Zombies, skaters and David Brent: Boxoffice's woolly weekend

By Steven Zeitchik

Gerv The fall may be a time for serious movies. But it still doesn't feel that way, what with the comedies, genre pics and others all rushing to get out before the season turns somber. It's hard to imagine a weekend of boxoffice with more nuggets than this one, so we'll run a few down.

* A land of zombies. "Shaun of the Dead," "28 Days Later, "I Am Legend." There have been dozens of low-budget campy failures over the years, but it seems like every time lately a studio touches a zombie movie, they come to boxoffice life. "Zombieland" didn't get great reviews, the fans didn't always go gaga, and Woody Harrelson isn't the type to open a movie -- and yet it still earned $25m and looks to feast on more next week. That all should be good news for any studio developing a zombie movie, as DreamWorks is with a couple of pics, and motivate scores of other studios to try to get their hands on one.

* Ricky, he's so fine he blows our mind. Ricky Gervais tried to open a movie last year with the underappreciated "Ghost Town." It didn't work, and now he's tried it again with the high-concept comedy "Invention of Lying." The movie's a moral parable -- it's part "Truman Show," part "Liar Liar" -- that doesn't quite come off but is still sly and ambitious. The religious subversiveness may have hurt it in red states, but people who love Ricky really love Ricky, which is why the film at least earned $7.5m and didn't become, well, "Whip It." He'll try again next year with "Cemetery Junction," which like "Lying," he also wrote and stars in.

* Moonlighting. Despite working more often than a hard-boiled private eye, Bruce Willis has not had a bona fide hit since "Unbreakable" a decade ago. (Okay, so he had "Live Free or Die Hard." A hit that originated in the last fifteen years, we should say.) Seems hard to believe, but it's not changing with "Surrogates," which faltered this weekend and has failed to hit $20m in two weeks of release. Yet Willis keeps raking in the roles -- expect 26 more action pics in the next year. One or two of them have to succeed. If not, well, maybe he'll stop making action movies by the time he's 60.

Continue reading "Zombies, skaters and David Brent: Boxoffice's woolly weekend" »

A dark day for Miramax, and for specialty films

By Steven Zeitchik

Mir  It's not entirely a shock, given some of the rumors of the past few months, but still unsettling news today as Disney announces it will scale back  Miramax pretty dramatically.

As we and Borys Kit report on THR, the company will see its marketing and distribution absorbed by Disney and will also cut about fifty staffers in the coming months (out of a staff that only numbered about 75). That means some top staff is going, not to mention a whole raft of junior execs. Miramax chief Daniel Battsek, the company is careful to note, is staying on.

Disney says that Miramax will still produce about three movies per year,, but given that they're just doing five this year with many multiples of the staff, it's fair to wonder how long they'll keep it up for.

It's (slightly, very slightly) heartening that Disney decided not to shutter the division completely after being unable to find a suitable buyer for it, which they'd been trying to do for several months. But the way it's being done comes with far more questions than answers.

How does Disney handle some of the more specialized upcoming releases that Miramax was designed to handle (and indeed, is the reason it was built in the first place)? One can imagine the parent company's marketing and distribution engine taking over Julie Taymor's candy-colored "The Tempest," say, but John Madden's literary thriller "The Debt" would be a lot tougher. The people that market Miramax movies and the people that market Disney movies, after all, have pretty different orientations. The difference on publicity is even more stark.

Continue reading "A dark day for Miramax, and for specialty films" »

New Universal tentpoles, in living rooms as well as theaters?

By Steven Zeitchik

ApOne interesting, largely unexplored angle to all the Comcast-NBC U talk -- apart from the little matter of whether it's actually happening -- is how it could affect the windowing of movies.

In the simplest terms: If Comcast ends up with a controlling stake in NBC U, we could see big studio tentpoles released day-and-date in both theaters and on pay-per-view TV platforms sooner than people expect. A lot sooner.

A couple years ago, we covered a conference in which Comcast COO Steve Burke spoke openly in a keynote that the day of "Spider-Man" and other studio franchises debuting simultaneously in theaters and on-demand was at hand.

"You can imagine a situation where we put 'Spider-Man' (on pay-per-view) concomitant with the opening weekend for $30 or $40 or $50," Burke said, essentially describing the smashed-window theory of movie releasing that has alternately excited and frightened the entertainment biz.

