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Category: Universal Pictures

Universal's 'Tower Heist' VOD fiasco: What went wrong?

October 12, 2011 |  5:38 pm

Tower heist
Universal Pictures has ended up with egg on its face after the embarrassing collapse of its experiment to make the upcoming Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy comedy "Tower Heist" available on VOD three weeks after its Nov. 4 theatrical release. The plan was to test market the Brett Ratner-directed film in two cities to see how many people would pay $60 to watch the movie at home in the comfort of their living room.

The plan backfired. A host of exhibitors, including Cinemark and National Amusements, announced that they wouldn't play the film at all, arguing that the experiment would surely somehow cut into their ticket sales. Of course, the VOD plan was limited to two mid-market cities (Portland, Ore., and Atlanta), but by using the nuclear option, exhibitors wanted to make it very clear to Universal's competitors that they would suffer equally dire consequences for any similar experiment.   

I will have more to say about this in a forthcoming column, but here's a few things to chew on that have made industry insiders question whether Universal botched the experiment from the start.

Patrickgoldsteinbigpicture2

First off, "Tower Heist" was probably the wrong movie to pick in an experiment where cooperation of exhibitors was needed. Even though it has two name-brand stars in leading roles, it arrives in a month -- November -- that is already loaded with commercial films. In fact, there is already another comedy, "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" on the same date, with another big comedy arriving a week later in the form of Adam Sandler's "Jack and Jill."

So if you're a theater owner, you would hardly be in danger of missing your numbers by refusing to play  "Tower Heist." That gave a lot of leverage to exhibitors willing to punish Universal. Even worse, from a leverage point of view, Universal is currently the weak sister of the Big Six studios. It has no major releases on its calendar for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and for that matter, no big event movie hitting theaters before "Battleship" next May. So if exhibitors wanted to punish a studio, Universal is the easiest one to pick a fight with.

But here's the real issue that created trouble for Universal. The studio's new corporate bosses at Comcast were clearly driving this experiment because if VOD works, it will be a great way to take advantage of Comcast's huge cable TV assets, giving them even more quality programming to offer their customers. That may help Comcast's bottom line, but it creates all sorts of headaches for Universal with its talent relations. After all, it was the top executives at Universal, not Comcast, who had to field angry phone calls from exhibitors. And it was Universal that was under siege by talent reps for Stiller, Murphy and Ratner, all hysterical about seeing their new movie being used as a guinea pig in an experiment that could lead to substantially reduced box-office grosses.

It just goes to show: In the new vertically integrated entertainment universe, what works for one end of the business doesn't necessarily work for the other. You'd think that Universal would have figured out what a potential mess this could be early on. But it clearly went ahead anyway. What's the lesson here? Theater owners may be dinosaurs when it comes to embracing new technology, but here's the thing about dinosaurs -- when they stamp their feet, it can really knock you for a loop.

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-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Ben Stiller, left, and Eddie Murphy in "Tower Heist." Credit: David Lee / Universal Pictures 


Universal resolves its dilemma

October 9, 2010 |  2:00 pm

After facing heat over its trailer for Ron Howard's "The Dilemma," Universal released a new promo for the film Saturday morning. There are number of different scenes in this new spot, most prominently, of course, a revamped opening. Instead of the "electric cars are gay" line that caused a fracas, the new trailer begins with Vince Vaughn telling Kevin James that "great moments are born from great opportunities," a reference James quips back comes from "Miracle."

The exchange has even less to do with the rest of the trailer -- which eventually gets around to explaining that the movie is about a man torn over whether to tell his best friend his wife cheated on him -- than the opening scene from the previous trailer. Still, critics of the first version will be satisfied; the new trailer is certainly less offensive. Whether it's any funnier is another question.

-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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Stephen King's 'The Dark Tower' set for movie, TV series

September 8, 2010 |  3:01 pm

Sking Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" -- comprising seven novels, short stories and comic books -- will come to life in three films and a television series. The unique deal will have Ron Howard directing the first film in the trilogy and the first season of the TV series, Universal Pictures and NBC Universal Television Entertainment announced Wednesday afternoon. 

