Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx and 'White House Down's' Superhero-Free Summer Gamble
This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In late March 2012, Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal learned of a spec screenplay by James Vanderbilt that had not even been sent out by his reps at WME. The script -- about a wannabe Secret Service agent who defends the president when terrorists take over the White House -- seemed a slam dunk: packed with action, powered by two strong leading roles and as topical as any studio would want thanks to its exploration of the ongoing debate about the war on terrorism.
Pascal leapt, buying the project for $3 million before rival Paramount could snap it up (thereby providing one of the biggest spec sales in years) and rushing it to Independence Day director Roland Emmerich. That Sunday, April 1, she convened a meeting at her Brentwood, Calif., home, with the studio's top production executives (led by Doug Belgrad and Hannah Minghella), who met with Emmerich, Vanderbilt and two of the movie's producers, Harald Kloser and Brad Fischer.
Over the next hour and a half, they thrashed out the details of the potential picture, guided by a layout of the White House that Pascal had downloaded. By the end of their conversation, she was ready to greenlight the film, an actioner with two compelling characters. "Whatever else works, in the end, people want to see movies about people," she argues. "I will always believe that."
When Sony opens White House Down on June 28, it will test that conviction at a time when superheroes and franchise films increasingly have come to dominate theaters. It also will determine whether Sony can follow its successful Seth Rogen comedy This Is the End with the type of blockbuster that can compensate for the disappointing returns from Will Smith's After Earth. Equally important, as Hollywood approaches summer's halfway mark, White House Down will impact whether the season breaks records or suffers another slump, as it did in first-quarter 2013.
Currently, despite megahits like Iron Man 3 and big grosses on Fast & Furious 6, Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel, box office for the year to date is down 2.64 percent compared with 2012. By contrast, the summer itself is up 11.36 percent, says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office division of Hollywood.com.
Paramount breathed a sigh of relief when its $190 million World War Z opened to $66 million domestically and another $46 million in foreign sales over the June 21 weekend. But there's no guarantee a juggernaut like last year's The Dark Knight Rises is waiting to propel the waning weeks of summer.
Other expensive titles remain, such as Disney's The Lone Ranger (July 3) and Warner Bros. and Legendary's Pacific Rim (July 12), raising the stakes -- and underlying the risks Steven Spielberg pointed out in early June while speaking at USC.
"There's eventually going to be an implosion," said the man whose Jaws in 1975 unleashed the very notion of a modern blockbuster. "Three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm."
The anxiety is widespread. "This has been a roller-coaster year," says Dergarabedian. "At one point, we were down 17 percent year-over-year. What Sony and all the other studios are trying to do is keep the momentum going, because it could so easily turn."
Sony has done everything toward that end, shelling out roughly $140 million for WHD (which would have cost more than $175 million without hefty Canadian tax breaks), including an eight-figure salary for Channing Tatum, 33, Hollywood's fastest-rising male star.
The movie will demonstrate whether the actor -- who plays a father visiting the White House with his daughter when it comes under attack, forcing him to rescue the president (Jamie Foxx) -- can continue a remarkable run that has seen such hits as 21 Jump Street, Magic Mike, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and The Vow. Sony is hoping Tatum's four-quadrant appeal will help WHD lure more than the usual testosterone-driven crowd. "We are one of the few action movies that have tested better with women than men," says Tatum's business partner and the film's executive producer, Reid Carolin.
But the studio faces considerable hurdles, not least that WHD comes on the heels of the similarly themed Olympus Has Fallen (actual Secret Service code for a White House takeover). Pascal, in fact, was a bidder for the Olympus script in 2012, then lost to Millennium Films, which hit fast-forward, bringing its $60 million movie to theaters in late March; to date, it has collected $161 million in worldwide grosses.
"I think both movies can live in this world," the exec says, while acknowledging she has concerns. "Our movie is less about conspiracy in the White House and more about the relationship between these two guys. It's a very character-driven action piece, and it is really Roland at his best."
Emmerich was oblivious to the fact that Olympus was gathering speed when he flew to New York in spring 2012 to persuade Tatum to take the role, just days before the actor was scheduled to leave for a trip down the Amazon. He had to persuade him to say yes.
"I must say I wasn't sure," admits Tatum. "A lot of people call me up, and they want to put a gun in my hand, and it's such a weird place to be in. America is very, very divided right now. But I felt [this film] was a good way to point out some of the issues in our country [including the polarization of Washington] without being too dramatic or heavy."
With Tatum on board, Emmerich flew to Louisiana, where Foxx, 45, was shooting Django Unchained, and added him as co-star before bringing in James Woods, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins and Maggie Gyllenhaal for other key roles. Now the filmmaker had a new challenge: figuring out how and when to shoot, given that Tatum had agreed to start work in fall 2012 on Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, in which he plays an Olympic wrestler.
Emmerich called his key crewmembers and asked: Could they cram what should have been 15 weeks of preproduction into eight? The answer was yes, and hundreds of crew and construction members converged on Montreal, where the picture would be shot almost entirely inside a studio -- exteriors too -- because of budgetary considerations.
With preproduction underway, Emmerich managed to get inside the White House itself, his second private tour following a screening of Independence Day for President Clinton 16 years earlier, when he had "this odd, weird experience that I saw the White House explode inside the White House itself." (White House Down is unlikely to get such a screening, he says: "It would be a really bad move for Obama. When he just shakes the hand of a Marine and doesn't salute, he gets shit for it.")
But this time the director's visit was restricted to one floor of the six-level White House; neither he nor any of his team ever got to see the supersecret President's Emergency Operations Center, a pivotal locale in the movie where the president is whisked. The room is believed to be housed somewhere within the building's three underground stories.