny People,” Stuber’s “Couple’s Retreat,” a third “Meet the Parents” pic and Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno.”

Boosting the bottom line is certainly a priority.

At a time when consumers are scrutinizing spending more than ever, recognizable brands at the megaplex are considered an easier sell given their built-in recognition factor.

“What you see in this marketplace is such an affection for brands,” Shmuger says. “You saw it in the way ‘Transformers’ unlocked audiences’ affection for them. We just saw it with ‘Fast and Furious.’ “

The pics aren’t just expected to generate more B.O. in the U.S. and overseas but to fill the coffers of Universal’s other arms as well.

The studio’s homevideo unit is counting on more tentpoles to prop up sluggish sales in the entire DVD market, especially as consumers scale back on the number of pics they’re buying for home libraries. Its first quarter was off by 5 million units vs. the same period a year ago due to a lack of appealing titles.

The studio has been one of the more active producers of direct-to-DVD sequels based on hits like “American Pie,” “Bring It On” and “The Scorpion King,” and it’s been looking for more films to spin off.

More tentpoles will help U grab some of the lucrative licensing coin that Disney has long raked in, as well as drive the company’s vidgame biz, which recently released a well-received “Wanted” game. It’s safe to say there won’t be an interactive version of “State of Play” bowing on an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 anytime soon.

The pics are expected to give the studio more home-grown properties to adapt into attractions for its theme parks in Hollywood and Orlando, Fla., in the U.S., as well as Japan and soon Singapore and Dubai.

The parks have been increasingly relying on pics that were produced off the studio lot, such as Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter,” which is being turned into a major destination in Orlando. A “Transformers” ride is in the works at U’s Hollywood park through its relationship with Hasbro.

The opening of new rides typically translates into increased ticket sales, and they couldn’t come soon enough: Attendance is down 20% in Orlando and Hollywood, mostly due to the recession.

Either way, the launch of new franchises to its slate should lessen any anxiety that Universal staffers may have been feeling after its recent disappointments. But execs stress Universal will always boast a slate made up of a variety of different movies.

The studio hasn’t turned its back on dramas, but execs say they’ll be taking a closer look at how to minimize their risk going forward.

“The tales of woe feel a little bit exaggerated,” Shmuger says. “Everything’s dead until it’s been reinvented.”

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