Akiva Goldsman, perhaps best known for writing "Angels & Demons" and "A Beautiful Mind," will write the first season of the television program and produce the film alongside Imagine Entertainment, which Howard runs with Brian Grazer.

"The Dark Tower" has been wildly successful -- the novels alone have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. The story centers upon the sole survivor in a line of knightly gunslingers, Roland Deschain, who has been charged with finding a Dark Tower in order to save humanity.

“We are excited to have found partners at Universal who understand and embrace our approach to King’s remarkable epic,” Howard said in today's release. “By using both the scope and scale of theatrical filmmaking and the intimacy of television we hope to more comprehensively do justice to the characters, themes and amazing sequences King has given us in The Dark Tower novels. It might be the challenge of a lifetime but clearly a thrilling one to take on and explore.”

The first film will be quickly followed by the television series, which will lead to the second film. The TV series will then resume until the third film is released. No word yet on when production is slated to begin on the first film.

--Amy Kaufman

Twitter.com/AmyKinLA

Photo: Stephen King in 2009. Credit: Mark Lennihan / AP


Robert Schwentke to breathe life into R.I.P.D.?

August 11, 2010 |  6:16 pm

Robert Schwentke has been a busy man lately — and he hasn't even taken his next assignment yet. The "Flightplan" director is preparing to promote "Red," his new Bruce Willis action movie that Summit is releasing in the fall. And he's been linked to a few potential new projects, including an adaptation of the Robert Ludlum thriller "The Osterman Weekend" and the underwater adventure "Shadow Divers."

ScwentWe're now hearing the German director has met on, and is being considered for, the director's chair on "R.I.P.D.," the adaptation of the Dark Horse graphic novel that will star Ryan Reynolds. "R.I.P.D." has been a priority for studio Universal and Dark Horse, but, as we reported last week, it hit a speed bump when favored directorial candidate McG opted to take a different movie, the romantic comedy "This Means War."

Schwentke had been in contention with McG for the "R.I.P.D." job. But with the "Terminator Salvation" filmmaker out of the running, Schwentke is back in the "R.I.P.D." mix, sources say. That "Red" is starting to generate some strong buzz hasn't hurt the filmmaker's stock either.

Universal wants to shoot "R.I.P.D.," a crime movie about dead cops patrolling the underworld, next summer, when Reynolds has an open slot in his schedule. But it wants a director to begin work pretty much right away on the effects- and design-heavy picture, heightening the urgency of the quest.

If he lands the gig, Schwentke would be continuing his move in an action direction after the love-story detour of "The Time Traveler's Wife," though the premise of "R.I.P.D. is darker than much of what he's done before.

Schwentke is said to really like the "R.I.P.D." source material. Of course it's not always about the creative aspects — few filmmakers would turn down the chance to work with an A-lister like Reynolds, and on a film with a hefty production and marketing budget to boot.

— Steven Zeitchik

http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Robert Schwentke. Credit: Getty Imagea

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With 'Curious George,' Illumination looks to make more animation mischief

July 30, 2010 |  1:04 pm

George

EXCLUSIVE: Filmgoers soon will have another round of adventures with the Man With the Yellow Hat.

Illumination Entertainment, the animation company founded by former Fox Animation President Chris Meledandri and whose movies Universal finances and distributes, is developing a new version of "Curious George."

The movie is expected to feature the wry animated images of "Despicable Me" and will spin a new story of George the monkey/chimpanzee (depending on whether you favor H.A. and Margret Rey's text or the tail-less images) who's taken out of the jungle by an eccentric explorer to live in the city, where mischief always seems to find him.

Universal and production company Imagine produced an animated "Curious George" just four years ago, in which Will Ferrell voiced the Man With the Yellow hat. Mired in development for years, the movie didn't entirely catch on with filmgoers, grossing just $58 million in the U.S. (A second installment, "Curious George 2: Follow that Monkey!," came out as a direct-to-DVD release in 2009.)