It sounded like Burke had something more specific in mind than just generic cable-operator day-and-date fantasy, so we and other journos pressed him after the talk. He said that, indeed, Comcast had had discussions with "several studios" that were interested in this sort of plan, and that Comcast was continuing to push them on this.

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The oompaloompas, live and in person

By Steven Zeitchik

Choc Willy Wonka could soon be kicking up his heels.

Warner Bros. is developing a stage musical based on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," the children's classic that it bought to the big screen four years ago.

Sam Mendes' and Caro Newling's Neal Street Prods. are on board to produce the project. Mendes is eyeing it as a directing vehicle, but is far from making a decision on helming, said people familiar with the situation.

David Greig has been hired to write the book. The Scottish playwright has penned a slew of plays, including "Damascus," "The American Pilot" and the real-estate drama "The Architect," which became a 2006 movie starring Anthony LaPaglia.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, meanwhile, will compose the music; both worked on Warners/New Line 2007 big screen treatment of "Hairspray."

The concept behind the stage version of "Factory" is to take the candy-colored set pieces -- seen most elaborately in the effects  of Tim Burton's 2005 pic -- and translate them to the stage, while also creating new musical elements and transferring some that animated the pic.

Continue reading "The oompaloompas, live and in person" »

Actors have a thirst for 'Wettest County'

By Steven Zeitchik and Borys Kit


A period drama that’s in turnaround from a major studio wouldn’t necessarily be expected to make many waves in the Hollywood tentpole era.

But that’s pretty much what “The Wettest County in the World” — a story of Depression-era bootleggers from Red Wagon and “The Road” director John Hillcoat — is doing.

The project was set up at Columbia about a year-and-a-half ago. But it has since been put in turnaround and is now in the process of being reconfigured as an indie, with financing still coming together.

But that hasn’t stopped the project from becoming the brass ring for the next generation of Hollywood A-listers.

Shia LaBeouf, Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Gosling are among the actors whose names have been presented as associated with the project to reps and execs around town (though none is yet on board). The names of Paul Dano and Michael Shannon have also surfaced in connection with the project.

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Ramones biopic could have Fox Searchlight saying 'Gabba Gabba Hey'

By Steven Zeitchik and Matthew Belloni


Fox Searchlight wants to be sedated.

The specialty division is in negotiations to board a project about the life of the Ramones, based on a memoir titled "I Slept With Joey Ramone" by the musician's brother -- and, notably, featuring the band's tunes.

The project, which had initially been conceived and come together independently under manager-producer Rory Rosegarten, would get a significant boost with the boarding of the specialty division.

Written by Joey Ramone’s brother Mickey Leigh and longtime punk writer and Ramones chronicler Legs McNeil, the book centers on the life of Joey Ramone, aka Jeffrey Hyman, the lead singer of the seminal punk act.  The memoir is set to be published by Simon & Schuster imprint Fireside in December.

Rosegarten is a former exec producer on "Everybody Loves Raymond" who negotiated several years ago to buy the rights to the book as it was being written and, most critically, the rights to the music. The presence of so many rights has made the negotiating process a complicated one, and the deal with Searchlight is not closed, cautioned people close to the situation.

It's still a heck of a tale. John Cummings, Jeffrey Hyman, Thomas Erdelyi and Douglas Colvin were the four key members of the Ramones, going by the names Johnny, Joey, Tommy and Dee Dee Ramone. Formed in Queens, NY, in 1974, the four (unrelated) musicians became cult symbols and fathers of the punk movement, attaining little commercial airplay but heavily influencing modern music with songs like "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Blitzkrieg Bop," “Rockaway Beach” and "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" (and also giving rise to the countercultural catch phrase "Gabba Gabba Hey"). Other members -- including Marky, C.J. and Richie Ramone -- also played with the band at various points.

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Hollywood minimajors, the film-world equivalent of Washington Mutual?

By Steven Zeitchik


Back when 2008 was on the way out and film bloggers everywhere were looking for something to write that didn't contain the words Slumdog Millionaire, we made the not-so-bold prediction that among the self-financed startups of the past few years -- Overture, MGM, Weinstein Company and Summit , in the main-- at least one wouldn't be in business by the time we were trying to find things  to write about other than next year's Slumdog Millionaire.

