H’wood moving in slo-mo

Even after tough lessons in '03, change is pokey

Last year, a musical won the Oscar for best picture, comedies did great business, and studios were rapped on the knuckles for their excessive reliance on sequels and remakes.

Wouldn’t you peg 2004 as the year of the musical? Wouldn’t you think they’d make more laffers — and fewer sequels and remakes?

Didn’t Hollywood learn anything from last year’s traumas?

It’s too soon to tell. Execs are eager to capitalize on the hard-won box office lessons of 2003. But studio slates are like luxury oceanliners: They don’t change course quickly.

In fact, studios have emerged from the holidays to confront a 2004 release schedule that looks a lot like 2003.

The seven majors and mini-majors DreamWorks, New Line and Miramax are planning to release just two musicals this year: “Phantom of the Opera” and “De-Lovely.” There will be fewer comedies, and almost the same number of sequels and remakes.

“Everything is a two- to three-year cycle in our business,” says producer Peter Schlessel, who stepped down last year as Columbia Pictures prexy.

“Any good studio, because it spends such an enormous amount on development from year to year, has anywhere between 150 to 200 pieces in development. Things they may have bought five or six years ago under a different regime may be in now. Then it was in, then it was out, now it’s back in.”

It’s still early enough in 2004 for studios to adjust their schedules, adding late acquisitions to the mix. But one thing is already clear: Studios are keenly hoping genres that were cool in 2003 will heat up in 2004.

  • Big-budget, period spectacles — “Master and Commander,” “Cold Mountain” and “The Last Samurai” — faced an uphill climb at the box office as studios struggled to sell them to a wide, crossover audience.

    But 2004 will bring even more historical costume dramas, including “The Alamo,” “Troy,” “Alexander,” “The Aviator” and “Hidalgo.”

  • Low-budget horror films were the closest thing to easy money in 2003. Studios released nine and most made heaps of cash. But studios plan to release fewer of them in 2004 — five altogether.

  • There were no studio sci-fi releases in 2003, according to Nielsen EDI’s B.O. calendar (though the “Matrix” sequels and Paramount thrillers “The Core” and “Paycheck,” which are listed as action films, are arguably sci-fi as well). In 2004, studios will release seven sci-fi pics.

  • In 2003, studios released 34 action/adventure pics; in 2004, there will be just 23.

  • Lighthearted family comedies like “Elf,” “Bruce Almighty” “Bringing Down the House” and “Cheaper by the Dozen” were among the biggest crossover hits in 2003. But the seven majors and three mini-majors will release 51 comedies this year, down from 58 comedies in 2003.

If any studio is poised to capitalize on the comedy trends of 2003, it’s DreamWorks.

That company plans a July release for “Anchorman,” the next romp from Will Ferrell, the breakout star of New Line’s blockbuster “Elf.” Earlier in January, DreamWorks began its big marketing push for “Anchorman.” It cut a teaser trailer, which it scrambled to get into theaters in time for the first sneak previews of its teen comedy “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!”

But development is an unruly business — governed as much by serendipity and lemming-like behavior as by visionary decisionmaking. A year ago, DreamWorks almost dumped “Anchorman.” It put the project in turnaround — and several studio passed on it — before Ferrell’s performance in “Old School” convinced DreamWorks execs to give “Anchorman” a shot.

Ben Stiller, the star of Universal’s current comedy hit, “Along Came Polly,” is scheduled to appear in five more films in 2004: “Envy,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Anchorman,” an untitled comedy about a professional dodgeball league and “Meet the Fokkers.”

But the Stiller blitz is as much a fluke as anything else.

“Envy” was bumped from 2003 when DreamWorks decided it needed more work; meanwhile the actor has a small role in “Anchorman.” “Meet the Fokkers,” which starts principal photography, is on a fast track for a late-December release.

Studio efforts to winnow through their bloated development slates invariably reflect the latest market trends.

Every weekend, development execs get marching orders to copy the latest hit. These days, low-level execs say, their superiors are gaga for comedies like “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Along Came Polly” and “Elf.”

Next month, it will be something else.

“It’s difficult to be a visionary in this business,” says UTA’s Dan Aloni, “since development usually doesn’t bare fruit and is governed as much by fear as solid decision-making.”

Aloni has had a hand in packaging such comedies as “Bruce Almighty” and “Anchorman.”

“When it comes to comedies,” he says, “there are very few visionaries, so the emphasis is on proven assets.”

In a recent interview, Twentieth Century Fox production prexy Hutch Parker noted that his studio’s boost in development came from scripts that were frantically turned in just before last Writers Guild of America contract negotiations. But he argued that the windfall has helped the studio rebalance its slate and allowed production execs a broader pallette of projects from which to choose.

Certainly the biggest sign of change may not be in the films that were greenlit in 2003, but in the nature of the material put into development.

The success of films like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Freddy vs. Jason” prompted studios to pick up the remake rights to numerous 1970s horror films; “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings,” meanwhile, whetted studio appetites for sword-and-sorcery — “The Two Princessess of Bramarre,” “Eragon,” and “The Elric Saga” are now in development.

But a review of the source material for Hollywood’s biggest hits over the last five years suggests that development trends shift slowly: It’s an evolution, not a revolution.

Last year, 24% of the 50 highest-grossing films were sequels. In 1998, 20% of the top 50 films were sequels.

Seventeen of the top 50 films in 2003 were based on specs and/or pitches. That’s a small shift from 1998, when 20 of the top 50 films were based on specs and/or pitches.

Even though studios are lumbering behemoths, there are still numerous ways to yield significant change.

Explains Schlessel: “You can cast differently. If you use a tired old actor vs. a young one, the financial profile of the movie is different — not only in the salary or gross but in the marketing dollars you’ll spend. Old stars require a certain level of marketing, a young star doesn’t.”

In other words, even when studios can’t execute a Jackie Chan 180 degree spin to respond to market demands, they can still ‘tweak’ their pictures.

“The better executives,” says Schlessel, “tweak them to make them feel fresh.”

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