Universal plots amid boxoffice dry spell

'Funny People' bow is next up for studio

As NBC Universal moved this week to shore up its faltering broadcast network by consolidating its TV entertainment operations under Jeff Gaspin, execs at the company's film studio are working to find some relief amid a boxoffice dry spell.

The studio faces its next test Friday when it launches the Adam Sandler vehicle "Funny People," Judd Apatow's latest comedy that, despite its R-rated jokes, is a question mark as it takes the director into more serious territory.

The studio -- headed by chairmen Marc Shmuger and David Linde, who were awarded contract extensions through 2013 by Universal Studios president and COO Ron Meyer in January -- recorded company-best worldwide boxoffice results in 2007 and then topped that in 2008, when its global ticket sales reached $2.8 billion.

Trying to navigate through 2009 without any tentpole franchises, the studio tried to make a virtue out of necessity, mixing smartly written adult-skewing films with broader comedies. But with the exception of the car-racing sequel "Fast & Furious" -- a summer release that the studio shrewdly steered into an available April opening and a $349.3 million worldwide gross -- the Uni release slate has yielded more than its share of disappointments.

Bidding for older moviegoers, "Duplicity," starring Julia Roberts, and "State of Play," starring Russell Crowe, stalled at the $40 million mark at the domestic boxoffice.

Johnny Depp's "Public Enemies" has collected $88.3 million, falling short of blockbuster status, though it still has a shot at surpassing "Collateral" ($101 million) to become director Michael Mann's top-grossing film domestically.

Despite a nonstop publicity blitz, "Bruno" has had to settle for $56.6 million to date, well below the Sacha Baron Cohen predecessor "Borat." And "Land of the Lost" -- the Will Ferrell starrer based on the '70s TV show, which aimed for a broad multiplex audience -- fell flat, grossing just $49 million domestically.

Against the backdrop of these one-off disappointments, the studio now is reaching for its go-to sequels. The studio this year kick-started "Little Fockers," the third movie in its "Meet the Parents" line, into high gear, putting most of the talent elements in place as it aims to go into production this year. And a fourth "Bourne" movie, starring Matt Damon, is eyeing a start sometime next year. Both movies are some of the most reliable in the studio's stable, but with big stars and large budgets, they also become expensive propositions.

After the surprise success of "Furious," the studio also is fast-tracking a fifth installment in that franchise. And there is a "Wanted 2" awaiting its turn in the development pipeline.

But without franchises on the scale of Warners' "Harry Potter" series or Sony's "Spider-man," Universal instead is trying to create new ones; it's moving forward, for instance, on "The Sigma Protocol," another Robert Ludlum property that it's hoping could become a "Bourne"-like winner.

Simultaneously, Uni is trying to develop its classic monster titles, but so far hasn't produced another "Mummy"-size franchise. "The Wolfman," starring Benicio Del Toro, has moved again -- this time from November to February. The studio also is working on versions of "The Thing," "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "Bride of Frankenstein," but development in that area has been slow going.

Universal has smartly aligned itself with both a comic-book company (Dark Horse Comics) and a toy company (Hasbro) in hopes of mining other recognized titles and brands. Among them are "Emily the Strange" out of Dark Horse and "Stretch Armstrong" from Hasbro; it has also nabbed rights to the classic video game "Asteroids."

But property-driven development takes time, and it's likely the studio won't see a finished film emerge from those partnerships until 2011 or even later.

Meanwhile, the studio isn't abandoning high-toned adult dramas altogether. It has director Joe Wright guiding Cate Blanchett through Working Title's "Indian Summer," set during the last days of Britain's colonial reign in India.

But in the nonbranded arena, Universal is looking to the domain of low-budget comedies, where it has had past successes, especially with the Apatow brand. And so it has lined up "Get Him to the Greek," with Jonah Hill trying to cope with unruly rock star Russell Brand, for next summer.

Catching lightning in that bottle is harder than it looks, though. Future releases such as David Gordon Green's medieval comedy "Your Highness" and "Paul," the tale of British comic-book geeks who meet an alien, have some observers wondering if the films are too niche.

Universal is making a strong push into animation, partnering with Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment. The union's first offspring, "Despicable Me," is scheduled to hit theaters next year.

There is optimism on the romance front with the Zac Efron-toplined "Charlie St. Cloud," which is set for a release next year. For some, the movie conjures up comparisons to such hits as the "Ghost" and "The Notebook," and studio execs hope the weepie brings some joy back to Universal City.
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