Every tuner’s a miracle

Music for Screens: Winter 2012

No genre gives studio executives greater pause than the musical. Given the expense, scope and spotty track record at the box office, tuners pose some of the riskiest undertakings for the already risk-averse studio topper.

Still, thanks to a long storied history with the genre that has resulted in such classics as “The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story” and “Cabaret,” Hollywood continues to try to hit the right note with the increasingly rarified form. Though 2011 produced just one tuner, Disney’s “The Muppets,” the multiplex will be teeming with song in 2012 as a handful of musicals are set to unspool over the coming months, led by big-budget entrants “Rock of Ages” and “Les Miserables.”

“It’s cyclical,” explains helmer Phyllida Lloyd, whose “Mamma Mia!” (2008) became the highest-grossing tuner of all time with a $610 million worldwide tally and sparked the latest craze. “There’s a big success on the screen, and then everyone says, ‘Wow, we must do musicals.’ It takes a few years to generate them. They’re incredibly complex to put together.”

First up for the sing-along theatergoer is Warner Bros.’ “Joyful Noise,” a $32 million production fully financed by Alcon. Directed by musical veteran Todd Graff, who helmed “Camp” and penned several drafts of “Dreamgirls” before Bill Condon took the reins, the film opens Jan. 13 and marks Dolly Parton’s return to the bigscreen after a two-decade absence.

“We saw this as an opportunity to use music amid a very uplifting story — the kind of story we are known for,” says Alcon topper Andrew Kosove of gospel-inspired tuner, which marks the first foray into the genre for the company behind “The Blind Side.” “We see it as something we can make a lot of money on and be creatively stimulating at the same time.”

Though Alcon bought the “Joyful Noise” pitch in the room, Graff says he met with plenty of resistance when shopping the project, which also stars Queen Latifah and Keke Palmer.

“Disney never passed; they never even responded,” quips Graff of the typical response he received. “It’s sad to say, but the thing we kept hearing was, ‘African-American films don’t translate internationally.’ I said, ‘I think a great African-American film will translate internationally.’ Beyond that, I don’t think of this as an African-American film. But it was really difficult to get studios over that hump.”

Like musicals in general, musicals with African-American leads have shown varying degrees of success at the box-office. Rob Marshall’s $45 million “Chicago,” which featured black cast members Latifah and Taye Diggs, became one of the most successful musicals of all time, earning $307 worldwide and a best picture Oscar. Condon’s “Dreamgirls” performed well domestically ($103 million), but only so-so internationally ($52 million). And the Andre Benjamin vehicle “Idlewild” nabbed a mere $13 million at the box office, almost all of it domestically.

Like Alcon, Sony bucked Hollywood convention by green-lighting the African American-led “Sparkle” remake, which it will release Aug. 10 through its TriStar label. The film, which aims to revive Whitney Houston’s career, poses a relatively modest risk for the studio, costing $10 million. Likewise, the studio says it is high on — though hasn’t yet greenlit — a big-budget “Annie” remake, which would mark a teaming of producers Will Smith and Jay-Z and star Smith’s daughter, Willow.

Still, the genre has posed nothing but headaches for Sony in recent years. A pricey big-screen adaptation of Broadway hit “Rent” earned just $32 million worldwide and Beatles tuner “Across the Universe” mustered up a mere $29 million globally. Similarly, the Christina Aguilera-Cher topliner “Burlesque” cost $55 million and made less than $90 million worldwide.

Meanwhile, New Line/Warner Bros. and Universal are swinging for the fences with their respective tuners, “Rock of Ages” and “Les Miserables.”

Directed by Adam Shankman, the $70 million “Rock of Ages” features an A-list cast led by Tom Cruise and Amy Adams and beloved tunes, a la “Mamma Mia!” Warner Bros. has carved out a prime June 1 slot for the pic, which is already testing extremely well, according to a source.

“I have giant movie stars in ’80s drag singing classic rock karaoke in a giant party setting,” jokes Shankman, who directed the surprise hit “Hairspray” for New Line, a film that earned $203 million worldwide. “Trying to teach audiences new songs is always a little bit challenging. That’s why ‘Mamma Mia!’ and, fingers crossed, ‘Rock of Ages’ work.”

Shankman says despite Hollywood’s love-hate relationship with the genre, the time is right for an influx of musicals.

“If you look at what’s successful in television right now, it’s escapism,” explains Shankman, who has tuners set up all around town including a hip-hop “Bye Bye Birdie” at Sony. “I think musicals allow the ultimate in escapism.”

Likewise, Universal has assembled an all-star team with “Les Miserables,” which will hit screens Dec. 7. The project marks director Tom Hooper’s follow-up to “The King’s Speech” and will star Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe. Other A-list stars are vying for key open roles for the pic, which is scheduled to begin lensing in March.

Despite such build-ups, big-name casts and directors with proven track records still can’t guarantee a hit musical. Marshall’s “Nine,” inspired by Fellini’s “8 1/2,” featured no less than five Oscar winners led by Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard at a cost of $80 million. Largely financed by Relativity and released by the Weinstein Co., the much-vaunted extravaganza imploded at the boxoffice with a paltry $54 million worldwide.

Similarly, the Tim Burton-helmed Johnny Depp-topliner “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” about a murderous barber and his meat-pie-making accomplice, earned $53 million domestically, a far cry from their next collaboration, “Alice in Wonderland” (more than $1 billion worldwide).

Lloyd says today’s audiences crave a relatable story, like “Mamma Mia!” and “Rock of Ages.”

“‘Mamma Mia!’ wasn’t about characters who were a size zero who could put their legs behind their heads and then wrap them around the back of their neck,” she jokes. “It was about you and me, women of a certain age running around the streets when they’ve had too much to drink and put on an ABBA record.”

Meanwhile, Shankman contends that though studios remain skittish about musicals, they can be swayed by a director with a clear understanding of the intended audience.

“Every studio is suspect about making the right one,” he says. “Not every one is a slam dunk, especially originals. But if a filmmaker can look you in the eye and say, ‘I get this. I know who this appeals to. I know how to sell this,’ (that’s essential).”

And despite its recent musical disappointments like “The Producers,” which cost $45 million and made only $38 million worldwide, Universal remains Hollywood’s most bullish studio when it comes to musicals, with such projects in development as “Wicked,” “American Idiot,” “Carmen,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a “Mamma Mia!” sequel and a remake of the Parton hit “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (though Universal put the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights” into turnaround). The studio will release the year’s fifth tuner with the $18 million “Pitch Perfect,”

“Universal is killing themselves to make ‘Wicked’ right now, but it’s not done with the theatrical run yet,” notes Shankman. “But who wouldn’t want to make it? It’s a huge international property.”