The Illumination film is expected to start from scratch. It's getting a script from Larry Stuckey, who wrote the upcoming "Little Fockers," the third installment in the "Meet the Parents" franchise, for Universal.

Universal is very keen on Illumination, which with "Despicable" gave the studio a long-awaited family-friendly animation hit. After the success of that film, Meledandri's company is also developing "Where's Waldo?" and "Dr. Seuss' the Lorax" movies as well as a sequel to "Despicable Me."

Reboots of movies that haven't been gone very long -- "Haunted Mansion" and  "Spider-Man" -- continue to remain in vogue in Hollywood. They'll be an adventure, but we suppose if any character is up for one, it's Curious George.

--Steven Zeitchik

Twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Curious George. Credit: Houghton Mifflin

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The logic behind Guillermo del Toro's madness

July 28, 2010 |  8:07 pm

Deltoro

Guillermo del Toro all but winked at us the other day that he'll make his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's 1931 novella "At the Mountains of Madness" his first movie since things went awry with "The Hobbit." When we asked him in an interview on Friday whether it would indeed be his next film, as we were hearing, he flashed an impish grin and said, "We'll see."

This morning sources tipped that "Madness" would indeed be his next movie, and it's been something of an open secret in Universal circles that this is the one the auteur would go with. Now Deadline is reporting that it is, and, in something of a surprise, that James Cameron will produce, and that it will be in 3-D.

Fans have been calling for "Madness" for years, and in a way it's a perfect move at this moment. With the director losing two years on "The Hobbit," it's now four years and counting since he last directed a picture. [Update -- Make that a non-sequel or new picture; he did of course direct "Hellboy 2" in 2008.] His fans — and no doubt Del Toro himself — don't want to keep waiting. "Madness" is difficult material to shoot, both narratively and logistically — it's basically a monster movie set in Antarctica — but it is a movie that could be made with relative ease in other respects. Del Toro has a script that's basically ready, and a studio in Universal that's hungry for a hit. And given that the stars of his films are the creatures, casting shouldn't be the usual logjam either.

So the director, who is currently in post on "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,"  could get going on this pretty much right afterward. (He had told us he could shoot as early as the first quarter of 2011.)

But there's also a more specific Hollywood reason to choosing this over, say, "Frankenstein," another Universal project he'd flirted with. When you have a chance to make a risky passion project, you don't wait.

Christopher Nolan did just that after "The Dark Knight" by getting Warner Bros. to fast-track "Inception." Now Del Toro is doing the same with his own beloved film. He once told the L.A. Times that "Madness" was "my obsession," and there's little doubt it's the one closest to his heart — and also, given the subject matter, the kind of film that's extremely hard to make unless your stock is at Google levels.

And it is that high. Del Toro continues to have insane amounts of fan credibility, and he and agent Robert Newman have been wooed by pretty much every studio in town since the director landed back in Los Angeles last month.

Like most filmgoers, we're excited to see what Del Toro does with the material — but not half as excited, we bet, as the filmmaker is to get moving on his dream after his last project became such a nightmare.

— Steven Zeitchik

http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Guillermo del Toro. Credit: Miguel Villagran/Associated Press

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Matt Damon gets adjusted

July 7, 2010 | 11:36 am

Damon

Poor Matt Damon. Maybe it's just that he works too hard. Last year, the Oscar winner was scheduled to bring out three movies in the fall and saw Universal move one ("Green Zone") into March of the following year. This coming fall, it will happen again.

Universal announced Wednesday morning that it was pushing the "The Adjustment Bureau," the Philip K. Dick-derived sci-fi romance in which Damon plays a politician opposite Emily Blunt's mysterious ballerina, from its initial Sept. 17 date to March 4.

Damon will instead concentrate on his two other fall films: the Coen brothers' "True Grit" remake (which Scott Rudin is producing and which will no doubt demand some serious awards-season promotion time, as Scott Rudin films are wont to demand) and the Clint Eastwood thriller "Hereafter." The latter comes out in December; the former in October.

