The giant, glimmering whirligig of a space ship at the center of “Passengers” ferries more than 5,000 hibernating humans to a distant planet. But that’s not the only precious cargo being carried by Sony’s big Christmas movie.
The film represents the realization of one of Hollywood’s most anticipated screenplays. It’s the last hope for the Culver City studio to end a lackluster year with a winning flourish. It’s a chance for Tom Rothman to begin, in earnest, the turnaround he promised when he became chairman of the motion picture group at Sony Pictures Entertainment in February 2015. And it’s the moment for star Jennifer Lawrence to prove she can open a costly non-franchise movie to justify her $20 million payday and significant piece of the back-end.
“Passengers,” which also stars Chris Pratt and was directed by Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”), cost an estimated $150 million to produce before tax rebates supposedly shaved off nearly $30 million. Sony officials say the net cost was $110 million.
The movie heads into its Dec. 21 opening tracking solidly, if not spectacularly, with expectations of a $30 million to $40 million debut over five days, competing against a tough holiday lineup that includes Disney’s Star Wars spinoff “Rogue One,” Universal’s animated musical “Sing,” and the 20th Century Fox adventure fantasy “Assassin’s Creed.”
Its performance will be determined largely on whether its genre-blending brew — equal parts romance, action-thriller, and mystery — attracts a broad cross section of moviegoers or, conversely, flummoxes audiences with a kind of identity confusion.
“ ‘Passengers’ is my darling,” says screenwriter Jon Spaihts, who has seen the project pass through many iterations since he wrote the script more than a decade ago. “It feels great to know we preserved the heart of the film. … There is definitely an unparalleled rush to seeing it on the screen. At the same time, if something goes wrong, there [will be] more of a wound in my heart.”
“Passengers” was born of another Spaihts script, in which the protagonist ends up alone in space. Co-producer Stephen Hamel suggested to the writer that he begin with a lone space traveler — creating room for a more positive story arc. Spaihts says he quickly arrived at the concept of a starship full of Earthlings bound for a distant colony. Neal Moritz, the producer behind the “Fast and Furious” films, was a driving force in bringing “Passengers” to the screen.
The Weinstein Co. held rights to the project for a time, and veteran TV director Brian Kirk signed on to helm it. Keanu Reeves was to star, initially paired with Reese Witherspoon, then with Rachel McAdams. After the Weinsteins ditched the project, it appeared to be headed to Focus Features before it was purchased in late 2014 by Sony, which at the time was overseen by co-chair Amy Pascal.
Rothman took over as the studio’s chairman soon afterward. He tried to crunch the film’s budget down, questioning the rich deals for Lawrence and Pratt (who received $12 million) before giving the movie a green light, according to sources.
Sony could use a big win. It stands fifth among the six major studios in domestic box office for 2016. Its many underperformers have included “Ghostbusters,” “Inferno,” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” Some modestly budgeted offerings, like “Sausage Party” and “The Shallows,” have done better.
“Passengers” has long been viewed as a vehicle that could help right the Sony ship, and insiders have high hopes, though they would prefer that the film not be viewed as the measure of the studio’s performance.
“Christmas is … crowded with many strong films,” says a Sony spokesperson, “but we are hopeful that audiences around the world will respond to the originality of ‘Passengers.’ ”Added one insider: “We are bullish on it, but the movie is not making or breaking the studio.”
Sony’s financial bet is hedged, as well. More than half the cost is being offset with investments from Village Roadshow Pictures, LStar Capital, and Wanda Pictures.
Sony’s marketing for the film has played on both the action and romance elements. “‘Titanic’ is the closest example of an action story with love at the heart of it,” says one backer, who asked not to be named. The “Passengers” team toyed with whether to give away the key plot twist, thinking it could boost interest for the opening weekend.
“I’m really glad we decided not to do that,” says the backer. “I think that’s going to lead to a lot of discussion by audiences and to a lot of buzz and word of mouth that will give this thing legs.”
Billboards feature two sets of eyes, those of the film’s two stars, staring fiercely back at their audience. The tagline, “Open your eyes,” refers not only to the hibernating space travelers but to the mystery as to how they awoke 90 years before they were due to arrive at a colony in space.
There is another subtle story clue on the posters: A series of dots and dashes are Morse code for “SOS.” The film’s backers hope the warning applies only to the on-screen action, not to the results for Sony’s last big gasp of 2016.