Thursday, November 14, 2013

Studio Analysis Part Four: A Paranormal Future Awaits Paramount

By Neil Turitz
Paramount Water Tower
The final part of our weeklong analysis of Paramount Pictures takes a look into the crystal ball.
For a company that releases relatively few films each year, there’s a high ratio of interesting fare on Paramount’s docket. While its list of active franchise properties has shrunk in recent years, Paramount can still go head to head with just about any studio for the sheer number it owns, several of which will be on display throughout 2014, making up a sizeable chunk of the year’s slate. It’s a relatively risk-free and effective strategy for the company to produce edgier and original fare, offset by known quantities that will bring people into the theaters.
As of now, there are 10 films with firm release dates, leaving spaces for a few more as Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman has stated the company plans to release roughly 15 films each year. Two days following New Year’s Day, the studio unveils The Marked Ones, the latest in the exceedingly lucrative Paranormal Activity series. Interestingly, there is another entry scheduled for October 24, currently titled Paranormal 5. That seems odd as The Marked Ones is actually the fifth in the series, opening up the possibility that Marked Ones is, in fact, a spinoff. So the sixth film, lined up for October, may indeed be a proper Paranormal sequel.
Paramount 2014 v2Either way, not one but two more of these bad boys will hit theaters in 2014, which should keep horror fans well sated. The Paranormal series does show signs of slowing a bit, but it’s making enough money—more than enough—for the studio to keep trotting out new installments for the time being. Considering how cheap they are to make (the most expensive of the bunch topped out at around $5 million) and the relative profit margins involved, it’s probably a safe bet that we’ll be seeing numbers six, seven and eight in short order.
In between those two low-budget bookends are a number of intriguing titles, starting with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit on January 17, the reboot of the franchise starring Chris Pine, which was bumped from Christmas Day to make room for The Wolf of Wall Street. The studio will put Labor Day into wide release at the end of that month, though it will have already been out in limited release since Christmas. After that comes the mysterious Almanac, due in theaters the last day of February. Made in the very popular “found footage” style, the film originated from a script purchased on spec in 2012 (one of 11 spec sales the studio made that year, but more about that below) and apparently involves time travel crossed with horror. But other than that, little is known about Almanac and Paramount isn’t telling. Considering, however, that its budget is estimated to be in the $10 million range, the film is far from a huge risk.
Things kick into gear four weeks later when Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic Noah, floods theaters. The $125 million production (co-financed with Regency) stars Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson and is the kind of movie that puts pundits into a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it seems incredibly risky to spend that much money on a religious epic, but on the other, people do enjoy their Bible parables. Fox has already put an Exodus remake into production, so confidence must be high on the subject matter. Other studios are certainly giving the movie its space; it’s the only major release currently scheduled for that weekend (though Marvel’s Captain America sequel, The Winter Soldier, opens the week after).
noah posterBig spending on Noah will tide Paramount over through a quiet April and May, but things pick up again—and hard—in June when one of the year’s biggest films, Transformers: Age of Extinction, arrives. That movie alone should position the studio as one of the summer’s major players for a couple reasons. For starters, it’s always easier to sell franchises than it is to sell original ideas. Additionally, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are about as bulletproof as big movies get (outside of superhero properties). Indeed, Paramount agreed to let Bay make his passion project, Pain and Gain, as long as he agreed to come back and direct a fourth Transformers movie, even after the director had sworn he wouldn’t make any more after finishing the third one in 2011. A fourth Transformers movie with a whole new cast means there will inevitably be a fifth and sixth, regardless of whether or not Bay is behind the camera. The studio needs him to launch a whole new trilogy (at least), and as of June 27, 2014, said trilogy will be officially off the ground. Score one for Paramount.
The summer heats up four weeks later with the Dwayne Johnson-starring, Brett Ratner-directed Hercules, a project reportedly in the $75 to $80 million range,  it also happens to be scheduled for the one weekend next summer that, at this moment, has two big budget, action-adventure movies vying for your attention. Hercules will go head-to-head with the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending. That contest could make that weekend the most interesting of the summer, not only because of the size of the respective movies but also because it has the potential to put into play a couple of themes that emerged from this past summer. You have an original idea (Jupiter Ascending), something that might be turning into an endangered species during the summer movie season, up against a hero (Hercules) of mythology/folklore who’s been out of the public awareness for some time and on whom the studio is making a sizeable bet. If your memory is short, this is essentially Pacific Rim versus The Lone Ranger, albeit with slightly smaller budgets.