In fact, the pattern is remarkably similar to last year, when Damon had an awards-season auteur movie (Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant") and a Clint Eastwood film ("Invictus") take pride of place over a Universal play. Damon and his wife are also expecting a child in the early fall, so he's cutting back to just two movies for the season.

Universal's "Adjustment" adjustment set off/was part of a flurry of other scheduling moves by the studio. Few others were of great consequence, though the James Cameron-produced underwater adventure "Sanctum" will now come out a month earlier, on Feb. 4, (it had been set for the March 4 slot). And the studio has moved from February to September "Devil,' a claustrophobic horror film that's produced by the company of the airbender, M. Night Shyamalan (and had been commonly referred to as "The Night chronicles," the name of a series).

Incidentally, the Damon switch means that it's the second movie of the fall-spring season about mystical events surrounding a ballerina. Darren Aronofsky follows up his tour de force "The Wrestler" with "Black Swan,' about mysterious goings-on at the New York ballet, in a likely fall release. And they say Hollywood has abandoned the highbrow.

-- Steven Zeitchik
twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in 'The Adjustment Bureau.' Credit: Andy Schwartz / Universal Pictures

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Preview review: Zac Efron drops the song-and-dance in 'Charlie St. Cloud'

May 18, 2010 | 10:57 am

Charlie_st_cloud05 It's no secret that Zac Efron has long been eager to shed his squeaky-clean "High School Musical" image. Last year the young actor dropped out of a planned "Footloose" remake so he could devote his time to more serious acting endeavors.

One of those projects was "Charlie St. Cloud," which will be released July 30 and marks Efron's debut as a dramatic leading man.

But like with Miley Cyrus' move in the Nicholas Sparks-penned drama "The Last Song," Efron too seems to be jumping from cheesy kids TV to cheesy "adult" film.

The premise of the movie itself is relatively Sparks-esque. After high school senior Charlie (Efron) suffers the loss of his younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) in a car accident, he struggles to overcome his grief. Before Sam's death, Charlie promised the young boy he'd teach him how to play baseball before heading off to Stanford. So he slowly begins encountering and interacting with Sam's ghost -- but that only jeopardizes his budding romance with Tess (Amanda Crew), one of his old high school classmates whom he's begun to fall for.

The trailer makes a valiant effort to show off Efron as a heartthrob for his legion of adoring young fans. Only seconds in, the actor's muscular arms are center stage as he pulls the ropes of a sailboat on the sun-dappled open sea with his brother. From our limited view, we'll admit that Efron doesn't seem totally horrible in the role -- the relationship his character has with his younger brother is endearing, and we're sure the movie is a bona fide tear-jerker. But at points in the trailer, doesn't it seem like Efron is straining to seem brooding and pensive in an effort to get some "real" emotion up on screen?

But who are we kidding? The movie may look a tad saccharine, but we'd totally take our mom to see it this summer. Would you?

-- Amy Kaufman (Twitter.com/AmyKinLA)

Photo: Zac Efron stars in "Charlie St. Cloud." Credit: Universal Pictures


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Preview review: Matt Damon fights for love and free will in 'The Adjustment Bureau'

May 13, 2010 |  4:00 pm

Ab1 There hasn’t been too much hype for Matt Damon’s upcoming film “The Adjustment Bureau,” but after the trailer was released Thursday, it seems the Internet is abuzz over it, with bloggers and critics asking, "Why haven’t we heard more about this one?”

The movie, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, will hit theaters in September after Universal pushed back its end-of-summer release date. The trailer begins with ballerina Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) and Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) meeting each other seemingly for the first time, and it’s evident that immediately there's strong chemistry between them. Their shared glance triggers strong emotions within David — but are those feelings genuine or are they a part of some greater scheme controlled by a group of fedora-wearing men called the Adjustment Bureau?

David’s meeting with Elise was apparently not a part of that plan, and now David has to choose if he wants true love — which would mean sacrificing his political ambitions and apparently her dancing career — or to put his life back on the track it had been on.

