'The Hunger Games' fuels Hollywood's appetite for North Carolina
From “Blue Velvet” to “Bull Durham,” North Carolina has a long filmmaking tradition. With the release of this weekend’s much-anticipated debut of “The Hunger Games,” state film officials are hoping the state will re-emerge as one of the top shooting destinations outside of California.
The post-apocalyptic tale based on the first of three bestselling novels by Suzanne Collins is expected to be one of the highest grossing movies of the year -- a major selling point for the state that hosted the production last summer.
“The Hunger Games,” starring Jennifer Lawrence, is one of the biggest productions North Carolina has hosted. With the film’s budget exceeding $80 million, Santa Monica studio Lionsgate spent an estimated $60 million in the state, employing 180 crew members and more than 4,000 extras.
“This is going to impact us in the way that ‘Dirty Dancing’ and ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ did,” said Aaron Syrett, director of the North Carolina Film Office. “It shows the industry that North Carolina can handle these large films and that we have the talent and resources to make it work.”
The film office has wasted no time taking advantage of the hype surrounding the Lionsgate movie, sending out an email blast to filmmakers proudly touting the locations used in “The Hunger Games.”
Over four months last summer, the crew filmed throughout the Charlotte area, including at an old cotton mill outside of Hildebran that was transformed into a coal-mining village that is home to the movie’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen. They also shot at a former Philip Morris cigarette manufacturing plant in Concord and in the dense forest areas near Asheville and Black Mountain that served as the backdrop for “The Hunger Games,” in which teenagers fight to the death on live television.
“The Hunger Games” contributed to North Carolina having a record year for production in 2011, generating $220 million in film and TV spending, up from $75 million in 2010. Other productions in the state included such TV series as Showtime’s “Homeland” and the CW's young adult drama “One Tree Hill,” as well as several movies, among them “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” which filmed partially in Wilmington.
This year, North Carolina will host another big film, Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man 3,” starring Robert Downey Jr. The production, which will soon begin filming, is expected to spend $80 million in the state.
North Carolina’s film office attributes the increase in activity mainly to the decision by the state legislature to beef up its film tax credit in January of last year. The state, which offers a 25% refundable tax credit on qualified production expenses, increased the cap on how much individual projects could receive to $20 million from $7 million.
Although North Carolina provided ideal locations for “The Hunger Games,” the film tax credit was a key factor, said Todd Christensen, the movie's location manager, who also worked on the Oscar-nominated picture “Moneyball,” which filmed in California.
“They hadn’t done a big film in North Carolina for some time, but they had a great attitude toward us as a film crew and letting us do what we needed to do,” Christensen said.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, North Carolina was one of the busiest states for filming outside of California and New York, thanks to a string of movies including the baseball drama “Bull Durham” and Academy Award-winner “The Last of the Mohicans,” which filmed in the Pisgah National Forest among other locations.
Despite its reputation for being film friendly and a so-called right-to-work state where non-union crews are welcomed, North Carolina lost its competitive edge when Canadian provinces and other states such as Georgia and Louisiana began to grab larger shares of the business by offering generous film tax credits. Now the state is enjoying a comeback, industry officials say.
“The industry is seeing us as a serious filmmaking state,’’ said Bill Vassar, an executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems, which operates a 10-stage production facility in Wilmington that will be rented to Marvel for “Iron Man 3.” “It’s elevating us again.”
Review: 'The Hunger Games' a Winning Story of Sacrifice and Survival
When you're talking about "The Hunger Games," it all comes down to Katniss.
Like other strong-minded women who have driven book sales into the stratosphere — think Lisbeth Salander of the "Dragon Tattoo" triology and even Bella Swan of the "Twilight" series — ace archer Katniss Everdeen is an indomitable heroine whom nothing fazes or flusters for long.
Making a successful "Hunger Games" movie out of Suzanne Collins' novel required casting the best possible performer as Katniss, and in Jennifer Lawrence director Gary Ross and company have hit the bull's-eye, so to speak.
An actress who specializes in combining formidable strength of will with convincing vulnerability, Lawrence is the key factor in making "Hunger Games" an involving popular entertainment with strong narrative drive that holds our attention by sticking as close to the book's outline as it can manage.
