From the New York Times, July 22, 2004
Producing a 'Superman' Sequel Is Like Leaping Tall Buildings
By LAURA M. HOLSON
LOS ANGELES, July 21 — Come summer 2006, Warner Brothers Pictures hopes to usher "Superman" into thousands of theaters after a 19-year absence. But given the tortured history surrounding that studio's attempts to revive "Superman," the forerunner of Hollywood's now-ubiquitous comic-book blockbusters, the Man of Steel's arrival would be nothing short of a miracle.
Since Warner began developing a remake of the successful comic-book franchise in 1993, it has spent nearly $10 million in development, employed no fewer than 10 writers, hired four directors and met with scores of Clark Kent hopefuls without settling on one. The latest director — Bryan Singer, who directed "X-Men" and its sequel, was named on July 18 to replace Joseph McGinty Nichol, known as McG, who left the project after refusing to board a plane to Australia, where the studio was determined to make the film.
Hollywood is rife with stories of studio executives and directors parting over creative differences. But "Superman" is no ordinary movie for Warner Brothers. More than any other studio, it is staking its future on big-budget films, particularly on serial franchise movies. In the race to develop the next sequel-worthy comic-book blockbuster, though, Warner Brothers remains a runner-up in a genre that it defined in the 1970's and 80's with the "Superman" and "Batman" series.
Other studios, like Sony Pictures Entertainment and 20th Century Fox have prospered in recent years with the likes of "Spider-Man" and "X-Men," respectively. These films were not only lucrative at the box office — the first "Spider-Man" brought in more than $800 million in worldwide ticket sales — but have generated video games, clothing and other merchandise, giving their parent companies a steady stream of profits in an otherwise unpredictable business. That success has put more pressure on competitors like Warner Brothers — whose DC Comics are part of the Time Warner empire, but largely underexploited — to get their comic-book blockbusters right from the start or risk killing off the franchise.
"It's so hard year in and year out for a studio to come up with a movie that works," said Bill Mechanic, an independent producer who helped bring "X-Men" to the screen in 2000 when he worked at Fox. "If you have at least one or two of these films every year, it's easy to figure out the rest."
But the proliferation of such movies makes it even harder to dazzle moviegoers. More than 10 movies based on comic-book stories have been released since the debut of "Spider-Man" in 2002. And there are more on the way, including "Catwoman," opening on July 23; next year's "Batman" sequel from Warner Brothers; "The Green Hornet" from Miramax; and Fox's "Elektra" and "Fantastic Four," also in 2005.
"It's a different landscape," Mr. Mechanic said. "Flying stuff isn't that special anymore." Success now hinges more on a good story, he added. Executives at Warner Brothers are unapologetic about the turmoil, saying they would rather wait for the right script and director and, as important, the perfect Clark Kent, than rush a poorly conceived movie into theaters.
"We haven't got it right yet; it's that simple," said Jeff Robinov, president of production at Warner Brothers. "We have to believe in what we are doing and make it for the right price." With McG's insistence on filming in North America despite the studio's desire to save tens of millions of dollars by shooting in Australia, Mr. Robinov said, "We lost our faith in trying to deliver a movie we believed in."
That faith has been sorely tested. In the mid-1990's the studio first tried to restore Superman's box-office powers with Tim Burton, who directed the first and second Batman movies, and the actor Nicolas Cage. But that project foundered because the reported $100 million budget was too high and the studio could not come up with a script it loved.
In the spring of 2002 McG expressed interest in directing "Superman" with a script from J. J. Abrams, a creator of television shows like "Felicity" and "Alias." But McG was committed to direct the sequel to "Charlie's Angels," prompting Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour") to take over.
Then script problems surfaced. Mr. Robinov said that studio executives had reservations about Mr. Abrams' story line, which altered the Superman mythology by having his parents and the planet Krypton survive.
"We did not want to get away from the lore," Mr. Robinov said. Still, he said, they proceeded, believing that rewrites would solve their concerns.
Mr. Ratner was so enthralled with the project, said colleagues who know him, that he sent out holiday cards with a picture of himself dressed as Superman. But according to two people involved in the movie's production, who insisted on anonymity to avoid offending colleagues, he bickered over the budget (which appeared to be heading above $200 million) and the script with the producer, Jon Peters, the former Sony studio chief who had been developing the project since before Mr. Burton was involved.
Mr. Ratner and Warner Brothers executives could not agree on who should play Superman, said the two people, although Mr. Ratner approached Ashton Kutcher and Brendan Fraser, among others. Mr. Ratner, who declined to be interviewed, did not last long, resigning in March 2003 after six months.
Enter McG (again), who had finished the "Charlie's Angels" sequel. But Warner Brothers had one demand: shoot the film in Australia, where tax incentives would keep the budget manageable.
Mr. Robinov said that Patrick Whitesell, McG's agent at Endeavor, a Hollywood talent agency, assured him in a meeting at the studio in early spring that McG would go to Australia. It was no small promise, as McG not only wanted to shoot the film in the United States to ensure that it had an authentic American look, but he hates to fly and did not want to shuttle between Sydney and Los Angeles.
By May "Superman" appeared to be on track for a 2006 release. Warner Brothers hired special-effects teams, costume designers and secured sound stages in Australia, Mr. Robinov said.
But in mid-June, as studio executives and McG were preparing for a trip to Australia to scout locations, McG was still pressing to move the film to Canada or the United States, Mr. Whitesell said. Even though it would cost an extra $15 million to $30 million to make the film in North America, McG reasoned that the extra expense was a small price to pay if the movie was a hit and led to a trilogy, Mr. Whitesell added.
On a late Friday afternoon nearly a month ago, Mr. Robinov said that he received a call from Mr. Whitesell telling him that McG would not be boarding the next day's flight to Australia.
McG never showed up for the flight. During the last week of June, Mr. Whitesell said, McG met with Alan Horn, who oversees the movie division as president of Warner Brothers Entertainment. In Mr. Horn's Burbank office McG made one last pitch for filming in Canada. He brought financial figures detailing how much filming would cost in Canada, as well as photographs he had taken on a recent trip to find locations that resembled American farmland, Mr. Whitesell said.
But Warner Brothers was set on the less expensive Australia. And with no Superman to play the lead and now no director, Mr. Robinov and Mr. Horn began reconsidering the whole project. "If McG had gotten on that plane we would have made the movie," Mr. Robinov said. "But once he didn't, we had a decision to make. We had to revisit the creative issues and several people called and wanted to meet."
One of those was Mr. Singer, the director, who had expressed interest in "Superman" a year earlier. He was developing a remake of the 1976 science-fiction classic "Logan's Run" for Warner Brothers and met with Mr. Robinov and Mr. Horn the weekend of July 10-11 to discuss his approach to "Superman." The two liked what they heard: the story did not explore Superman's origins nor did any survivors from Krypton reappear. About Mr. Singer was hired a week later.
"It's hard to have the appearance that we don't know what we are doing," Mr. Robinov said. "But we are committed to `Superman' and we will continue trying until we get it right."