After two decades in the deep waters of development, prehistoric shark actioner “The Meg” is finally ready to swim into the late-summer box office.
Steve Alten, the author of the novel on which the film is based, thought many times over that the project might sink without a ripple. When Alten was 15 in 1975, he became a huge fan of Steven Spielberg’s smash hit “Jaws” — which inspired him to begin exploring the idea of a giant prehistoric shark species somehow surviving in today’s world.
Hollywood has produced plenty of shark movies since “Jaws,” but “Meg” was stuck in development hell for more than two decades. It’s finally being released on Aug. 10, starring Jason Statham, directed by Jon Turteltaub, and written by Dean Georgaris and brothers Jon and Erich Hoeber.
Like “Skyscraper,” which doubled its domestic launch in China, “The Meg” is a part-Chinese production that’s looking to the Middle Kingdom to help shore up box office. With a $150 million budget and a moderate projected opening weekend of $18 million to $23 million in North America, it will need significant support from overseas to recoup for Warner Bros. Germany, the U.K., Spain, and China also open the film on the same weekend.
The film’s first attack takes place 200 miles off the Chinese coast and the international shark research institute is in China. Chinese actors Li Bingbing and Winston Chao have leading roles. Perhaps most importantly, China-based Gravity Pictures is a co-financer.
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Alten told Variety what helped spark the idea. “When I was 35, struggling to support a family of five, I picked up an August 1995 issue of Time and it had a cover story about the Mariana Trench. And I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be neat if that shark were down there,’ so I began working on the book from 10 at night to 3 in the morning.”
Two years later, Alten published “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” as the story of a paleontologist who comes face to face with a massive 70-foot Megalodon in the Mariana Trench — the deepest known part of the world’s oceans at more than 36,000 feet — and attempts to prevent it from attacking humanity and giving birth to a family of Megalodons.
Disney picked up the movie rights in 1997 soon after the novel was published. It dropped the project a few years later, with Alten then setting up the movie at New Line, which attached “Speed” director Jan de Bont. But New Line went through a painful downsizing in 2007 so the rights reverted back to Alten again.
Alten shrugged off the delay and kept on writing. He published five more “Meg” books, having just finished “Meg: Generations.”
“The Megalodon is something that was alive until a few million years ago,” Alten reflects. “And only 1% of the deep water in the world has ever been explored. Are there thousands still around? Probably not, but you never completely know what’s down there.”
Randy Greenberg, who’s an executive producer on the film, says the original plan at Disney was to make “Meg” as a family-oriented movie, while New Line’s idea was to have de Bont make a more terrifying version. He credits producer Belle Avery with having the foresight to see the project through after making a deal with Alten in 2008. Avery, who moved the story from Japan to China, also pushed for it to be family-friendly, and “The Meg” arrives in theaters with a PG-13 rating — and not a single curse word.
Avery says it took her 22 round trips over eight years to China to get “The Meg” financed and into pre-production.
For her part, Avery credits veteran Chinese movie executive Wayne Jiang Wei with providing the crucial backing for the project in 2014 through Gravity Pictures, which itself is a joint venture between China’s China Media Capital, Warner Bros., and Hong Kong’s TVB.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is the one,'” said Jiang, who has since departed Gravity to head Legendary Entertainment’s activities in China. “I thought it could be a very good co-production.” Jiang says Georgaris incorporated Chinese elements into the script before going to Warner Bros.
After Warner took on the project, Eli Roth was briefly attached to direct, but the studio then opted for Turteltaub, director of the “National Treasure” movies and “Last Vegas.” Two other notable producers are credited in addition to Avary — Colin Wilson (“The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and “Munich”) and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, producer of the “Transformers” franchise who was a top Warner Bros. executive in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“For me, it was a great homecoming to be working at Warner Bros. again because I still bleed Warner blue,” di Bonaventura said. “I’ve always seen this as a fun movie, something on the order of, ‘let’s not take it too seriously.’ It’s fundamentally a great idea — and your job as a producer is to make the extraordinary plausible. I think the movie does a very good job of setting up the quasi-science of it.”
Di Bonaventura stressed that the multicultural elements are key and that this is one picture where 3D pays off.
Erich Hoeber, who teamed with his brother Jon Hoeber and Georgaris for the script, noted that he’s often asked if the film resembles “Sharknado.”
“‘The Meg’ is like ‘Sharknado’ if it had a $150 million budget and a heart,” he mused. “We know that it’s outrageous, but it’s also a lot of fun. So the people you want to get eaten by the shark are going to get eaten by the shark.”
Hoeber noted that the casting of Statham was particularly apt since Statham was a top-tier diver as a member of the United Kingdom’s national swimming squad for a decade before becoming an actor.
“So he was in his element, doing swan dives off the ship, where any other actor would have said, ‘I don’t know,'” Hoeber added. “It really is the part he was born to play.”
As for Alten, he’s been dealing with Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade. Having the movie finally finished after 22 years is bittersweet, since he recently told fans in his monthly newsletter that he’s not sure how easy it will be to walk the red carpet at the premiere.
“The last thing I want is to be flailing in front of thousands of iPhone cameras,” Alten wrote, “But I’m sure I will be excited when I’m there on Aug. 6.”