Smallscreen origins breed bigscreen ambition

'Sex and the City,' 'The X-Files' among successful leaps

We know that few are better at stopping a nuclear explosion or saving a president’s life than Jack Bauer. But can he sell movie tickets?

That’s the mission being contemplated for Fox’s uber covert agent, as 20th Century Fox moves forward with the long talked-about feature adaptation of “24,” just as it appears sibling units Fox Broadcasting and 20th Century Fox TV are about to call it a day on the primetime series’ eight-season run.

“24” is the latest example of a growing trend in the feature realm where studios are increasingly focused on fielding pics with built-in auds and marketing hooks. Vintage TV shows of all stripes have been making the trek to the bigscreen for years now — thank you, “Star Trek” — but contempo shows have only recently been eyed as feature adaptation fodder.

New Line’s feature take on “Sex and the City” grossed more than $415 worldwide, and femme auds are eagerly awaiting the sequel’s May bow.

20th Century Fox’s $500 million-plus B.O. from “The Simpsons Movie” also drove studios to eye their TV divisions for potential source material. Shows that have been buzzed about for possible adaptations include “Entourage,” “The Sopranos,” “Arrested Development” and “Rome.”

“It really is determined on a case-by-case basis, but if a studio sees something as a real viable franchise then it makes complete sense to turn it into a movie, and ‘Sex and the City’ is a great example,” says the show’s creator, Darren Star. “I understand why ’24’ could be successful, because it’s much easier to continue that story on a bigscreen for two hours instead of sticking with over the course of 24 weeks.”

Of course, it’s only a certain breed of TV properties that has the creative goods to translate into the larger and longer format. In the case of “Sex and the City” — and possibly “24” — the move to a feature would come at least a year or so (four years in the case of “Sex”) after the end of the series’ run, when the core aud would be primed for a fresh visit with favorite characters. But it’s still a ticklish transition for creatives. A movie can’t just offer an episode writ large in an exotic setting. It has to have its own reason for being, according to creatives with experience in juggling the two realms.

“Movies and TV shows are two separate animals that need to be handled differently,” Star says. “I think what we had going for us creatively was that there really wasn’t that big of a transition for the show because it already felt like a movie.”

20th Century Fox has tapped feature scribe Billy Ray to script from a concept said to have been worked up by the “24” crew and to have received the endorsement of series star Kiefer Sutherland.

20th Century Fox blazed the trail from TV to screen with a series that was still in its smallscreen prime — “The X-Files,” which hit multiplexes in 1998 and grossed more than $180 million. However, proving there’s no such thing as a sure-thing, the second “X-Files” feature outing in 2008 — six years after the series left the air — produced lackluster results.

Rob Bowman, who helmed the first “The X-Files” pic, says the creative team always felt the show had potential to be turned into a movie. Indeed, “X-Files” was part of the 1990s and 2000s wave of high-end primetime dramas that were produced with large crews and big-time vfx and stunt budgets — a tradition upheld by “24.”

“The show felt like it was approaching its zenith and that we had spun enough stories that there would be tremendous fodder for it,” Bowman says of the decision to make the 1998 feature. “To be honest, we were hungry to do one too.”

Star believes it was important for “Sex and the City” to wait a while before attempting a feature.

“I don’t think we would have needed a film while it was still on air,” he says. “That’s the case for most shows; if the viewers are already being given their weekly fill, there’s no reason to overdo it by giving them a movie as well.”

There are other considerations — like scheduling-conflicts with the TV production sked — that make it easier for producers to look at properties that are no longer in active TV.

Bowman points out that “The X-Files” was already a difficult show to deliver week in and week out, and the added challenge of working on a feature, even during the show’s hiatus, led to certain compromises.

“With the movie, we ended up having to use a different crew, which was a bummer because you already know the passion those people put into the show,” Bowman says.

A studio development exec says that while it seems like there are dozens of TV-to-film possibilities, in reality there are only a few series auds would want to see turned into a movie.

“No one is really looking to do a ‘CSI’ movie,” says the exec.

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