As those who've seen Lawrence's Oscar-nominated work in "Winter's Bone" know, playing Ree Dolly in that film gave the actress a head start on Katniss. Not only was Ree similarly determined and intrepid, she paralleled Katniss in growing up poor in blighted surroundings and having to head the family after the departure of her father hampered her mother's ability to cope.
Ree's story, however, was set in the present, while Katniss' tale unfolds in a bleak future where a nation called Panem exists where the United States once stood. Every year, to mark the anniversary of a peace treaty that ended a bloody rebellion, each of Panem's districts has to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, known as tributes, to the Capitol to participate in a brutal kill-or-be-killed event called the Hunger Games. Only one child comes out alive.
"This is how we remember our past," intones the official propaganda for this, the 74th annual games, set in a sizable wooded area that functions as an outdoor arena. "This is how we safeguard our future." So that no one misses the message, numerous concealed cameras turn the Hunger Games into the ultimate in must-see TV for Panem's residents.
Collins came up with the idea for "Hunger Games" while switching between a reality TV show and coverage of the Iraq war. And the finished film, though it combines elements familiar from short stories "The Lottery" and "The Most Dangerous Game," does come off as a lethal "Survivor" or even"American Idol" with deadly weapons.
In District 12, where coal mining is a way of life and the people dress like characters from "The Grapes of Wrath,"16-year-old Katniss is primarily concerned with getting food for her family and bonding with her hunky best friend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).
But when her 12-year-old sister gets chosen as a tribute, Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her place and heads off to the Capitol clutching a pin in the shape of a mockingjay (the visual symbol of both book and film) as a good luck charm.
On the train to the Capitol, Katniss exchanges glances with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow District 12 tribute, and spends quality time with key players like the ebullient Effie Trinket (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks) and the inebriated Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former champion who is supposed to mentor both Peeta and Katniss.
At the Capitol, an effete, decadent place that looks like a 1930s image of futuristic architecture, more characters materialize, including Stanley Tucci's foppish host and Lenny Kravitz's sensitive pageant stylist. Preliminaries out of the way, the games begin with roughly an hour gone and 90 minutes left on the clock.
Since what happens during the Hunger Games should stay in the Hunger Games, specifics of the combat will not be revealed here, except to mention the presence of young actress Amandla Stenberg, who makes a powerful impression as 12-year-old Rue.
Though the film is faithful to the book, the trio of practiced screenwriters (Ross, who has a trio of Oscar script nominations, author Collins and Billy Ray) have made some changes. The biggest one is elimination of the book's first-person structure, which allows for scenes — such as private conversations between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and head gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) — that were not in the novel.
Ross also makes the shrewd choice to have us frequently glimpse the unfolding games action on the huge TV screens the citizens of Panem are watching, enhancing the uncomfortable intertwining of violence and voyeurism that is one of the story's themes.
As to the kid-on-kid violence that has been the subject of so much talk, Ross has managed to adroitly downplay that, keeping the mayhem to a PG-13 level. Most of the children in the film want nothing to do with killing, and the ones who do look considerably older than the heroines of previous ultra-violent films like "Hanna" and "Kick-Ass."
Katniss, of course, is one of the reluctant participants, and Lawrence's ability to involve us in her struggle is a key to the effectiveness of "Hunger Games." The film's strengths are not so much in its underlying themes or its romantic elements, (the weakest aspect, in fact) but its recognition of the book's narrative strengths and its ability play them straight. If, as the ads suggest, the whole world will be watching this, viewers will likely be satisfied with what they see.
Jack Kirby, the Abandoned Hero of Marvel’s grand Hollywood adventure, and his Family’s Quest
You’d be hard-pressed to find a recent comic book that didn’t have the stylish scrawl of the artists somewhere on the cover, but that was not the case when Jack Kirby was making pop culture history back in the 1960s with his wildly kinetic drawings of the X-Men, Hulk and the Fantastic Four. “I think I have a highly unique and unusual style, and that’s the reason I never sign my drawings,” the proud Kirby told an interviewer in 1987, seven years before his death. “Everybody could tell any of my covers a mile away on the newsstand, and that satisfied me.”
The satisfaction was fleeting. The artist may be reverently referred to as “King” Kirby by the pop scholars and younger artists who celebrate his genre-defining work but Kirby is, in some ways, an overlooked figure in the broader view of American culture. He didn’t live to see his creations fly across the movie screen over the last decade and his four children made nothing from those lucrative films, although they are now pursuing legal action to claim some of the future Hollywood wealth. “There is,” daughter Lisa Kirby says, “a bittersweet legacy to my father’s work.”
