Earlier this week, we told you about a new delay in the production of Sony’s 2012 summer tent pole film Men In Black III. The film reunites stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones for another installment in the science-fiction/action/comedy franchise that has already earned the studio a little over $1 billion at the worldwide box office. As an immutable part of the studios plans for 2012 – They’ve already stated that the film’s May 2012 release date will not change in the face of the production delays – Sony is staking a good part of its second quarter earnings on a similar return for this new installment. But is it a gamble that can really pay off?
It is no secret that all studios’ fiscal plans incorporate summer blockbuster box office intake and that any studio’s fortunes may entirely depend on how well their big summer films fare. Films are routinely given a greenlight based on things like their cast and whether it is a property that potential audiences are familiar with rather than whether the project has a good, strong script. It’s a decision that is made more on business factors than artistic ones, a switch from the Golden Age of Hollywood when studio heads came up through the ranks of show business rather than from an Ivy League business school, and as such had a better feel for what original material might appeal to audiences instead of relying on focus groups and surveys.
The unfortunate and ironic result of this, though, is that oft time projects are rushed into production to meet a certain release date before they are really ready to be in front of the cameras. This appears to be the situation that director Barry Sonnenfeld finds himself in now, stuck with a problem script and possibly losing money with each further delay. And if the film is hemorrhaging cash, it will be that much harder for it to turn a profit. Sony put the cart before the horse in this instance, nothing new, but it could be a decision that comes back to haunt them.
The studio is obviously hoping that Smith’s star power will help get butts into seats, but the fact of the matter is he may not be able to do it as well as he once did. Smith has taken time off from acting to oversee his two children’s – Jayden and Willow – own burgeoning careers. The actor hasn’t been in a film since 2008’s Seven Pounds and won’t be appearing on screen again until Men In Black III premiers. Such a gap could severely diminish a star’s box office draw. Will audiences care that Smith has a new film after nearly half a decade of absence. And even bigger question might be will audiences want to return to a franchise that hasn’t had a new installment in ten years?
And then there are the diminishing returns of Smith’s more recent films. Despite poor review, Seven Pounds managed to gross $166 million worldwide against its $55 million dollar budget. But factor in the cost of prints and advertising and the film barely breaks even. Smith’s two previous films, Hancock (also 2008) and I Am Legend (2007), did reasonably good box office, though their $150 million price tags significantly shaved their profit margins, hi fact, Smith’s last bona fide runaway hit was The Pursuit Of Happyness, which earned $306 million against a budget of $55 million.
I think it is a fair bet that Men In Black III‘s budget is closer to what was spent on I Am Legend and Hancock rather than Pursuit Of Happyness, so the risk here of not turning a profit is considerably higher.
Of course, this isn’t the only gamble that Sony will be taking in the summer of 2012. The studio also has their reboot of the Spider-Man franchise hitting screens in July. They were able to keep the new film’s budget much lower than the last installment by forcing out director Sam Raimi and stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, all of whom had big number paychecks, and replacing them with the much cheaper Marc Webb as director and Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. But will the change in cast coupled with the plan to take the franchise characters back to high school to once again tell Spider-Man’s origin story keep the casual audience member from plopping down their hard earned cash to see a story that they think they’ve already seen?
Still, it is a long time between now and the summer of 2012 and a lot can happen. Hell, Men In Black III may turn out to be a pretty good film, although I’d be happy if it was just an improvement on the second film. People may decide that they’ve missed Smith and charge back to the theaters to see him in this film.
But if I were a Sony exec, I would be having at least a few sleepless nights between now and then.