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Studios Gamble on Pricey Original Films

Hollywood places big bets on 'Lone Ranger,' 'Pacific Rim,' 'World War Z' in a franchise-packed summer

Nearly every studio is gambling on at least one costly original concept film this summer, raising the stakes even higher than usual for the busiest moviegoing season of the year.

Distribs and exhibs are on edge, given that box office revenue and admissions are down 11% so far in 2013, and are saying their prayers that the May-to-August lineup will be strong enough to pull the movie business out of its hole.

More than $2 billion in production and marketing costs is riding on the forthcoming crop of risky original titles that include “The Lone Ranger,” “Pacific Rim” and “World War Z.” While Will Smith is one of the biggest stars in the world, his turn as an army general in post-apocalyptic sci-fi film “After Earth” is also far from a slam dunk. And, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, will summer audiences be ready for “White House Down,” about domestic terrorists blowing up the U.S. Capitol and taking over the White House?

Of course, the studios aren’t prepared to bet everything they have on fresh offerings. They’re serving up more sequels and reboots than any other summer of the past decade: 13 vs. eight last year.

Executives and theater owners are hoping that the overall mix of films, particularly those that come with a large degree of box office guarantees like “Iron Man 3,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Man of Steel,” “The Hangover III,” “Fast & Furious 6” and “The Wolverine,” will generate enough to close the gap. There are also some animated sequels, among them “Despicable Me 2,” “Monsters University” and the hybrid “Smurfs 2,” and new cartoon entries such as “Planes” and “Epic,” to establish a beachhead for family filmgoers.

(“Monsters University,” pictured above, “Pacific Rim” and “Turbo” could help pull the B.O. out of its spring slump.)

“There’s no doubt, from a marketing standpoint it’s harder to sell an original property,” says Megan Colligan, president of domestic marketing and distribution at Paramount Pictures. “But I do think there’s a real enthusiasm for the varied slate this summer.”

Sony’s worldwide distrib prez Rory Bruer concurs the combo of unfamiliar and familiar properties will draw crowds.

“I do believe having so many original stories like this is going to broaden summer moviegoing,” he says. “There really is something for everyone.”

As in summers past, rising costs of bringing these films to audiences are a focal point. Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” is arguably the most high-profile risk. The Gore Verbinski-directed Western starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer was plagued by production delays and expensive sets — Verbinski erected an entire town in New Mexico and had a full-size train built — and the pic came in with a production price upward of $225 million, according to Disney.

Meanwhile, even as box office returns from 3D have plateaued, studios again are turning to the format: There are 17 summer tentpoles in 3D (including all the animated features) vs. 12 last year— something that’s sure to please exhibitors who, at the recent CinemaCon, called for more family fare.

Fox kicks off the animated glut with Blue Sky’s “Epic” on May 24, followed by Disney-Pixar’s “Monsters University” on June 21, and three more in July — U’s “Despicable Me 2,” Fox-DreamWorks Animation’s “Turbo” and Sony’s “The Smurfs 2.” Disney Animation’s “Planes” is the last into the pool, on Aug. 9. Animated pics traditionally have long legs, but that could shorten given the crowded release sked.

By contrast, R-rated comedies have declined since 2011’s high-water mark of eight. Only five R-rated comedies bow wide this summer, including Sony’s “This Is the End”; Fox’s “The Heat”; CBS Films’ “The To-Do List”; and Warner’s “The Hangover Part III” and “We’re the Millers.” Although some raunchy comedies, like the original “Hangover” and “Bridesmaids,” have thrived in recent summers, many bizzers believe too many R-rated films were to blame for the first-quarter box office decline.

The more fiscally perilous pics will continue to lean on foreign B.O. to help ride to the rescue. Disney hopes to mitigate the “Lone Ranger’s” risks. “Johnny Depp is allowed to play in a space that other stars really can’t get away with,” suggests one rival studio exec.

Uncertainty also surrounds U’s scifi comedy “R.I.P.D.,” which bows July 19 alongside Lionsgate’s “Red 2” and Warner’s “The Conjuring.” The U pic, which is based on a Dark Horse Ent. comicbook, stars Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges as deceased cops resurrected to fight evil spirits on Earth. According to the studio, the film rang up a net cost of $130 million, though other sources say it’s higher. U’s “Fast & Furious” sequel, also will rely on a global profile; the previous installment, “Fast Five,” raced to more than $400 million at the international B.O., nearly twice what it earned in the U.S.

Other pricey pics banking on star power and overseas markets to help drive ticket sales are Paramount’s “World War Z” with Brad Pitt, and Sony’s Roland Emmerich-directed “White House Down,” starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Paramount partnered with three financial backers on the $170 million-budgeted “World War Z” — Hemisphere Media Capital, GK Films and Skydance Prods. — to help share the risk. Sony is on the hook for all of “White House Down’s” nearly $150 million in production expenses. Warner is partnered with Legendary Pictures’ on both “Man of Steel,” which cost more than $200 million, and “Pacific Rim,”” which cost about $180 million. Its director, Guillermo del Toro, was touting the film to exhibitors at CinemaCon. “Watching this movie every week, I find myself smiling like a goddamn moron.”

Hollywood hopes to be smiling too when summer wraps.

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