On a recent afternoon, in Beverly Hills, a different man was autographing a giant lithograph reproducing one of Kirby’s classic Fantastic Four covers. It was Stan Lee, the writer who was Kirby’s most famous collaborator until they became estranged over creative credit, artwork custody and money. An art dealer had brought stacks of limited-edition lithos, some to be priced at $850, to Lee’s Santa Monica Boulevard office along with a check in his pocket to pay the 86-year-old Lee for his autographs.
Lee had written the stories for the classic comics, of course, but considering all the history, it was still odd to see his name etched on the cosmic Kirby tableau from 1966.
“Yes, there was a time when there was some hard feeling on his part ... but he got over that and we were friends,” Lee said. “It really is sad that he didn’t get to see all the big movies. None of us could predict that we would get to this point with the films. I don’t dwell on it too much because I’m always so busy doing what I am doing today. Unfortunately the guys back in the day did not make as much as they do today. Years ago also you had artists doing these comics who, well, there was nothing else they could have done. Their style wasn’t right for advertising or magazines like Saturday Evening Post or Collier’s. And as for us writers, well, we weren’t qualified to write for the New Yorker. Comic book writers were considered hacks, and artists weren’t really thought of as much beyond that.”
Lee studied one of the other art pieces, a dazzling revisiting of a Kirby cover for Captain America. “Wow, look at this one.” The pieces are being sold by the Santa Monica gallery called Every Picture Tells a Story as part of a new licensing deal with Marvel to create high-end wall art from illustrations that were, in their day, the most gaudy and disposable entertainment imaginable. “As far as I’m concerned,” Lee said with his endless zeal, “it is fine art.”
The story of two “hacks,” as Lee would frame it, will be scrutinized much more considering recent events. Last month, the Walt Disney Co. paid $4 billion to scoop up Marvel Entertainment and its vault of florid characters who over the last decade have become Hollywood box-office heroes. Many of the most valuable properties in that vault were created by the wildly prolific tandem of Lee and Kirby in the 1960s; there are two big-budget movies now in the pipeline for Marvel Studios that are based on Lee-Kirby creations (“The Mighty Thor“ and “The Avengers”) and a third (“First Avenger: Captain America”) based on the work of Kirby and writer Joe Simon. The Kirby brood watched the Disney deal happen and within days were conferring with attorneys and accelerating their bid to reclaim copyright.
A day after Lee sat signing that artwork, attorneys representing the four children of Kirby sent out 45 notices of termination to Hollywood studios and players with an interest in assorted Marvel films; it was the opening salvo in a legal battle to gain copyright control of certain characters and the name on the legal letterhead was Toberoff & Associates, the same firm that last year won a intriguing victory by reclaiming a share of the copyright for the first Superman story for heirs of that character’s co-creator, Jerry Siegel.
Under copyright law, creators or their heirs can seek to regain copyrights they previously assigned to a company 56 years after first publication, so the Kirby family is starting that process now with hopes of gaining an interest or, perhaps, a settlement. Lee, meanwhile, struck assorted deals through the years with Marvel and has been an executive producer on every Marvel film made to date, movies with worldwide box office now in the billions of dollars, and has had prominent cameos in many of them.
Lee is by far the most famous creator in comics history thanks to his longevity, success and a Barnum-like flair for self-promotion. He became a media figure in the 1960s when journalists jotted down his dizzying hyperbole about Marvel’s brightly hued, counterculture ethos. Kirby, laboring at home with far less credit, looked on and chafed about his status as a freelancer, essentially working for Lee, whose family connections by then had taken him to the top of the small and scruffy publishing venture. By 1970, Kirby had had enough and defected to rival DC Comics. Lee would go on to accumulate considerable wealth and fame, sometimes selling comics, sometimes selling his own persona with a long list of splashy but short-lived ventures. Kirby’s fortunes were not as grand; when he talked about his old creations he had the weary tone of a man who long ago watched the family coin collection scatter on a crowded street.
Lee knows that fans like to set up the partners as rivals. Kirby is portrayed as the irascible purist with staggering imagination and Lee reduced to the tireless huckster — the pop-culture prophet versus the corporate profiteer. From Lee’s present vantage point, though, he prefers to look back on their shared tale as the unexpected odyssey of two kids who grew up in a business of cruel deadlines and lowbrow aspirations and found in each other a go-to guy.
