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‘Elysium’ Holds Key to Sony’s Summer Box Office

After a pair of pricey B.O. bombs, studio banks on socially conscious sci-fier from ‘District 9’ helmer

Neill Blomkamp can’t sneak up on audiences this time.

In mid-August 2009, his $35 million aliens-as-boatpeople picture, “District 9,” flew out of nowhere to score $213 million in global ticket sales. On Aug. 8, the film’s writer-director is back with another socially conscious sci-fier, “Elyisum,” but this time the budget is far bigger ($120 million-plus) and the cast more star-studded (Matt Damon and Jodie Foster). Add in tens of millions more in P&A costs, and “Elysium” probably needs to gross about three times what “District 9” did to also qualify as a runaway hit.

For Sony, whose brass is enthusiastic about the prospects for the pic, “Elysium” is a chance to redeem its summer slate after two costly disappointments, “After Earth” and “White House Down.” But it’s also a significant bet on a filmmaker who has no track record with this scale of moviemaking.

Doug Belgrad, president of Sony’s Columbia Pictures label, says the studio felt confident in Blomkamp’s ability to pull off the production, with its guidance. “Allowing Neill to pursue his vision doesn’t mean we were absentee. We were very involved with him in the making of the movie and in the finishing of the movie,” the executive says.

“Elysium” pushes the “99% vs. 1%” conflict to a fantastical extreme. In the year 2154, most of the human race swelters on an overpopulated Earth, but the elites live an idyllic life on an orbiting space station dubbed “Elysium,” which is off-limits to all but the privileged. Damon plays a doomed Earthbound worker who can save his own life, and those of millions of others, if he can overcome the space station’s defenses.

SEE MORE: Matt Damon Saves the World in New ‘Elysium’ Trailer (VIDEO)

“‘Elysium’ in a certain sense, isn’t a science fiction film,” Blomkamp says. “It’s a film about contemporary Earth. It’s just showing it to you differently.” He credits Modi Wiczyk, co-CEO of Media Rights Capital, and Sony Pictures topper Amy Pascal for biting on his story pitch. He then developed the story with MRC.

MRC, says Wiczyk, works with filmmakers to estimate a budget. “We went back to him and said, ‘Look, we think this is a range you want to be in,’ ” says Wiczyk, noting the projected costs were between $120 million and $125 million. MRC, which did not co-finance the film but gets a cut after the studio breaks even, also gives its filmmakers (including Blomkamp on “Elysium”) a piece of their profit on pictures, which incentivizes them to control costs.

Blomkamp, who has made dozens of commercials but had never directed a feature with a major star, admits being nervous over the demands that Damon and Foster might bring. But he was surprised at how collaborative they were.

SEE MORE: Blomkamp’s ‘Elysium’ Imagines Gritty Future

“It wasn’t really about (them overwhelmingly injecting) their process into mine,” he says. “I feel pretty lucky about the way that that turned out.”

In production, Blomkamp told his department heads to approach this picture with the same lean-and-mean outlook they had on “District 9.” Consequently, the cost per shooting day on “Elysium” was nearly comparable to that of “District 9.” Blomkamp’s experience with animation and visual effects also helped keep costs down. Wiczyk says Blomkamp excelled at knowing which shots required “the Tiffany approach” and where he could settle for something beautiful but less detailed.

Blomkamp’s interest in socially conscious science fiction is a stark contrast with the escapist superhero fare that dominates the summer box office. Sony wasn’t looking over the creatives’ shoulders every day. Blomkamp shielded his team from interference, and in turn credits producer Simon Kinberg and MRC for keeping the process “respectful of what the film should be.”

The result: The director says he didn’t feel the weight of added expectations every day at work — though he knew what was at stake. “I was aware there’s more money riding on it,” Blomkamp says. “I know the risk I’m taking as a filmmaker, where if the thing goes down or it doesn’t really work with audiences, I’m going to be in trouble trying to get my next film made. But that was the only different pressure, I guess, and that was kind of self-imposed.”

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