So far in 2012, Universal has been flexing their box office muscle hard thanks to the success of a couple of no frills action vehicles. Mark Wahlberg's midbudgeted ($25 million not including P&A) "Contraband" is already over $70 million worldwide (most of that from the domestic box office), with a number of foreign territories still to open. Meanwhile, audiences are loving the Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds pic "Safe House," with the movie pushing its way to number one in its second weekend, with the film already outpacing "Contraband" and on track to bag over $100 million at the domestic box office alone. And while the latter pic is pricier ($85 million plus P&A and whatever percentage off the top Denzel gets) the success of these two films illustrate that bare bones, raw knuckle action not only sells, but Universal knows how to sell it. So where does Jason Bourne fit in?
We don't need to rehash the ugly history, but essentially 'Bourne 4' with Matt Damon returning and Paul Greengrass directing, was killed in late 2009 when the helmer walked from the project (taking the loyal Damon with him) over a variety of creative issues he and the studio couldn't work out. Essentially, Universal had hired Josh Zetumer to write a new script (without consulting Greengrass) after the George Nolfi draft wasn't cutting it. Moreover, the studio was still smarting over the expensive flop that was "Green Zone," a film originally intended as a smaller piece between the bigger budgeted franchise movies. And while the chatter surrounding the upcoming spinoff/parallel "The Bourne Legacy" has been that the door (at least narratively) is being left open for Damon and Greengrass to eventually return, does Universal really need them?
Between "Contraband" and "Safe House," it's arguably the latter that could easily be spun into a new franchise. **PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD** With the picture closing on Tobin Frost's death, and Matt Weston leaking the CIA's dirty secrets to the internet. He turns down a big juicy job at the agency to do the right thing, and an easy sequel would have the CIA tracking him down and/or using him to find another rogue agent (maybe someone cheaper than Denzel). **PLOT SPOILERS END** Essentially, it's not brain surgery to come up with a serviceable storyline for a "Safe House" followup and we won't be surprised if in the coming weeks, we hear word that development starts on a sequel. And lord knows, of anything Ryan Reynolds has tried to turn into a franchise over the past couple years, this is his best bet. But more importantly (at least to the execs) the talent vs. cost on a sequel to "Safe House" is likely far more affordable than a Damon/Greengrass 'Bourne' (and this film, in many ways from the story/structure right down to the use of the same cinematographer Oliver Wood, is cut from the same agent-on-the-run cloth).
Meanwhile, Universal has smartly placed "The Bourne Legacy" teaser trailer in front of "Safe House" to get the early word out they are rebooting the franchise (in a sense). While a budget figure hasn't been released, there is no doubt it will be far cheaper than the reported $75 million and $110 million for "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" respectively (more on that in a second). If Jeremy Renner as the new Bourne fails to catch on, it's not a problem because Universal has Damon and Greengrass in their backpocket. But if it does become a big hit...where is the incentive to hire them back? And would they want to?
While both 'Supremacy' and 'Ultimatum' were massive hits, that success overshadowed the expensive productions that became notorious for reshoots and Greengrass' method for "finding the movie" or "figuring it all out" during the middle of production. With Universal showing a tremendous belt-tightening over the past year, ending their relationship with Hasbro and putting a stop to handful of potentially risky projects in development including Guillermo Del Toro's "At The Mountains Of Madness" and Greengrass' own mooted "Memphis," returning to a well that has cost them in the past, doesn't seem to fit the business model. And there's one more thing: remember Josh Zetumer? Well last week Universal picked up a script the writer for a new spy franchise.
Of course, there is a counter argument to all of this: the Matt Damon led Bourne movies have grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. That's nothing to sneeze at, and you can bet if Renner can't come near Damon's numbers, Universal will be eager to get both the actor and director back in the fold. But if "The Bourne Legacy" is a big hit? They might not be so quick to run the phone. But if 'Legacy' underperforms and they can't get Damon and Greengrass on the same page? Universal has set themselves up with options to bring lean and mean action thrills -- in potentially new, but similar franchises -- to audiences who have clearly said they want more.