“My favorite thing about Kirby’s artwork was his storytelling,” Lee said. “He was really a film director doing comics.”
In that, Kirby was certainly ahead of his time. Comics are a huge part of Hollywood now, thanks to the modern era of computer-generated special effects that, finally, can match the galactic visions and super-powered mayhem that Kirby put to paper in the 1960s. Kirby’s influence is nothing less than massive on several generations of artists and filmmakers.
“There was power in the work of Jack Kirby that changed the way I looked at things,” said Guillermo del Toro, writer-director of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” “There was no one else like him and there never will be.”
Nevertheless, Kirby remains a distant second to Lee in name recognition, which Lisa Kirby said rankles. “A lot more people know the name Stan Lee than the name Jack Kirby,” she said. “I’m not putting down Stan Lee’s talents but it’s difficult for us to see that he does dominate the credit. That doesn’t reflect the work or the reality. To see Jack Kirby in small letters and Stan Lee in big letters, that’s hard for us.”
Mike Richardson grew up under the thrall of Kirby’s drawings and was inspired to found his own comic-book company, Dark Horse, which has grown into a Hollywood player after seeing titles such as “The Mask,” “Hellboy” and “300“ jump to the screen. Through the years, he reached out to the Kirby family to help them find some sort of compensation.
“There was a lot of anger in the Kirby family with the way that Jack was treated, more than they will express in public,” Richardson said. “There’s no way you can say enough about the impact of those Marvel comics in the 1960s. They changed the rules. Lee and Kirby were the Lennon and McCartney of comics and Stan Lee became a well-known figure in popular culture and Jack did not. Neither were as great on their own, it’s true, but Jack had decades of work that was really special. To me, there’s no doubt that Jack Kirby was the truly brilliant creative genius behind the success of Marvel.”
If there’s a battle to come, it’s one Kirby never took on in life.
“Jack didn’t have the resources or the stomach lining to fight Marvel over copyrights, character ownership or past contractual sleights that he believed he suffered,” says Mark Evanier, who was Kirby’s assistant in the early 1970s and later his biographer. “He fought to get back his pages of original art. That was the fight he believed he could win.”
Evanier, now a comics historian and creator, testified in the Siegel suit and it seems certain that he would be in the deposition seat for any Kirby legal case. A longtime friend to Kirby and respectful acquaintance of Lee, he spoke glowingly of the partnership as lightning in a bottle, the zenith of each man’s career.
Kirby contributed mightily to the plots and character creation; the workload at Marvel was so intense in the 1960s that there were no “scripts” handed to Kirby, he would just draw the story and Lee would go back and craft dialogue that fit the action. Still, Evanier said, while it’s now fashionable to view Lee as the lesser figure, he also had the separate success of Spider-Man (with artist Steve Ditko) and set the singular tone and culture of Marvel.
The pair had met in the Roosevelt years. In late 1940, Jacob Kurtzberg, 23, drawing under the name Kirby, had his first taste of real success in the young comics industry, which soared after the debut of Superman in 1938. Kirby and writer Simon’s Captain America was a hit for Timely Comics, which would later morph into Marvel. There was an eager assistant in the office named Stanley Lieber, just 18, who had gotten the job through a family connection (and would later shorten his name).
“In those days they dipped the pen in ink, I had to make sure the inkwells were filled,” said Lee. “I went down and got them their lunch, I did proofreading, I erased the pencils from the finished pages for them.
Whatever had to be done. I remember Jack would always be sitting at a table puffing on his cigar, kind of talking to himself as he was doing those pages.”
Lee’s first credited work was a 1941 Captain America story where the hero threw his shield for the first time. That would become a trademark for decades, suggesting an instant flair for the medium. Kirby left Timely not long after. Years later, with comics in the doldrums, Lee and Kirby would reunite and create a new sort of comic book, with frenetic energy, mutant outsiders and misunderstood monsters. Superman and DC Comics instantly seemed like boring old Pat Boone; Marvel felt like the Beatles and the British Invasion. It was Kirby’s artwork with its tension and psychedelia that made it perfect for the times — or was it Lee’s bravado and melodrama, which was somehow insecure and brash at the same time?
