'Hellboy II' took perseverance

Sequel began at one studio and ended up at another

No offense to the red-skinned, gun-wielding, cigar-chomping demon, but he had to rely on several real-life heroes before "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" could make it to the screen.

The movie, which Universal opens Friday, is the only franchise in recent memory that began at one studio -- in this case Columbia -- that ended up at another, for which credit goes to the perseverance of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and producer Larry Gordon. While the occasional TV series ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Scrubs") has jumped from one network to another, film studios virtually never let a franchise go to a competitor.

Created by artist Mike Mignola, "Hellboy" was first published in 1993 by Dark Horse Comics and quickly garnered Hollywood interest. Then-fledgling Mexican filmmaker del Toro expressed interest in an adaptation, which had Gordon attached as a producer.

But while the comic influenced the lighting in del Toro's American debut "Mimic," that movie didn't set the boxoffice on fire.

When Gordon and Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson began shopping del Toro's first "Hellboy" screenplay in 1998, they met with plenty of resistance. Why does he have to be red? Does he need to have a tail? Can we call him something other than Hellboy?

Although they managed to set up the project at Joe Roth's Sony-based Revolution, the project continued to face an uphill battle. Executives were reluctant to make the film without a star, pushing such actors as Bruce Willis and Vin Diesel on the filmmakers. With the project stuck in development hell, del Toro hopped on New Line's "Blade 2."

A week after that action horror movie opened to $32.5 million in March 2002, Revolution greenlighted "Hellboy."

Just more than two years later, "Hellboy," starring Ron Perlman as the demon, hit screens. It cost around $60 million and made around $60 million. Even-steven.

Del Toro wanted to do a sequel but Columbia, which had a say in any follow-up under the terms of Revolution's Sony pact, wasn't interested. So del Toro busied himself with other projects, flirting with "Halo" at Universal and "Killing on Carnival Row" at New Line.

Not wanting to give up on "Hellboy II," Gordon urged Roth to pry the title out of Columbia's hands.

That set in motion a series of moves: Revolution owned the title but had to formally check whether the studio wanted to exercise its right to make a sequel. Since Columbia was uninterested, Roth asked permission to let Gordon take the project elsewhere. Columbia, after more meetings, eventually let the title go, thinking that any sequel would only enhance the value of the original "Hellboy."

None of the other studios were quick to bite, though. "It was not an immediate battle to get it," del Toro said.

The story would have ended right there and then if it weren't for one thing: "Pan's Labyrinth."

Del Toro's passion project began building buzz in mid-2006, and execs started jockeying for his next project. And what did he want to do? That sequel to "Hellboy."

"He was so dedicated to making a second movie," said a source close to the production. "If you wanted to be in business with Guillermo, you had to make that film."

Del Toro shrunk the budget to $85 million and circulated it again. This time, Universal -- especially eager to work with international filmmakers -- bit. The studio struck a first-look deal with del Toro and the new "Hellboy" wound up with a trio of owners: Revolution, which retained a small piece, and Gordon and Universal, which split the rest.

"We knew we were doing 'Hellboy II" after 'Pan' came out," one source close to both movies said. "Pan's" made a splash at the Toronto Film Festival before rolling out in December 2006.

The sequel set up shop in Hungary last summer and fall, taking advantage of the country's film rebate. Del Toro, in an unusual move, fought hard to shoot everything using only first unit photography.

"To have the scope we wanted, at 85, was a f***ing pain in the ass," del Toro said. "It meant really brutal hours, six-day weeks on a 130-day shoot, no second unit."

Del Toro and creator Mignola have an idea for a third movie, but that will depend on several factors, not least of which are boxoffice performance and del Toro's timetable: The filmmaker is spending the next four to five years working with Peter Jackson on the two "Hobbit" movies.

Summing up the experience of making the sequel, del Toro was his usual charming and blunt self.

"It was hard as f***," he said.