By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 2, 2010 at 10:30AM
The knock-on effects of the 2007 writers' strike have been felt heavily in the last few years. Last summer saw the obviously rushed likes of "Wolverine," "Terminator Salvation," "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra;" all of which were patently harmed by the disruption caused by months of inaction by screenwriters, while the films were in or gearing up for production. Hell, even "Star Trek," easily the strongest of the tentpoles that year, had script issues.
This year, meanwhile, saw movies like "Robin Hood," "Prince of Persia," "The A-Team" and "Jonah Hex," among others, all of which were hastily greenlit post-strike and all critical and commercial disappointments, leading to panic among studio executives. Next year, however, is set to make up for the two dismal preceding seasons with a veritable banquet of blockbusters, all of which have (hopefully) been carefully nurtured and developed without the need to quickly fill a release date or to rush a script into production. That's the theory, anyway...
Indeed, the problem next year looks to be a surplus of product, rather than an absence of it: seven comic book adaptations (four of which are superhero movies), 11 sequels, 12 potential sleepers, six R-rated comedies, seven CGI-heavy family comedies, one eagerly anticipated Terrence Malick film, and one piece of counter-programming with Angela Bassett and an odd title ("Riding the Broom," which we'd never heard of before today...). It's likely to be a veritable cluster-fuck.
Even director Jon Favreau, who's coming off two smash hit "Iron Man" movies and whose film "Cowboys & Aliens" is one of the few relatively original properties (original in that it's based on a comic book that no one's read) is a little worried, telling Hero Complex that "It's going to be a bloodbath. There's never been a summer like this next summer. It's going to be bloody [for filmmakers and the studios]. As we were sticking thumb tacks in a calendar we realized that this is going to be looked back upon as Omaha Beach."
He expanded "There's not a weekend where there won't be teeth on the floor. The audience wins but it's going to be rough for people making these movies. Then there was the big rush to 3D, so you have all of these people fighting for a limited number of screens and to get the 3D done, since most of these are hybrids or conversions, so this is a technology that is still in the relatively early stages and there's going to be a lot of blood pressures going up in the months ahead."
Favreau's a smart man about all things not related to the choice to make "Couples Retreat," and he's bang on here, even if we're surprised that anyone in the community has come out and said as much at this point. The fact is, even if every one of the films next summer are unreserved artistic successes (and with the likes of "Priest" and "The Smurfs" on the way, it's unlikely), some of these films are going to tank, and tank hard.
The $1 billion question is, which ones? There are a handful of surefire home runs, but not as many as you might expect from a summer full of franchises, or potential franchises. So what's likely to connect? What's likely to surprise? And what's likely to get lost in the rush?
The Safe Bets
William Goldman famously said that "Nobody knows anything," but that's not strictly true -- even Somalian schoolchildren know that "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Pt. 2" will make an obscene amount of money. Of the six films to date, only "The Prisoner of Azkaban" has grossed less than $800 million worldwide (and then only just), and the final film in the franchise is likely to get a "Return of the King" style boost, particularly in the way that Warner Bros. are marketing it as a true event. Unless the imminent Pt. 1 turns off the audience by incorporating new plot points borrowed from Todd Solondz's "Happiness," this'll be a monster. The other dead certs are likely to be a pair of CGI sequels. While "Cars" was actually on the lower-grossing end of the Pixar scale, again, that's a very relative thing, the original was huge in terms of DVD and merchandising, hence the sequel. The only question is whether the adult crossover audience that have been so key to the colossal success of recent Pixars will return, having been burnt by the original, easily the weakest of the studio's efforts. DreamWorks has its sequel to "Kung Fu Panda," which conversely, was one of the best-liked of their films, and one of the biggest-grossers outside the "Shrek" franchise, so it should do nicely. Whether it proves as charming as the original remains to be seen, but with a script polish from Charlie Kaufman, we're certainly intrigued. Both should easily match, and probably exceed, the grosses of their predecessors, particularly with a lack of competition from upstarts Fox and Universal. Finally, while it can't hope to match the surprise factor of the original, and while it's been beset by controversy of late, "The Hangover 2" should prove highly profitable thanks to the goodwill from the original, particularly with the costs staying relatively low, compared to the $200 million behemoths it's up against.
Fool Me Once, Shame On You...
Two of the biggest sequels (or, to be more accurate, threequels and fourquels) of the season, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," have something in common -- they're the latest in series which started with generally well-liked originals, and followed them up with widely despised sequels (or in the case of the Pirates franchise, two). All sequels were monster hits, to be sure, but much of that can be put down to the goodwill held towards the first film -- indeed, "At World's End" grossed a full $100 million less than "Dead Man's Chest". With only four years separating "On Stranger Tides" from the third film (and only two between "Dark Of The Moon" and the particularly awful "Revenge of the Fallen"), will that be enough to heal audience's wounds? Or will audiences look for something fresher, regardless of the quality of the newest entries? We'd imagine that both will end up being fine, albeit coming in with thinner grosses than their predecessors, but it's still worth bearing in mind, particularly if the new films continue the death spiral for the franchises.