“Jack was the best partner you could ask for, dependable and imaginative,” Lee said, sitting in an office cluttered with all those old heroes and villains. “And it was never dull. Nothing with us was ever dull.”
^^^ In the era of the blockbuster superhero movie, Jack Kirby may finally get his due, or at least his family. I certainly hope Stan Lee and the new Marvel-Hollywood Axis give due credit and show the money for the heirs of Kirby. Without him there would really be no Marvel Universe to begin with. Comis AND film are all the better because of Kirby. His family deserves now what Kirby never got in life.
‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ director: Disney Turned us Down
Snow White has undergone many makeovers since her Brothers Grimm incarnation in 1812, and none persists in the American imagination of today more than Walt Disney’s warbling beauty. But “Snow White and the Huntsman” gives the raven-haired princess a treatment far bleaker than the current rival versions in “Mirror Mirror” and “Once Upon A Time.” A five-minute trailer, which aired Saturday at WonderCon, teases a dark epic in which Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth, who play the film’s title characters, and a band of dwarfs lead a battle against Charlize Theron’s evil queen. It’s a bold feature film debut for director Rupert Sanders, whose previous work is primarily commercial. Hero Complex writer Noelene Clark caught up with Sanders to talk about the film’s magic, mythology and star power.
NC: We see such a bleak world in the new trailer for “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Can you tell us about creating this particular brand of dark magic?
RS: I wanted to make a big, epic medieval film with lots of knights in shining armor. I used to love history books as a kid, and so I was really kind of creating those massive films, and then within that, I wanted to create a sense of believable magic, so this is a world where people believed that the dark forest was inhabited by creatures. It’s not a fantasy movie, it’s definitely a fairy tale movie, but kind of that was the time when people felt these things existed.
NC: You make a distinction between fairy tale and fantasy. How would you say they’re different?
RS: Fantasy, to me, I think is anything goes. The world is fantastic; it’s not a real world. Whereas ours is a real world where magical things happen and people believe in them. It’s much more historic, I think. Our world, for all intents and purposes, could have happened in 1480 when they believed that these things existed. And that was where most of these stories came from — in that period in the Middle Ages. Whereas fantasy, to me, it never existed; it’s a parallel world. This is our world, as it was in that time.
Charlize Theron in a movie poster for "Snow White and the Huntsman." (Universal Pictures)
NC: Charlize Theron seems a terrifying as the evil Queen Ravenna. How did you develop this villain?
RS: I think what we really tried to do is make her a realistic character. It’s a hard character to play because everyone has their perception of what the evil queen is and what the villain should do, but I think what was great about what Charlize wanted to do, is she wanted to find a very believable, very realistic, very wounded character. People who are wounded are much more dangerous. You look at nature, people who are protecting their young, or an animal that is wounded is far more vicious and violent than something that is just strong. And I think that she found this incredible pain within herself that made the brutality of what she was doing far more resonant.
NC: And Kristen Stewart is your Snow White.
RS: She’s quite stunning. She’s really good. First thing I saw her in was probably “Panic Room,” and then I saw her in “The Runaways” and “Into the Wild.” She’s an incredibly talented actor. I think a lot of people think that she’s Bella Swan because she played that part so well, and she really epitomized that character from the books. She was really strict with herself that she’d wear brown contacts, which is hard to act with those things in, because so much is coming from the eyes, but that’s what Bella Swan had. She’s very serious about what she does, and she’s incredibly gifted, and she’s incredibly intuitive, and she’ll just try different things. It was great to work with her. She’s a very one-of-a-kind actor.
NC: We’re familiar with Chris Hemsworth from his performance in “Thor” and the upcoming “Avengers” movie. You’ve said that he delivers a very emotional performance in “Snow White.”
RS: When I saw “Thor,” I thought, you know, he’s got the charm, he’s got the presence, he’s got the physicality. But when I met him, he’s got this kind of great broodingness to him. He’s got this amazing deep voice. He sounds like Morgan Freeman or something. He’s just so versatile, and he loves this kind of film. This is the kind of film he grew up on. He’s endlessly talking about “Legend” and “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” and all the fantasy films he loves. There are a couple of scenes where he has to really go there, and he’s totally willing to bare his soul, which is rare to find all those things — I call it the beauty of the Australian actor, because they have the British training and the American diet. He’s massive and muscle-y, but he’s as good of an actor as some of those British actors. He’s kind of got it all, Chris. He’s a lucky man, and he’s very busy because of it.
