New helmers grab tentpoles this spring and summer

Highlights | Awards

When it comes to circus tentpoles, the acts may change but the ringmaster usually stays the same. Such is often the case with Hollywood tentpoles, where the director typically remains one of the key constants on a successful franchise.

This summer continues that trend, with a number of helmers from Michael Bay (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) to Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World”) returning to direct the latest installments of the franchises that have made their quotes soar.

Still, a slew of directors didn’t report for sequel duties for summer 2011 pics. As such, nearly a dozen established franchises will feature new visionaries behind the camera, including Rob Marshall (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”) and Jennifer Yu Helson (“Kung Fu Panda 2″). Add to that the handful of helmers who are bringing to the bigscreen a fresh take on an iconic property from yesteryear, such as Jason Winer (“Arthur”) and Marcus Nispel (“Conan the Barbarian”). Furthermore, Kenneth Branagh (“Thor”) and Joe Johnston (“Captain America: The First Avenger”) are among the directors staking their claims on a host of wannabe franchises.

“All in all, the spring and summer tentpoles will showcase a lot of new blood,” says Sony’s Rory Bruer. “The stakes are high on these projects, and the studios put a lot of time and effort into getting the right director on these projects. It’s all about finding that director who has a vision to tell that story the studios want to tell.”

Though this season’s tentpole helmers come from a wide array of backgrounds, their assignments seem to fall into one of four categories:

1. New captains taking the helm of established franchises

After three high-seas adventures, Gore Verbinski has bid farewell to “Pirates” mates Jack Sparrow and Barbossa. “Chicago” director Marshall is the ship’s new commander as Disney roles out the franchise’s fourth chapter in 3D on May 20.

Brett Ratner was the last director to take a whack at the popular Marvel mutants known as the X-Men. This time, Matthew Vaughn of “Kick-Ass” fame is in charge for “X-Men: First Class,” which Fox bows June 3. “Cars 2″ boasts one new driver behind the wheel with Brad Lewis. John Lasseter, who directed the 2006 toon hit with Joe Ranft, is also back for the 3D sequel, which Disney opens June 24. And “Kung Fu Panda” helmers Mark Osborne and John Stevenson have passed the baton to Yu Helson for Paramount’s May 26 follow-up in 3D.

“A new director is a great way to keep the franchise fresh,” says Richie Fay of Summit Entertainment, which has hired a different director for each installment of its lucrative “Twilight” series. “With a franchise, you’re selling the public a character or characters they are already familiar with. Each director brings (his or her) own view of the character. I think the public is often looking for something new.”

Other new hands on old decks include:

  • David Bowers helms “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick” (March 25, Fox). Thor Freudenthal directed the first incarnation last year.

  • Mike Disa brings a 3D version of “Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil” to the bigscreen (April 29, Weinstein Co.). Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards and Tony Leech shared helming duties on the 2005 predecessor.

  • Don Hall and Stephen J. Anderson are the latest directors to bring kids classic “Winnie the Pooh” to theaters (July 15, Disney).

  • “Avatar” second-unit director Steven Quale takes the reins of 3D sequel “Final Destination 5″ (Aug. 26, Warner Bros.). David Ellis was the previous director on the horror franchise.

  • Oliver Parker resurrects bumbling British spy Johnny English for a follow-assignment in “Johnny English Reborn” (Sept. 16, Universal). Peter Howitt helmed the 2003 original.

  • John Gulager takes a bite out of “Piranha 3DD” on Sept. 16 (Weinstein Co.). He takes over from Alexandre Aja, who directed last year’s relaunch of the late ’70s-early ’80s horror property.

2. Directors keeping hands on the franchise wheel
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But in some cases, a studio sees no reason to place a wildly popular franchise in new hands. When it was time for the Weinstein Co. to bring “Scream’s” Ghostface back to the multiplex April 15, there was no choice more fitting than Wes Craven, who helmed the three previous chapters in the horror franchise.

Similarly, Justin Lin is back for the fifth installment in Universal’s “Fast and Furious” series after a Lin-directed fourth outing became the highest-grossing film in the series and U’s best performer of 2009. “Fast Five” revs up April 29.

“It’s always about having a great story and how that story is going to be told,” Bruer says. “Sometimes the best (director) choice is the man or woman who did it before.”

So it’s no surprise that Todd Phillips is back for the raunch-fest “The Hangover 2″ (May 26, Warner Bros.) after record-breaking box office hauls, or that Bay is once again aboard the 3D sequel “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (July 1, Paramount).