The movie, directed by “The Bourne Ultimatum” scribe George Nolfi, seems to strike that rare but perfect balance that makes it appealing to both women and men — there’s a real, interesting romantic relationship at the center of everything that’s shrouded by a science-fiction mystery. We like the mix of flirty vignettes of the couple interspersed with the intense moments between David and the Adjustment Bureau. It also seems to have an “Inception”-esque vibe to it without getting crazily confusing.

That being said, our main qualm with the trailer is that it may give too much away — “just remember, we tried to reason with you,” one member of the bureau warns David. As the couple walks toward a blinding white light and David declares his love for Elise, it seems he opts for free will over fate.

Still, even if we have an idea of where the film is going, we’re intrigued enough to see what will happen once it gets there.

 

— Amy Kaufman (Twitter.com/AmyKinLA)


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Cannes 2010: At Cannes' opening night, several arrows but few sharp points

May 12, 2010 |  7:31 pm

Crow

Books shouldn't be judged by their covers, but sometimes a jacket illustration tells you all you need to know about what's inside, just like a film festival's opening night can suggest plenty about the days that lie ahead.

Cannes kicked off its 63rd edition on Wednesday night with two events that won't go down in infamy but will hardly be canonized in the festival's hallowed pages either. At the main hall in the elegant, starchy Palais, Universal unveiled its soon-to-be-released "Robin Hood," and although the premiere seemed to hit the big-event notes it needed to -- an after-party at a nearby beach-side club that featured paid medieval costume-wearers and a fireworks show amid the champagne swilling and dance-floor shaking -- it also bowled few over with its filmmaking. Those in the room described respectable but not overwhelming applause (a key indicator of any Cannes premiere). And the critics, many of whom had seen the film last week, were lukewarm.

There was concern that a particularly pointed reaction could come from the French, who aren't exactly depicted as saints or literary greats in the Ridley Scott tale.  In the end, the boo birds stayed in their cages -- "we're used to being portrayed this way in movies like 'Robin Hood,'" one French journalist told us afterward -- but the ovations didn't fly with great gusto either, according to many in the room. (That Scott himself wasn't there to take his post-screening bow probably didn't help.) In Cannes terms, it wasn't "The Da Vinci Code" (few experiences could match the 2006 opening-night debacle), but it wasn't last year's "Up" either.

Next door to the "Robin Hood" screening, in the film festival's alternative art house reality, the festival kicked off its competition sessions with a premiere screening of "Tournee," a directorial effort from French actor Mathieu Amalric, who dazzled audiences here three years ago with his astounding performance in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." "Tournee" is a film about a French sad-sack hustler (played by Amalric) who leads a group of American burlesque dancers on a tour of France. The subject matter was vastly different from "Robin Hood," but the reaction wasn't. Although it didn't fail on any major artistic level, most filmgoers, including us, found the burlesque slice of life interesting but the main protagonist opaque and familiar, as we did his problems. It's a character drama light on the characters and the drama. Don't bet on it for your office Palme d'Or pool.

Of course, it's really early, and festivals with weak opening nights can pick up speed, and those that start with a bang can end with a whimper. But for those looking for tea leaves, the two movies combined for an effect that could carry through the festival: typically elegant and without glaring holes, but overly familiar and at times unremarkable.

Maybe it's the ash from Iceland, maybe it's the slow international market, maybe it's the fact that industry types are still talking about Bob Berney, the distribution mastermind behind "The Passion of the Christ" and "Memento," who quit his year-old gig at start-up Apparition several days ago after being hailed as one of the great hopes for specialized cinema (his purchase of "Bright Star" at Cannes last year ignited talk of a rejuvenated market for upscale films in the U.S.). Whatever the reason, it hardly seems to matter; most of those nonfilm subplots have provided better drama than what's been shown on the screen.

-- Steven Zeitchik, reporting from Cannes
twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Russell Crowe in "Robin Hood." Credit: Universal Pictures


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