now you see me on set

Films about magic historically have been difficult to sell but pic is summer's first sleeper hit

Louis Leterrier wanted to make a heist movie the minute he saw Steven Spielberg’s conman comedy “Catch Me if You Can,” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, in 2002.

But it wasn’t until years later, after reading the script for Summit Entertainment’s “Now You See Me” that the French director — who in his own words became known around town as “Mr. Action Guy” for such big-budget spectacles as “The Incredible Hulk” and “Clash of the Titans” — saw the form his first caper would take.

Fast-forward nearly three years, and Leterrier is reveling in having helmed the summer’s first sleeper hit — though the trick was hardly easy.

“I had to fight hard to get this film,” says Leterrier, whose first directing gig, 2002’s “The Transporter,” was an action pic starring Jason Statham. “No one thought I could direct actors or tell stories, but I believed in this movie more than any other script I was reading.”

“Now You See Me,” which bowed May 31 via Lionsgate, so far has collected $112 million worldwide, with domestic grosses alone at more than $82 million and counting. The magic-themed ensembler, which cost $80 million (though Lionsgate’s Summit covered two-thirds of the production budget through foreign presales), is yet to open in some key overseas markets, including the U.K., Australia, Germany and Japan.

SEE MORE: Film Review: “Now You See Me”

The pic, which features a cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, follows a group of Robin Hood-inspired magicians who steal from the rich and give to the poor. Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt wrote the script.

Although “Now You See Me” has drawn mixed critical notices, it has benefited from strong audience response to its original, character-driven story amid a sea of effects-laden epics and sequels. The film, in fact, opened with only a $2 million edge over Sony’s summer dud “After Earth” but has since furthered that lead by nearly $30 million.

“I have to say, I was a little hurt when I first read the reviews,” Leterrier admits. “It seemed no one understood we were trying to make a movie that respects the audience. It’s nice to see people went and liked the movie in spite of that.”

SEE MORE: ‘Now You See Me’ Cast Believes in Magic

Leterrier credits Summit’s marketing and distribution strategy for helping lure moviegoers. The studio toyed with several different release dates in January and March, before settling on a much more competitive summertime slot.

Nancy Kirkpatrick, Summit’s marketing chief, says the studio was motivated to move the pic after it received top scores in pre-release test screenings. “We set the date knowing we were going into the land of giants, but we also knew the movie screened really well,” Kirkpatrick notes.

Summit purposefully chose not to center the picture’s marketing campaign around prestidigitation, because films about magic historically have been difficult to sell, often coming off as either gimmicky or fake. Instead, Kirkpatrick says, the studio went big, selling the movie as a grand illusion.

Leterrier admits that while his background in making effects-heavy event pics was an obstacle in getting hired on the pic, he says he wanted to create a similar global feel for “Now You See Me” by shooting in authentic locations. One of the film’s more significant magic tricks was shot on location in New Orleans, while other sequences were lensed in Paris, New York and Las Vegas.

Leterrier says the film’s characters were what first drew him to the piece. In fact, he became so passionate about the project that he cut his own salary in half to help land the gig — though hiring much of its topnotch cast contributed to the film’s budget doubling from its initial $30 million-$40 million.

Still, Leterrier, much like the film’s Robin Hood-like characters, is quick to share credit for the film’s success with all involved.

“We tried something different,” Leterrier says, “But what makes me happiest is that people are coming out of the movie loving it.”

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