NC: I understand the eight dwarfs in your film are different than previous incarnations of the classic characters. Can you tell us a little about your dwarf mythology?
RS: They’re not called Happy, Grumpy, Sneezy and Dopey. In our film, they used to noble gold miners because they could see light in the darkness, and they see that light in Snow White. But while they were down in the caves, the Queen took over, and when they came up, the land was blackened, and all of their tribe was lost. So they’ve lost everything, and they’ve become highwaymen, basically. So they meet our characters by trying to rob them. They basically beat the … out of both of them, and lynch them, and then try to take all their money. And then she kind of bonds them together, and they all go off together and continue the journey.
NC: And your dwarfs are portrayed by an incredible lineup of British actors, including Nick Frost.
RS: We’ve got Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Johnny Harris and Brian Gleeson — really amazing. Another actor I think is stunning in the film, who really plays more of the villain, ironically, than the Queen, is her younger brother. He’s called Sam Spruell, who plays Finn, who’s the one with white hair. He’s incredible. I saw him in a small British gangster movie called “London to Brighton,” and I was like, I gotta get that guy. He’s stunning in it.
NC: In the five-minute WonderCon trailer (below), we hear the Queen’s mirror telling her to consume Snow White’s heart. Is the mirror a major character?
RS: Really, it’s in her mind. There’s a scene where Finn’s watching her from the shadows, and we see the mirror pour out, and it starts to talk to her, and she’s ranting at it. And then we cut to Finn, and we see his point of view, and there’s nothing there. The mirror has so much psychological background to it. It’s great to play with those themes. He is ultimate truth; he’s telling it like it is. He scares her, and he excites her. He’s a great character.
NC: Have you received any pushback from Disney?
RS: It’s not their property. They can whistle as loud as they like. Ironically, we went to Disney first with the project. They didn’t want it. It’s not owned by Disney. It’s public domain. There is no copyright. There are things they did to the story that are Disney, but the story is for everyone, which is great. So I haven’t heard from Walt.
NC: “Snow White” seems to be undergoing a pop culture revival with “Once Upon A Time” and “Mirror Mirror.” What sets your film apart?
RS: I think you go to a gallery and see a lot of different paintings, and they’re all different. I think ours is very different from all of those things. I think ours has a massive scale to it. I think it has a very rich, emotional web to it. There’s a lot of times people cry when they watch the film, which I’m very happy with. And there’s a lot times when they’re like, “Holy … !” It’s very intense, the world comes at you, and you’re like, “Whoa!” I really try to immerse people in that world and put them right in the thick of it. I think it’s a lot visceral and a lot more grounded than the other renditions.
NC: Is it too scary or heavy for kids? Would you say it’s a family film?
RS: It is a family movie. It’s intense. I think it’s great — a lot of people who’ve watched it are like, “I really want to show this to my kids, because I really believe it’s something they should think about.” I wouldn’t bring, like, a 3-year-old. I mean, my kids are 5 and 7, and they’ve seen most of it. I was read those stories at that age, and it terrified me. Look, it’s gonna scare them, but it’s gonna excite them. Maybe sit in an aisle seat.
'Hunger Games' to Deliver more than $300 million in Profit to Lions Gate
The blockbuster opening weekend of "The Hunger Games" — which debuted with an estimated $155 million — will ultimately lead to more than $300 million in profit for independent studio Lionsgate, analysts predicted Sunday.
And with three sequels to come, the franchise as a whole is expected to deliver $1.5 billion or more to the Santa Monica company's bottom line.
That's a significant success for Lionsgate, which has posted net losses in its last four fiscal years and struggled to up its game in film production. While it has scored with a variety of genre and prestige pictures like "Saw" and "Precious" and has a growing television division, the studio last year took losing bets on several high-profile flops, including "Conan the Barbarian" and the Taylor Lautner action-thriller "Abduction."
Media analyst Monica Dicenso of JP Morgan predicted that the first "Hunger Games" film will produce $310 million in profit and the series as a whole will generate $1.5 billion. James Marsh of Piper Jaffray said the numbers could be even higher, with more than $400 million from the first movie and $2-billion-plus for the entire series.