Another interesting aspect of that particular weekend is the contrast between filmmakers themselves. Ratner has a reputation as a hitmaker, but when you take away the three Rush Hour films and the third X-Men movie, the numbers are middling, at best. The Wachowskis are known for making visually stunning sci-fi films that don’t always feature the most coherent storytelling. Mix in the general question of Johnson’s star power and overall draw (as well as that of Channing Tatum, who is top-lining Jupiter), and you’ve got the makings of a fascinating weekend.
teenage mutant ninja turtlesA couple weeks later, on August 8, the reboot of the studio’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise hits theaters. The studio isn’t pulling any punches with this one: It’s spent $125 million on the film and it’s being produced by the studio’s close personal friend, Michael Bay. That alone means there will be no shortage of spectacle and plenty of glamour shots of Megan Fox.
That brings us back to the Paranormal Activity bookend at the end of October, as there is nothing else on the docket (as of now) until then. After that film, we wait two more weeks until the release of the latest Christopher Nolan saga, Interstellar, a sci-fi bonanza that Paramount is sharing with Warner Bros., taking domestic distribution while Warner handles international. While the budget is under wraps, it’s safe to say the number is substantial, considering there are few other directors whose films are as sure to capture blockbuster dollars as Nolan’s. His last non-Batman movie, Inception, which cost $160 million, made more than $850 million worldwide. With his track record and the talent attached (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine and Casey Affleck), and with an early November release date, the studio is undoubtedly anticipating interstellar box office returns. Anything short of that would be a disappointment.
So that’s 10 movies firmly on the schedule. There are several others that may or may not be filmed and finished in time to make the 2014 schedule. Among them is the remake of The Gambler starring Mark Wahlberg and Rupert Wyatt directing from an apparently amazing script by Oscar winner William Monahan. It starts shooting soon after the start of the new year. Another project moving forward is Men, Women and Children, the latest from Jason Reitman, which should also end up on the slate. The Intern, from Nancy Meyers and possibly starring Reese Witherspoon (who is negotiating for the lead role) is another possibility as is Without Remorse, based on the Tom Clancy novel and starring Kevin Costner. Also getting ready to roll are a Baywatch film and Scouts Vs. Aliens.
While it’s certainly possible that Paramount won’t add more to its 2014 slate, two things make that unlikely. For one, Dauman has thrown the number 15 out there for all to see. For another, it would mean that, for the first time ever, Paramount won’t have a single film scheduled for December (three are set for this year).
Beyond that, four films are tentatively scheduled for 2015: a second Spongebob Squarepants movie (in 3D), an animated flick called Monster Trucks, the reboot of the Terminator franchise (also shared with Warner) and, as of yesterday, Mission: Impossible 5, set for Christmas Day. That leaves plenty of room for other films, culled from the dozens of hopefuls currently in active development.
What’s interesting about Paramount’s arsenal of franchise properties is that, what it lacks in numbers and superheroes (there’s isn’t a single superhero property at Paramount), it makes up for in popularity. Setting aside the series already mentioned above as well as Tintin (co-owned by Sony) and the Indiana Jones series (which may or may not ever have another installment), the list is still a formidable one.
star-trek-2-into-darkness-posterIn its arsenal are G.I. Joe and Jackass as well as the Star Trek series (which is about as close to a superhero franchise as you can get without actually having one) and a partnership with Tom Cruise and his production company (ditto). Add in sequels now in development for World War Z and Hansel and Gretel, the potential for Hercules to turn into a franchise, the suddenly back-in-vogue Anchorman and ownership of Jack Ryan and the Tom Clancy canon, and it’s enough to make most other studios green with envy. All are proven moneymakers, centrally important to a studio now committed to controlling costs and in an era when established properties are so valuable. Knowing ahead of time that a certain percentage of your slate is going to be occupied by proven projects will result in fewer sleepless nights for any studio executive.
Obviously, the studio isn’t relying solely on its established properties while planning its future, but it’s not a bad place to start. With 41 purchases of specs and pitches since the start of 2011, Paramount is staying active in developing new material and potentially finding the next lucrative franchise. Already, one of those purchases is in the can and schedule for a 2014 release: Almanac, which could fall into the category of the low-budget thriller franchise, alongside Paranormal Activity. While only one other purchase has actually shot over this time (Draft Day, which Paramount put into turnaround and now will be released by Summit), 11 are in active development.
Put all that together, throw in literary properties (like One Last Thing Before I Go), a few potential remakes (The Ring, Friday the 13th and Beverly Hills Cop, among others), and it all adds up to one sure thing: Paramount might not be the top studio in town this year or any time soon. But it’s put a smart plan in place to keep it one of the most profitable.
NEXT: Our next studio? As Jim Morrison once sang, “She’s a 20th Century Fox, oh, yeah.” It might be a while, with the end of the year and all the Oscar stuff we’re doing, but we’ll get there.
Paramount Studio Analysis Series:
Part One: The Marvels & Dreams of Paramount’s Past
SSN Studio Analysis Part Two: Paramount’s Present Trek
Part Three: Behind the Paramount Gates & Inside Corporate

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