Another long-running series rolls on with "Fast Five" (which we're still disappointed wasn't called "Five Fast Five Fiverious") facing Dwayne Johnson off against franchise leads Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, whose return to the series in 2009's "Fast and Furious" led to the biggest film so far. But that film opened to little competition in April, when the public are semi-starved for big, loud, action movies. Moving it to June in a summer as crowded as this one could see the series come a cropper.
The Superhero Showdown
After the 2008 triple-threat of "Iron Man," "The Dark Knight" and "Hancock," we've had something of a breather from superhero movies the past couple of summers, with only "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "Iron Man 2" hitting. 2012 will see the return of most of the big hitters, with "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Avengers," "Wolverine 2" and "Spider-Man" all set for summer releases, and "Superman" set for Christmas, but 2011 will see four relative newcomers to the field, none of which are guaranteed to be smash hits by any means. "X-Men: First Class" has the most pedigree, being the fifth mutant movie in 11 years. But it's coming off two disappointing entries, and is taking a prequel/reboot approach, with none of the original cast returning. Will Matthew Vaughn's bold, period-set approach pay off and make the franchise feel fresh again? Or will the relatively unknown cast and Kennedy-era setting (and, perhaps more importantly, what we hear is the same rushed, damn-the-script-we've-got-a-release-date-to-hit development process that beset the previous two films) prove a turn-off?
Marvel, meanwhile, play their last two cards before "The Avengers," introducing "Thor" and "Captain America" to wider audiences. Both are potentially risky prospects -- "Thor" is the intrinsically silliest of the four heroes that makes up the superteam, and the images and footage to date haven't been hugely reassuring. "Captain America," meanwhile, like Fox's mutant epic, has a period setting to contend with along with a B-list director in Joe Johnston and a patriotic hero who may not play as well internationally. However, both have prime release dates. "Thor" will be the first to hit, which'll prevent superhero fatigue from settling in, and "Captain America" with the late July slot that served "Inception" so well last year, could play strongly through August and September, as long as the word of mouth is decent (and it does look a little more promising than "Thor" at least). But if both underwhelm, and it's a distinct possibility, expect to see "The Avengers" get an "Iron Man 3" surtitle fairly quickly.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is Warner Bros.' "Green Lantern," the first of the company's new wave of DC Comics movies that they hope will replace the 'Harry Potter' franchise. The film has the advantage of having the most in-demand man in Hollywood, Ryan Reynolds, in the lead, heading up a strong cast also including Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Robbins and Mark Strong. But Reynolds' credentials as a bona-fide movie star are as yet unproven -- his only megahit to date, "The Proposal," relied on co-star Sandra Bullock. While history's proven that you don't need to be an A-lister to carry a superhero film, "Green Lantern" has a tougher mountain to climb than most -- similarly to "Thor," the character's cosmic powers and space setting could be a tough sell in the current climate of more grounded heroes. Plus, fan reaction to Comic-Con footage, the all-CGI costume and the somewhat cheesy design work we've seen so far have been fairly muted. All it'll take for the buzz to turn around is a kick-ass teaser trailer (one's expected to debut with 'Harry Potter' in a few weeks), but in the meantime, this is looking like the one of the dicier prospects of the season.
The Filthy Five
From July 15th, four promising comedies, all of which are near certainties to be R-rated, will open right on top of each other, one each week. It kicks off with David Gordon Green's "The Sitter," starring Jonah Hill and Sam Rockwell, with the Justin Timberlake/Mila Kunis rom-com "Friends With Benefits" from "Easy A" helmer Will Gluck following the next week, and ensemble comedy "Horrible Bosses," Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman starrer "The Change Up" and Ruben Fleischer's "30 Minutes or Less" with Jesse Eisenberg following hot on their heels. All look promising to various degrees, with decent scripts and strong comedy pedigrees, but if all five were to keep to their release dates, they'd likely cannibalize each other. Unlike the superhero movies, they can push their release dates without dropping the stock price of their parent company, and we imagine at least one or two of the films will move to the fall. We're pretty certain that one of them will be either "Horrible Bosses" or "The Change Up," two films toplining Jason Bateman set to open on successive weeks. The latter has the most mainstream appeal, with an A-list co-star in Reynolds, and a body-swap high concept, but it's only just started filming this week, and "Horrible Bosses" has the most potential to match the sleeper success of "The Hangover." We're sure that at least one will blink, but it could be either. Otherwise, "The Sitter" may find that opening against the final 'Harry Potter' to be too much of a challenge, even if it is a theoretically smart piece of counter-programming, while "Friends With Benefits" may want to put more distance between it and the similarly-themed Natalie Portman comedy "No Strings Attached," which opens in January.
