Best of the Best: Summer Boxoffice Heroes

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By Matthew Belloni

Don't get your hopes up, we were told. Without a "Shrek" or a "Spider-Man" or a "Pirates of the Caribbean" or a "Harry Potter," summer 2008 was never going to live up to last year's record $4.22 billion in domestic boxoffice. Yet here we are, heading into the final weekend of the season, on pace to approach -- if not match -- that vaunted number. Maybe the struggling economy helped nudge audiences to escape at the movies. Or perhaps the studios' smarter, edgier takes on proven formulas like "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" were signs that the public will reward quality. Either way, the following people played key roles in pushing summer '08 toward the record book. Call them the best of the best.

Actor: Robert Downey Jr.

How much did Marvel Studios chairman David Maisel appreciate Downey's performance in "Iron Man"? Maisel bought the star a shiny new Bentley as a token of gratitude shortly after the film jump-started summer with a $98.6 million opening weekend on its way to $317.5 million domestically. Downey would have been forgiven for resting on his new leading-man image, but the same summer he delivered a hilarious performance in Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder." The DreamWorks movie has grossed $69.5 million at press time, strong by Hollywood-satire standards but hardly superhero numbers. Maybe DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider should buy Downey something less flashy, like a Mini.

Director: Christopher Nolan

Take a second and Google "Angelina Jolie" and "Catwoman." Then click on one of the 696,000 search results for a taste of the fervor that has enveloped "The Dark Knight" and its director. Nolan hasn't even agreed to helm a follow-up, saying only, "We'll see," before departing on a well-deserved vacation. Yet the fans who powered Warners' biggest domestic hit ever ($491.7 million and counting) are already speculating breathlessly based on the little information known. Will Lucius Fox's (Morgan Freeman) reference to the bat suit withstanding cat claws be put to the test by Catwoman? Since Heath Ledger's Joker was hauled off to the insane asylum rather than killed, will the role be recast?

If so, is Daniel Day-Lewis interested? How about Johnny Depp as the Riddler? The devotion is a testament to Nolan's singular vision of the Batman universe -- and to how important it is to Warner Bros. that chief Alan Horn sign Nolan for a third go-round. And perhaps Jolie.


Producer: Judd Apatow

Maybe Apatow should stick to warm-weather releases. The sensei of Hollywood's reigning comedy dojo took a few licks when his December and March producing efforts, "Walk Hard" and "Drillbit Taylor," failed to resonate. But then came April's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," July's "Step Brothers" and this month's "Pineapple Express." When combined with June's "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" (which Apatow co-wrote with Adam Sandler), his 2008 hits have grossed more than $330 million domestically and continued the summer streak set by 2005's "40-Year-Old Virgin" and 2007's "Knocked Up" and "Superbad." A positive sign for "Funny People," Apatow's next directing effort: It's scheduled for July 31, 2009.

Executives: David Maisel & Kevin Feige

Iron Man is a B-list superhero. Robert Downey Jr. doesn't open a movie. Jon Favreau can't direct the big action sequences. The heads of Marvel Studios heard those criticisms a thousand times before "Iron Man's" May 2 release. But the naysayers disappeared faster than a cocktail in Tony Stark's hand. "'Iron Man's' success threw the gauntlet down -- that Marvel is not just an IP holder, but could do it on its own," says Feige, who championed the project and was upped to president the week after the movie opened. Marvel's June follow-up, "The Incredible Hulk," grossed $134.4 million domestically, barely eclipsing 2003's poorly received Ang Lee version. But it did what it set out to do: serve as launching point for planned films based on the Marvel universe. Look for "Iron Man 2" in May 2010, followed by "Captain America," "Thor" and "The Avengers."

Writer: David Koepp

It's no secret why it took nearly 20 years for Indiana Jones to return to theaters: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas couldn't agree on a script. That changed with Koepp's draft for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the artifacts-and-aliens adventure that irked some hard-core fans but delivered more than $780 million worldwide, easily the highest-grossing in the series. "You have to prepare yourself for a certain amount of fan letdown," says Koepp, a veteran Spielberg collaborator who directed next month's Ricky Gervais comedy "Ghost Town." "But then you also tell yourself, 'Hey, it's not like we burned the negatives of the previous films.'"

Financier: Thomas Tull

The shrewd exec behind this summer's Batman phenomenon is hardly a Bruce Wayne type. A lifelong movie and comic book fan, Legendary Pictures CEO Tull got his start in middle-class upstate New York by buying and selling a local laundromat chain. He tasted Hollywood in 1996, working for the venture capital fund that backed the maker of games based on Tom Clancy books. When Tull put together investors to form Legendary, he made sure Warner Bros.' "Batman Begins" and "Superman Returns" were among its first projects.

The success of those films is modest compared with this summer's "The Dark Knight." The company owns half of the film, and Tull isn't done. He's one of the few who have already seen next summer's anticipated "Watchmen" movie -- one of the films Legendary is co-financing, of course.

Effects Masters: John Dykstra, Ken Hahn and Carey Villegas

About halfway through "Hancock," Will Smith's disgruntled superhero shoves a man's head into, well, the opposite end of another man. The visual joke gets a big laugh, but it was one of the toughest for the effects gurus at Sony Pictures Imageworks to pull off. "(Director) Peter Berg wanted it to be over the top, so he laid down the gauntlet to visual effects," says digital effects supervisor Ken Hahn, who worked closely with visual effects supervisor Carey Villegas and visual effects designer John Dykstra to compose the shot with extensive use of CG. "It was done as a manual process. All the texturing, the shading, the cloth simulation, the modeling, the animation of the characters -- that was all done just by examining the other footage."

Animation Gurus: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson

How many directors can say their first movie grossed more than $370 million? That's just the overseas haul for Mark Osborne and John Stevenson's "Kung Fu Panda." The DreamWorks Animation crowd-pleaser added more than $212 million domestically, becoming the studio's biggest nonsequel hit ever. Osborne, a "SpongeBob SquarePants" vet, spent three and a half years in production with Stevenson, a storyboard artist whose previous directing experience was limited to NBC's "Father of the Pride," which DWA produced. The studio is already fast-tracking a sequel, but Osborne isn't necessarily ready for another tentpole. "We're all going to bask in the glory for a while," he says. "And maybe do something really crazy -- like a stop-motion film."

Little Indie That Could: 'The Visitor'

It's easy to understand why director Tom McCarthy didn't have high boxoffice hopes for "The Visitor." Passed over at Toronto last year, it was picked up by upstart Overture Films for $1 million and released in just four theaters in early April. But by late May, with almost no media coverage, the Michael London-produced film defied the struggling market for nonstudio fare and rode strong word of mouth into the top 10. After a four-month run, it has grossed almost $10 million. "Overture did a smart thing in finding an opening in the spring," says McCarthy, a character actor and director of 2003's "The Station Agent." "We hit the sweet spot."

Actresses: The Women of 'Sex and the City'

What was the audience that fueled a stratospheric $388.5 million in worldwide boxoffice for an adaptation of HBO's cult sex-and-shopping dramedy? "More straight men than people might have thought," jokes Sarah Jessica Parker, who produced the film as well
as co-starred with Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis and Kim Cattrall. "A lot of men stopped me and said, 'I pretended I didn't want to go and my wife dragged me, but I loved it.'" The show's core audience of older women also turned out to see something unusual in theaters: themselves. "There are women in positions of power in the entertainment industry who want to make movies like this," Parker says. "At least temporarily, they might feel empowered now."

Profiles reported and written by Matthew Belloni, Joseph Farewell, Carolyn Giardina and Borys Kit
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