David Yates finishes off the two-part “Harry Potter” finale with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ in 3D (July 15, Warner Bros.). He directed last year’s “Part 1.”

And Rodriguez has been something of a one-man shop on the “Spy Kids” franchise, as writer, director and producer of the first three outings. It’s a no-brainer that he returns for the 3D “Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World” (Aug. 19, Weinstein Co.). after an eight-year hiatus for the franchise.

3. Directors taking a stab at a franchise hopeful
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The March 11 weekend frame saw three directors looking to start a new franchise with Jonathan Liebesman’s “Battle: Los Angeles” for Sony, Simon Wells’ 3D toon pic “Mars Needs Moms” for Disney and Catherine Hardwicke’s “Red Riding Hood” for Warner Bros. Chances are good that we’ll see more apocalyptic action with a “Battle” follow-up, says Bruer.

“There’s no plans yet, but it far exceeded our expectations,” Bruer adds of the film’s $36 million bow.

Other projects that seem ripe for sequel treatment include Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” (March 25, Warner Bros.), Carlos Saldanha’s 3D “Rio” (April 15, Fox), Branagh’s “Thor” in 3D (May 6, Paramount), Scott Charles Stewart’s 3D “Priest” (May 13, Sony), J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8″ (June 10, Paramount), Martin Campbell’s “Green Lantern” in 3D (June 17, Warner Bros.), Mark Waters’ “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” (June 17, Fox), Johnston’s 3D “Captain America: The First Avenger” (July 22, Paramount), Colin Brady’s “The Smurfs” in 3D (Aug. 3, Sony) and Chris Gorak’s 3D “The Darkest Hour” (Aug. 5, Summit)

And many exhibitors expect big numbers from Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens” (July 29, Universal), betting on a franchise in the making.

4. Directors taking on an iconic remake

It’s one of the toughest assignments in showbiz: directing a remake of a cinematic classic. Winer is up for the challenge with a redo of the 1981 Dudley Moore starrer “Arthur” (April 8, Warner Bros.). Similarly, Craig Gillespie felt no fear about bringing back a modern 3D version of the hair-raiser “Fright Night” (Aug. 19, Disney). The film, which centers on a teen who discovers his neighbor is a vampire, is based on the 1985 horror hit with Roddy McDowall.

Meanwhile, Nispel is pumped up about resurrecting a 3D version of “Conan the Barbarian” (Aug. 19, Lionsgate). The early 1980s franchise launched the career of a Arnold Schwarzenegger. And summer 2011 closes with Rod Lurie taking a page from Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 tale of harassment “Straw Dogs” (Sept. 16, Sony).


HIGHLIGHTS

Monday
• 12:30 p.m. Intl. day lunch awards; honorees Miky Lee and Richard Fox
• 2:15 p.m. Variety’s Steven Gaydos moderates “BRIC: The looming box office giants of tomrrow”
• 6 p.m. Gala opening, celebrating the moviegoing experience
• 9 p.m. Kick-off party, celebrating the summer of 2011

Tuesday
• 7:45 a.m. Industry awards breakfast, honorees Sid Ganis and Jeff Scudillo, plus NATO/CinemaCon marketing achievement awards
• 9:30 a.m. State of the industry
• 3:45 p.m. Disney presentation
• 6:45 p.m. Indie & specialty films showcase reception
• 8 p.m. Indie & specialty films showcase

Wednesday
• 7:30 p.m. Pioneer of the year dinner; honoree Dick Cook
• 12:30 p.m. Filmmakers luncheon & panel: “Frankly speaking: The digital world of filmmaking today, tomorrow and beyond,” with James Cameron, Jeffrey Katzenberg, George Lucas and Chris Melendandri
• 4 p.m. Sony Pictures presentation
• 10:30 p.m. Screening: “POM Wonderful Presents”; honoree Morgan Spurlock

Thursday
• 8 a.m. James Cameron talks frame rates
• 12:30 p.m. Lionsgate presentation.
• 2:30 p.m. Warner Bros. presentation
• 7:30 p.m. Big screen achievement awards


AWARD WINNERS

  • Harry Potter: Hall of Fame
  • Helen Mirren: Career Achievement
  • Ryan Reynolds: Male Star
  • Cameron Diaz: Female Star
  • Julianne Hough, Jason Momoa: Rising Stars
  • Tyler Perry: Visionary
  • Russell Brand: Comedy Star of the Year
  • Blake Lively: Breakthrough Performer of the Year
  • Chris Hemsworth: Male Star of Tomorrow
  • Rose Huntington-Whitely: Female Star of Tomorrow
  • Vin Diesel: Action Star

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