Monster moolah

H'wood vaulting to $200 mil tentpoles

It was just 10 years ago when Hollywood went into full denial mode over reports that the budgets of several movies had crossed the $100 million threshold. Universal, for example, insisted indignantly that its misbegotten “Waterworld” would cost not a penny over $99.9 million (as if that mattered).

Hollywood old-timers were bemused by this behavior, remembering the days when studios actually boasted about their budgets: In 1951, MGM took an ad in Daily Variety to proclaim that it was spending a record $7 million on its period extravaganza “Quo Vadis.”

All this becomes interesting now that we’re facing the advent of the $200 million movie.

Again, the studios are avoiding the subject, but such tentpoles as “Troy,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Van Helsing” and “Polar Express” clearly are nudging that figure — if not hurtling past it.

Meanwhile, several projects boasting production budgets in the $150 million arena are lined up on the runway, so once marketing costs are added in, they, too, will pass that $200 million milestone.

The $200 million movie may be a reality, but most battle-hardened production execs are anything but thrilledabout it.

“I don’t like to live this way,” acknowledges one production chief who declines to be named. “If you make a $200 million movie, you’re betting the store. It’s a whole different kind of business.”

He’s got a point. The advent of the $200 million tentpole inevitably will influence the kinds of movies that are made and the way they are marketed.

A case in point: Universal’s ambitious summer tentpole “Van Helsing,” which already looks a bit like a conglom in search of a movie.

In order to justify its sheer immensity, “Van Helsing” is simultaneously a summer tentpole plus a fantasy TV series called “Transylvania” (possibly launching midseason), plus a veritable fusillade of DVDs, real action and animated, starring Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, plus an interactive game for PlayStation 2 and Xbox, plus a cluster of theme-park attractions.

And if this synergistic symphony performs as planned, it will also unleash all manner of remakes and sequels.

The whole corporate escapade is being watched avidly by GE and NBC, which acquired Universal a year ago from Vivendi in the hope of achieving just this sort of synergistic bliss.

Alone among the networks, NBC had never owned a studio, and thus never had delicious library nuggets to play with, such as that great Monsters Row — Dracula and his buddies. By the time “Van Helsing” will finally have run its course, every Universal hero including “Bruce Almighty” may end up participating.

Will it all work?

On paper, it’s a Harvard Business School dream — that is, if you conveniently overlook such ventures as “The Hulk,” which a year ago was also geared to trigger a stream of synergy. Record budgets for marketing and special effects are being allocated to avoid a replay of “The Hulk.”

If “Van Helsing” fails, it won’t be for lack of spending.

Again, it’s ironic that Universal settled on its monsters gallery for this splurge. It was back in 1931 when a low-budget “Dracula” first became Hollywood’s surprise mini-blockbuster. Its effects were shabby, but audiences at that moment were astonished that the characters actually talked. Eschewing fangs, Bela Lugosi played the character as frighteningly human and empathetic.

And when the studio turned next to “Frankenstein,” the first scene in the movie depicted a doctor warning the audience that those with heart conditions should leave the theater.

Both were pretty good movies, and big hits, but by today’s standards they were “cheapies.” The reason for greenlighting them was deliciously simple-minded: The studios felt they’d be prudent investments.

Today’s criteria have become vastly more complex, especially in the brave new world of $200 million movies.

No film of this order will get the greenlight unless it can justify itself in terms of its TV spinoffs, sequels, merchandising opportunities, DVD tie-ins and other synergistic opportunities.

And that, indeed, is what’s giving many pause.

Will the films of the $200 million epoch become such blatantly “corporate” products that they will be devoid of character and story? Given the astronomical numbers, will the filmmakers have to avoid risk-taking so zealously that their projects will seem blandly predictable?

The original “Dracula” was sold as “The Strangest Love Story of All.” One critic noted that the film “cannot be judged by ordinary standards of entertainment.”

By all indications, “Van Helsing” had better meet “ordinary standards” — and throw in a few extraordinary ones as well.

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