Optimism abounds but hurdles are high
In the 1976 thriller “Logan’s Run,” past-their-prime inhabitants of a futuristic society converge regularly for the death and rebirth spectacle of Carousel. In the world of feature filmmaking, there is no Carousel for long-in-the-tooth development projects. Instead, studios quietly shelve their once-hyped packages or stealthily slip them into turnaround, hoping to avoid attention.
For every long-gestating project that finally does it make it to the bigscreen, from “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to “Eat, Pray, Love,” there is a much longer list of splashy but stalled or moribund titles. The roster of dead projects or films on minimal life-support encompasses everything from bestselling novels (“The Alienist,” “The Historian”) to vidgame franchises (“Halo”) to Broadway hits (“Wicked”) to high-concept remakes (“The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” “Fletch” and, of course, “Logan’s Run”).
Every studio’s development slate is full of such projects, but the number of reasons why these wannabe films percolate indefinitely is strikingly small, with casting hiccups and script issues the main culprits.
As with Hollywood’s neverending supply of remakes, reboots, redos and revivals, the vibe on any idea can turn from good to bad in a matter of months.
In May 2008, Paramount touted that it was moving forward with a fourth installment of “Beverly Hills Cop,” with Eddie Murphy toplining and Brett Ratner negotiating to direct. At the time, Daily Variety reported that “Par brass were eager to land another picture with Murphy” and were aiming for a 2009 production start and a summer 2010 bow. But Murphy endured two box office duds in a row — “Meet Dave” and “Imagine That” — and suddenly no one on the Melrose lot was humming the franchise’s signature “Axel F” tune anymore.
Similarly, “Fletch” seemed like a good bet for the Weinsteins to resurrect, but after a string of actors passed or moved on, including Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt, Jimmy Fallon, Will Smith, Adam Sandler and Jason Lee, the Kevin Smith-penned script languished.
And “Fletch” isn’t alone in the breakdown lane. The number of stalled remakes is staggering, and includes Warner Bros.’ “Limpet,” Fox’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Disney’s “The Black Hole,” Sony’s “My Fair Lady,” Universal’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and Paramount’s “The Warriors.” In the case of Warners’ “Logan’s Run,” the number of writers taking a whack at the script has swelled into the double digits.
Big literary options often generate headlines for studios, but greenlights on such projects can be difficult to muster. There’s a bounty of scripts based on bestsellers and cult classics collecting dust at every studio. It is not uncommon for the majors to pay seven figures for a popular book only to realize a film version would be too much of a gamble. Period pieces, especially, pose extra hurdles in that they carry significantly bigger production budgets while often yielding diminished box office returns.
Such is the case with Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist,” Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” and John
Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” “Confederacy’s” nearly three-decade journey is so labyrinthine it includes Steven Soderbergh suing producer Scott Rudin and Paramount over rights.
“The problem almost always has to do with difficulties adapting the material,” says Intellectual Property Group partner Amy Schiffman, who reps authors Dennis Lehane and Don DeLillo. “And the more beloved and high profile the book, the more difficult it is to adapt. Studios feel that if they don’t do it right and don’t do the material justice, they will come under fire.”
Schiffman was part of Lehane’s team when Sony put the author’s period bestseller “Shutter Island” into turnaround. Paramount eventually picked up the property, attached Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese and turned it into a commercial and critical success. (DiCaprio also recently came to the rescue of “Devil in the White City,” a book that has attracted everyone from Tom Cruise to Katherine Bigelow).
For Schiffman, long waits in the book-to-film business are a given.
“Just because a project is stalled, it doesn’t mean it will never be a movie,” she adds. “A great story is a great story. And Hollywood tends to recycle things.”
In fact, Affleck recently committed to star in an adaptation of Ken Grimwood’s time-travel drama “Replay,” a book that Schiffman first sold 18 years ago. That gives hope to such long-simmering book projects like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Abraham Lincoln biography “The Uniter” (which Steven Spielberg has long toyed with directing) and Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”
The transition from stage to screen can be even more arduous than from page to screen. Though “Dreamgirls” and “For Colored Girls” eventually morphed into films (decades later in both cases), other theater faves can’t find enough traction within their respective studios to earn a green light. Despite its theater box office pedigree, Universal’s “Wicked” appears stuck in script limbo.
Pics based on bestselling vidgames like “Halo” and “World of Warcraft” continue to trudge along despite the attachment of big talent. A Peter Jackson-produced “Halo” was originally scheduled to begin production in summer of 2006 with Neill Blomkamp helming. But the project faced delays and was put on hold after Fox and Universal backed out later that year. Jackson and Blomkamp instead turned their attentions to “District 9.” Sam Raimi is attached to direct “Warcraft” for Warner Bros., though it is one of at least six projects he is circling as a follow-up to “Oz: The Great and Powerful.”
Finally, studios sometimes can’t resist trumpeting a film that they have little chance of actually making.
A recent example included Paramount’s breathless announcement that it was making a Les Grossman film based on Cruise’s paunchy, foul-mouthed character in “Tropic Thunder.” Many industryites chalked the news up to the studio stroking the star’s ego at a time when its execs were negotiating with him to star in “Mission: Impossible 4.”
Ultimately, it comes down to numbers. Producer JC Spink, whose project “Den of Thieves” has been a near-go for a decade — first at New Line and now at Relativity — notes that these days only about one out of every 30 projects set up gets made.
And even a film with A-list attachments — like Fox’s “Used Guys,” which was packaged with director Jay Roach and stars Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey — was deep-sixed after the studio balked at the project’s ballooning budget. “Used Guys” has yet to mount a comeback, though the studio is hoping to put a scaled-back version into production in late 2011 with helmers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton replacing Roach.
“More movies languish in development longer because a lot more movies are falling apart now,” Spink says. “Studios are no longer bluffing.
“In the past, they might have said they were going to pull the plug, but they didn’t. Now, if the budget isn’t right, they will pull the plug. The studios are much more conscious about throwing good money after bad than they were before.”