This weekend's release, which cost a little more than $80 million to make (after a tax break) and $45 million more to market, needed to reach about $100 million in domestic box office receipts to break even, according to a person familiar with the picture’s economics who was not authorized to speak publicly. The picture reached that milestone on Saturday.
The ultimate success of the franchise will depend largely on how the movie performs on DVD when it's no longer in theaters as well as the sales of licensed products.
Lionsgate vice chairman Michael Burns noted Sunday that he had just received an email informing him that "Hunger Games" T-shirts were already selling out in many Hot Topic chain stores.
"The panacea in the movie business is to find franchises," he said when asked to reflect on the meaning of "The Hunger Games" to the studio, which he and chief executive Jon Feltheimer have run since 2000.
"The idea that we can create some predictability around the most unpredictable part of our business is fantastic," he added.
There are several factors in Lions Gate's favor that should help the company generate even higher profits from the sequels than the first film. The movie's international opening, for instance, was solid but not spectacular, particularly outside of the English-speaking world, where author Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" novels are not as well known.
Just as the popular"Twilight" sequels did much better overseas than the original, the same might hold true for Lionsgate's new franchise.
In addition, with the success of the first film, Lionsgate will be in a position to demand more favorable terms from foreign distributors for the sequels. The independent studio does not handle the release of its movies outside of the U.S. and Great Britain.
One challenge the company faces, however, is the pending departure of motion picture group president Joe Drake. While Feltheimer gave the movie the greenlight, it was Drake and his team who oversaw the development, production and marketing.
Drake and several of his key executives are being replaced by the team from "Twilight" studio Summit Entertainment, which Lionsgate acquired in January.
Lions Gate stock has more than doubled in value since September in part because of anticipation for "The Hunger Games" (as well as the exit of dissident shareholder Carl Icahn). The shares closed at $14.53 on Friday. But with the movie outperforming even the most optimistic expectations this weekend, they could rise again Monday.
Girl Power: Hollywood's Young Heroines Come to their own Rescue
Not without fanfare, Katniss Everdeen has taken her place in a pop culture lineage of new millennial vintage. Like Harry Potter and Bella Swan before her, the protagonist of “The Hunger Games” transfers from the pages of young-adult fiction to the big screen as nothing less than a pre-engineered box-office phenomenon. And as with all such YA juggernauts, the merits of the first adaptation of novelist Suzanne Collins’ trilogy are debatable (and for many fans, beside the point).
Less in doubt is Katniss’ place at the forefront of a growing number of movie characters who happen to be tough young women and who don’t need to be rehabilitated for it.
From the no-nonsense muscularity of her name to her peerless skills as an archer, Katniss (portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence) is an avatar of strength and purpose — without the once-requisite “for a girl” qualifiers. That’s no small thing in an age of Kardashians as role models (one of Collins’ most penetrating conceptions is the way “Hunger Games” pushes reality-TV inanity to the darkest extreme), or at a time when even educated people still use such antediluvian phrases as “woman doctor.”
It also marks the stirrings of a potential sea change for Hollywood, which in recent decades has tended to punish female independence or temper it with the ribbons and bows of romantic bliss.
Even among the frillier and more tradition-steeped elements of this emerging band of heroines, girls are engaging in hand-to-hand combat as they take on injustice, hypocrisy and all-around evil. Whether they’re ordinary girls thrust into extraordinary circumstances or princesses cast out of the castle, they’re not waiting for a shiny-armored knight to save the day.
No less an iconic princess than Snow White is flexing muscle in her latest big-screen incarnations, one of which finds Kristen Stewart transitioning from Bella’s mooning and swooning in the “Twilight” series — essentially a Gothicized romance novel — to an action hero. They’re in works of disparate tone, but Lily Collins’ Snow White in the recently released “Mirror Mirror” and the one played by Stewart in the upcoming “Snow White and the Huntsman” are both evolutionary leaps from the folk-tale character’s angelic passivity. Righteous and wronged, Grimm’s Snow White spends a considerable length of time preserved in a glass coffin — “as still as a gold piece,” as the poet Anne Sexton described her.
Such suspended animation is not a viable option for Katniss, who’s forced into gladiatorial combat. But even for characters facing less violent coming-of-age struggles, sitting pretty is not an option. The headstrong teen at the center of the summer release “Brave,” a cartoon princess who’s also an archer, will do nothing less than “challenge destiny to change her fate.”
