Warner Bros. thirsty for another hit film series

Well aware that Batman and Bilbo will soon join Harry Potter in the warehouse, Warner Bros. is on the lookout for potential new franchise material — including this weekend’s decidedly oddball entry “Dark Shadows.”

The eighth collaboration between director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp has the star playing vampire Barnabas Collins in a comic send-up of the supernatural soap opera that aired weekdays on ABC from 1966 to 1971 with an astounding 1,225 episodes. While a vampire project in the “Twilight” era — with one of the world’s biggest movie stars and most recognizable directors — carries significant box office potential, the stakes are high nonetheless for “Dark Shadows,” given its $100 million pricetag and prime launch date of May 11.

Though it’s not a tentpole of the magnitude of $200 million-plus films like Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” or Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “Dark Shadows” is launching internationally day-and-date in 42 countries and on 10,000 screens — so it’s clear Warners is positioning it as a big summer play. The hope is that “Shadows” winds up more like “Sherlock Holmes,” which the studio chose to sequelize, and less like “Green Lantern,” which (so far) it has not.

Since the “Dark Shadows” TV show lacks worldwide recognition, Warners is relying on the drawing power of Burton and Depp and emphasizing the film’s unique look. Duo delivered a surprise hit to Warner Bros. seven years ago with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” ($450 million worldwide) and followed with an adaptation of “Sweeney Todd’ ($150 million worldwide), also for Warners. They followed with “Alice in Wonderland,” which grossed $1 billion worldwide as Disney took full advantage of the recognizability of the classic childrens story.

Warners would like to have at least four mega-blockbusters in the pipeline per year, and “Dark Shadows,” if it hits a vein, could go a long way toward fulfilling that desire. Producer Graham King proclaimed at a recent BritWeek event that the studio is already at work on a sequel, and the film’s ending leaves the door open for just that.

But Burton told Collider.com that the pic’s soap-opera roots are the reason for the ending, and there was no conscious decision to set it up with future installments in mind.

“First of all, it’s a bit presumptuous to think that,” Burton told the website. “If something works out, that’s one thing, but you can’t ever predict that.”

Equally hard to predict: Whether Depp and Burton would even want to make “Dark Shadows” the first joint project in which they turn in a second installment (not even the mighty “Alice” has been the subject of sequel talk, as Disney doesn’t view it as a strong vehicle for merchandising and other downstream revenue it covets).

Warner Bros. is taking a page out of Disney’s marketing book, however, emphasizing Burton’s unique visuals and Depp’s pallid makeup for its marketing blitz, which included appearances by Depp and Burton at CinemaCon last month; an Entertainment Weekly cover of Depp and the entire cast taking part in extensive TV promotion including a first-time appearance by Depp on the “Ellen Show.”

Domestic tracking for “Dark Shadows” currently falls in the $30 million to $40 million range, probably not enough for the instant greenlight “The Avengers” success triggered, but probably just enough — on the high end, anyhow — that Warner Bros. will have a decision to make when the “Dark Shadows” theatrical run is over.

Dark Shadows
Budget: $100 million.
The Challenge: Expand the audience beyond hardcore fans of Depp, Burton and the ’60s-era soap opera.

Marketing Strategy: Hit hard on Depp’s comic turn as a vampire and emphasize Burton’s typically bizarre world.
Rollout: Opens nationwide Friday at about 3,700 screens along with 10,000 locations in 42 international markets.
Variety review: “Up until an f/x-laden climax that desperately conjures everything from ‘Rebecca’ to ‘Death Becomes Her,’ Depp just about holds it all together, unsurprisingly emerging as the pic’s most reliable element.”– Justin Chang

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