Ten months later -- and before we've even begun to avoid the words Up in the Air--  it looks like that crystal-balling is coming true, though not always in the way we might have expected.

Most of the companies have taken their lumps. After a solid start to the year with "Valkyrie" -- common wisdom has it as a middling performer, but it made $200m worldwide -- MGM waited another nine months before it released another of its own movies. And then it had a rough time of it, opening "Fame" to just $10m this weekend. Given that it won't be releasing another movie until the first quarter of 2010, that means the revenue could be pretty slow in coming.

Overture has made sleepers out of specialized fare like "Sunshine Cleaning" and "The Visitor," but  continues to look for the home run. And while the MGM-ers-turned-Maloners are hoping George Clooney's "Men Who Stare at Goats" and/or Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" finally knocks one out of the park, neither has yet given strong indications of being a slugger, more like a .280 hitter with occasional opposite-field power.

The Weinstein Company snuck out with a few wins -- no one could have guessed "The Reader" would have gotten kudos and $35m, and of course "Inglourious Basterds" is a $243m global standout -- but it's an understatement worthy of a French diplomat to say it still needs a lot more help.

Continue reading "Hollywood minimajors, the film-world equivalent of Washington Mutual?" »

Jessica Alba becomes a 'Little Focker'

By Steven Zeitchik and Borys Kit


Jessica Alba is becoming a Focker.

The actress is in negotiations to join the Ben Stiller-Robert DeNiro comedy "Little Fockers." She'd play the role of an attractive pharmaceutical rep whose looks wreak havoc on male characters in the story.

Paul Weitz is directing the third installment in the Universal and Tribeca Productions franchise. Universal is banking heavily on "Fockers," one of the studio's few go-to franchises and an important one given its shaky summer. Production is set to begin in the next few months, with a 2010 release date more than likely.

The picture is expect to pick up where 2004's "Meet the Fockers" left off, with Stiller's Gaylord Focker and Teri Polo's Pamela Byrnes having a child (or children -- reports abound that they could be having twins). John Hamburg penned the latest version of the script.

Even if Alba's role isn't huge -- and with so many other big actors (Stiller, DeNiro, Wilson) already set, it may not be -- the move is a shrewd bit of casting for Universal. The franchise needs to rope in young men, and with the movie's promise of babies and family -- not always said demo's main interest -- it could use a Maxim-esque presence.

The WME-repped Alba, incidentally, is set to star in the Robert Rodriguez thriller "Machete" for Sony as well as Garry Marshall's romantic comedy "Valentine's Day" for New Line. Both are also movies that could -- and need to -- bring in the boys. That's what she does. The focker.

Antoine Fuqua puts away 'Prisoners'

By Steven Zeitchik


Antoine Fuqua is the new warden.

The "Training Day" helmer is in negotiations to direct Aaron Guzikowski's hot spec script "Prisoners." The project is being fast-tracked, with preproduction set to begin shortly for a likely January or February shoot.

"Prisoners" is set up at Alcon, which will release it via Warner Bros. next October.

Guzikowski, repped by WME and Madhouse Entertainment, created a stir when "Prisoners" first went out earlier this year, with the script attracting interest from high-profile directors such as Bryan Singer. Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale were also attached to star, and a number of studios were keen to pick up the package.

But producers eventually decided to sell to Alcon, which bested entities such as Summit and Relativity, and reconfigured it without cast and with a slightly lower budget (about $30 million-$40 million) so that it could move forward more quickly.

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What happens when animation keeps going 'Up'?

By Steven Zeitchik


Quietly but assuredly, like a tiptoeing cartoon rabbit, animation is becoming the unsung story of this year's boxoffice.

With Sony's "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" holding strong this weekend to get to $60 million, it now has an outside shot of hitting $100 million (not an excellent shot, but another couple of solid holds and it's almost there).

That, in turn, means the animation world could hit a milestone in 2009 -- the first time that more than five movies will exceed $100 million. "Up," "Ice Age" and "Monsters vs. Aliens" already did it, and the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" sequel -- er, squeakuel -- will do it; the only question is whether "Meatballs" and Disney's hand-drawn "The Princess and the Frog" have the stuff.  Even without them, the sector could get over the hump thanks to Pixar's rerelease of the two "Toy Story" pics.