The August 19th 3D Pile-Up
As Favreau noted, 3D screens are going to be hard-fought over next summer, and at no point will it be more obvious than on August 19th, when "Spy Kids 4," "Conan" and "Fright Night" will all open in the format. Even with "How To Train Your Dragon" and "Clash of the Titans" proving that the screens can be shared, something's got to give, surely. "Spy Kids" is the only kids' option, but it's got to wrestle them off "The Smurfs" and "Mr. Popper's Penguins" -- all it takes is for one to be a monster hit, and exhibitors may not want to bring in the newcomer. "Fright Night" probably has a wider appeal than "Conan," but Lionsgate has very deliberately placed the latter in the same slot that they did so handsomely with last year for "The Expendables." If we were DreamWorks, we'd seriously consider moving "Fright Night" to October, which is currently fairly thin on Halloween fare -- we're sure "Paranormal Activity" will pull a third installment out of thin air, but there's unlikely to be a new "Saw" film this year, so the competition'll be much thinner.
The Question Marks
There's a number of films also due which, while no means risk the size of "Inception" or "Scott Pilgrim," have the potential to either fly under the radar of audiences, or prove to be something a little different in a summer full of costumed heroes and jokes about the word 'vagina.' Still not quite over the monstrosity that was Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes," we've been wary about Fox's "Rise of the Apes," which hits on June 24th. But with the always-unpredictable James Franco in the lead, motion-capture work from Andy Serkis as lead ape Caesar, and talented director Rupert Wyatt at the helm (as well as a script that, while not perfect, is more interesting than we expected), this could prove to be something a little different. But at the same time, it could prove a little out there for audiences in the summer -- if we had to put money on which of the summer movies would flop in a serious way, it'd realistically be this one. J.J. Abrams meanwhile, has "Super 8" on the way, crammed between 'X-Men' and "Green Lantern" on the schedule, and it's not hugely expensive, so it should turn a profit. But with a wealth of alien invasion pictures hitting theaters between now and then and a low-key cast, it'll need the marketing campaign to turn up a notch for this to be a genuine blockbuster.
"Cowboys & Aliens" is also a little different, taking a genre that hasn't had an easy time at the box office of late, the Western, and giving it a sci-fi spin. There's a potent combination of male stars, in the shape of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, but Craig hasn't proven a box-office champ outside the Bond movies, and Ford's appeal has long shrunk thanks to decades of half-assed, mediocre choices (although if "Morning Glory" hits, that could change). Despite the risks and competition, the concept's high enough, and the buzz from Comic-Con glowing enough, that it should do fine.
All of the films we've discussed so far have one thing in common, from the FX-fests to the bawdy comedies -- they skew very heavily to male audiences. Even the two big animated flicks are action-led, and likely to leave the tween girl audience a little cold (again, we'd be surprised if a studio didn't take the likes of the Miley Cyrus vehicle "LOL" and place it in the summer -- there's an audience there that isn't being catered to). For the slightly older crowd, there's no "Sex and the City 2" style blockbuster, but there's a selection of films that could well prove to be breakout hits. The Judd Apatow-produced "Bridesmaids" gives Kirsten Wiig her first lead, alongside Rose Byrne and Jon Hamm, and with a promising script and an early release date, stands a very good chance of being the comedy titan's biggest hit since "Superbad." "Something Borrowed," with Kate Hudson, John Krasinski and Ginnifer Goodwin, looks to be a more traditional rom-com, but it's really the only one in the summer, and, while we're not expecting "The Proposal"-style numbers, should clean up nicely.
Meanwhile, the only summer movies with real awards potential are Tom Hanks' second directorial effort, "Larry Crowne," in which he'll co-star with Julia Roberts as a middle-aged man who returns to college, and "The Help," which toplines Emma Stone in a Southern civil rights drama. The former has the same slot that proved so lucrative for "Forrest Gump" 15 years ago, and even if Hanks isn't quite the box office behemoth he once was, should bring in a decent adult crowd, while the latter's based on a bestseller and Oprah favorite, and with Stone poised to become a megastar, could well capture both grown-up and teen crowds. But if either turn out to be really good, they may well find themselves moved to a fall slot to be better positioned for an Oscar run.
Finally, the closest thing 2011 offers to a potential "District 9"-style sleeper is "The Darkest Hour," which will see Emile Hirsch and Olivia Thirlby trapped in an alien invasion in Moscow. We're sure that a marketing campaign similar to Neill Blomkamp's film is in the offing from Summit, but again, with "Skyline," "Battle Los Angeles," "Paul," "Super 8" and "Cowboys & Aliens" all coming first, it may prove too little too late if the film doesn't prove genuinely fresh.
Plenty may change between now and the summer (although the release of "Thor" is now only six months away, so time is ticking along. As we've said, there's bound to be some high-profile release date changes -- we've already seen "War Horse" move to the fall, and it's distinctly possible that others may follow.
The problem there, however, is that the fall is just as crowded: December alone sees the release of "Hugo Cabret," "New Year's Eve," "Alvin and the Chipmunks 3D" "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (itself moved from a summer date)," "Sherlock Holmes 2," "The Adventures of Tintin," "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," "The Muppets," "We Bought A Zoo" and "War Horse," with "Twilight: Breaking Dawn," "Puss In Boots," "Tower Heist" and "Happy Feet 2" hitting not long before. We're sure there'll be casualties then too, although it remains to be seen which ones.