For the past few years, notoriously cost-conscious 20th Century Fox seems to have taken the following low-budget approach to creating action movies:
- Cast a relatively well-known B-list actor in the lead role.
- Hire a virtually unknown director and/or writer
- Keep costs down and wait for the box office receipts to pile up.
The hitch: These inexperienced, presumably cheap, writers and directors often create critically panned films that flop at the box office, destroying whatever franchise potential the movie had.
Over the past 12 months, the studio’s released a string of such disasters.
First there was the Vin Diesel-fronted Babylon A.D., penned by a trio of writers inexperienced with English-language fare, which just barely recouped its $70 million production budget, grossing $71 million worldwide.
Then the studio cast Mark Wahlberg in the $35-million video game adaptation Max Payne, the first film for writer Beau Thorne, which may have just barely covered its production and marketing costs with its $85 million worldwide return.
This year, Fox has unspooled the star-less Dragonball Evolution, which has cleared its $45 million budget with its $52 million worldwide take, but the vast majority of that money came from overseas. The studio’s also distributed two action flicks, 12 Rounds and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, that were produced elsewhere, which means they cost Fox even less to release.
Now that Fox’s most successful action franchise, Die Hard, seems like it’s on its last legs (John McClane already took on a cyber terrorist in the fourth film. What contemporary bad guys are left for him to fight? Somali pirates?), it would behoove the studio to develop another action movie series.
Fox is developing a sequel to this winter’s surprise hit Taken, which ironically was probably created using the above formula. But Taken was a lucky break. Instead of waiting for lightning to strike again, the studio should invest the money (and time) necessary to create a successful action franchise.
What Universal’s done with the Bourne franchise is an example of what Fox should be doing. The studio acquired the rights to the hit Robert Ludlum novel, The Bourne Identity, and adapted it into a $60 million film starring A-lister Matt Damon and shepherded by two all-stars: director Doug Liman and writer Tony Gilroy. The well-reviewed movie made $214 million worldwide, mostly in the U.S., and spawned two blockbuster sequels with a third on the way. Universal also smartly inked a first-look deal for other Ludlum novels, recognising the box office potential of film adaptations.
Fox needs to find a similar property, like a pulse-pounding novel, or even “a great idea,” as Fox CEO Tom Rothman has noted is often the key to a hit movie and devote similar resources (a bankable star, a talented director and writer) into developing it. And, just judging from the Max Payne and Hitman bombs, the studio might want to steer clear of video games.
Fox should also continue to work with hit directors and writers like Liman, Len Wiseman and Tony Scott and Michael Bomback, who the studio smartly nabbed to create the potential Denzel Washington vehicle Unstoppable. That movie looks promising, but there are still a few upcoming titles still coming from Fox’s bargain basement.
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