All this coin for cartoons may seems like an inevitability, but animation has come pretty far pretty fast; as recently as 2005 only three animated pics cracked the $100 million mark.

The burst of success has all sorts of implications for the biz. It means that it may make more sense than ever to put an animated specialist like John Lasseter in charge of one of the country's biggest studios. It means that there's a rising tide than can lift other boats -- including indie animated studios like Imagi (behind Summit's upcoming "Astro Boy") and Exodus Film Group (behind MGM's "Bunyan and Babe"), not to mention spur specialty divisions to get in on the action (Focus Features' two biggest earners this year could wind up being animated pics).

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Oscar Screeners: The unimportance of being first

By Steven Zeitchik

FoThis time of year, there's usually a lot of pundit interest over which movie screener is sent to awards-voters ahead of all others. Misguided interest, we should say. Being the first screener out is as about meaningful in the long run as being the first person chosen in your junior-high punchball game.

Two years ago it was "The Namesake," "Once" and "Waitress" (collective Oscar noms: one)  that reached voters first. A couple years before that it was "Junebug," also hitting mailboxes in September. The quirky drama picked up an Oscar nom for Amy Adams, but really, would that have gone any differently if the screener went out in, say, early October?

No one's taken the plunge yet this year, though for a minute there it looked like Summit was trying to beat the rush. We received several reports late in the week that the studio has sent out copies of "The Hurt Locker" to various people in the industry.

With the movie one of the few awards-y titles already on voters' minds, it seemed like an odd move. Conventional wisdom would dictate to wait until later in the season, when voters could really use a reminder. But with the the landscape quiet for now -- there hasn't been a heavyweight contender opening in the three weekends since Labor Day -- there was also a certain logic. Voters are already anxious this year because they have twice as many spots to fill (like having twice as much homework) and they're finding mainly romcoms and zombie movies in these early fall days.  What better way to give them a little peace of mind than nudge them about a title they may already be thinking about anyway?

Continue reading "Oscar Screeners: The unimportance of being first" »

Teen musicals go from peppy to dirge-like

By Steven Zeitchik

FaIt may seem like teen musicals are everywhere -- and if Rich Ross takes over at Disney, they probably will be -- but if "Fame" pulls up in third position this weekend, it could be time to sing a downbeat note.

As recently as a year ago the teen musical could do no wrong. Riding a pop-cultural tsunami to give meteorologists chills, the third installment of "High School Musical" stormed in to theaters with a $42m opening weekend and landed with a $252m global take, enough to outfit the world in cheerleader costumes.

But the tracking for "Fame" is pointing to a likely finish in the low teens this weekend -- not a horrible showing but probably not what MGM had in mind when it made the reboot the linchpin of its original-production slate (more on them in a later post).

The middling outlook may be a function of brand -- someone who was a teenager when the Irene Cara-Debbie Allen movie came out could be a grandparent by now (a 48-year-old grandparent, but a grandparent still), not exactly a good thing for a teen-targeted movie. And despite some clever promotions by MGM, the Fame name hasn't hugely penetrated teen consciousness.  A bunch of tough reviews haven't helped either.

Continue reading "Teen musicals go from peppy to dirge-like" »

David Cronenberg will 'Fly' again


By Steven Zeitchik

David Cronenberg is again buzzing with "The Fly."

The auteur is in talks to develop a reboot of the 1986 classic with Fox, the studio that released that film, writing and potentially directing the new pic.

The move marks an about-face for the Canadian director, who in the past has said he did not want to be involved on a remake of the film. Cronenberg did work on an opera version of "The Fly" that was staged first in Paris and then in Los Angeles.

The 1986 title, itself a remake of Kurt Neumann's 1958 sci-fi classic, starred Jeff Goldblum and became a huge hit for Fox, earning $40 million and turning into a phenomenon. It centered on Seth Brundle (Goldblum), an eccentric scientist who, after an experiment with teleportation goes awry, is transformed into a fly. Geena Davis starred as Goldblum's love interest and partner, Veronica.

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About Risky Business

  • Risky Biz blog takes a deep, daily look at the film industry's ups, downs and deals from around the world and the heart of Hollywood. It is edited by media and entertainment journalist Steven Zeitchik, with contributions from The Hollywood Reporter's worldwide team of film editors and reporters. Zeitchik is a Los Angeles-based writer for THR and also has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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