And in “Pennyroyal’s Princess Boot Camp,” a kids’ fantasy book optioned for the screen by Reese Witherspoon, girls learn to be warriors, the better to battle a coven of wicked witches. No doubt they’re picking up the fiery baton of grass-roots grrl power, but rocking a crinoline and tiara isn’t enough for today’s princesses.
In our fictions, if not in our tabloids, to be blinged out is to be less than genuine. Katniss, a character defined by her unwavering inner compass and not her appearance, stands in opposition to those who worship at the church of fashionable conformity and celebrity-branded consumerism.
It’s not merely because she lacks the means to indulge, but because she has the intelligence and self-possession to see through the vanity. The garishly girlie Effie Trinket is her antithesis. Humanized on the pages of “Hunger Games,” she’s a gargoyle of a government stooge in Gary Ross’ film, portrayed by Elizabeth Banks with the frenzied emptiness that puts Katniss’ old soul in sharp relief.
These girls grow up fast. “Huntsman” costume designer Colleen Atwood has said that her guiding concept was “someone who is tough and who had had a journey already at a very young age.” That notion of hard-earned wisdom so early in life is the essence of Katniss Everdeen, a character famously summarized by another as “sullen and hostile.”
It’s hardly an unusual description for a 16-year-old girl, but the particulars of Katniss’ situation turn an intended insult into a compliment of the highest order. How else would a thinking, feeling person respond to the realities of a brutal authoritarian state and a devastated home front? Katniss’ unsentimental edge is her most striking quality, more so in Collins’ books than in the first installment of the four-movie franchise. She’s a hunter, in sync with nature, her instinct for survival a rebuke to the cruelty of the man-made world. But although she’s guarded, she hasn’t lost the capacity for kindness.
Her maternal side — though she would cringe to hear it described that way — is expressed primarily in her tenderness toward younger children, not in a fussy way but with a sturdiness that’s grounded and reassuring. It’s one of Katniss’ chief strengths and surely her most poignant.
Like the Ozark teen Lawrence played in “Winter’s Bone,” she had to step into the void left by the loss of a father and a mother’s inability to cope. She does it without complaint, even as she’s fueled by anger. She possesses a marrow-deep understanding of the rottenness that surrounds her and is understandably wary.
For characters facing life-defining tests, like Katniss, such suspicion is key to self-preservation. It can also be a defining strategy of adolescence, a way of gauging not just external truth but personal identity, which is no doubt a big part of why the “Hunger Games” books have connected so resoundingly with tweens and teens, both male and female.
Translated from inner monologue to onscreen action, Katniss’ untamed quest for justice has lost some of its potency, which is no surprise in an event movie like “Hunger Games.” The risk remains that Katniss — and her inevitable imitators — could turn into distaff versions of gunslinger clichés, their very particular fury traded in for a more generic and accessible brand.
The outrage that drives unlikely Katniss compatriot Lisbeth Salander, a.k.a. the girl with the dragon tattoo, has so far defied reduction in the move from bestsellers to screen (particularly in the ferocity of Noomi Rapace in the trilogy of Swedish films). Lisbeth is by no means a YA heroine, but she is, like Katniss, an unprecedented creation of take-no-prisoners intensity. And she, too, is a kind of hunter in a world gone mad.
For this new breed of young female characters, the serious business of resisting malevolent or controlling forces is not all dystopian doom, however, and it doesn’t have to express itself in stoicism, ruthlessness or murderous rage.
There’s magic, too, in those trials and tribulations. Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” films might not seem an obvious precursor of Katniss — a wand-wielding witch to her coal miner’s daughter. But she, more than the adolescent killing machines of “Hanna“ and “Kick-a$$,” is a paradigm of strength in conflicted emotional territory.
Hermione never tunes down her braininess for the sake of being more unthreateningly “ladylike” or less annoying, no matter how many rolled eyes she provokes. She stands her ground, learns to focus her exceptional powers and proves essential to Harry’s, and Hogwarts’, epic struggle against darkness.
Hermione finds romance, too, but it’s not the grand prize that satisfies all her longings. And when Collins makes romantic yearning a key thread in “The Hunger Games,” she gives it a postmodern twist by adding layers of reality-TV performance and self-awareness: young love as both media fodder and real awakening. But romance sells, and in the big-screen version that angle is sweetened, its edges smoothed, even if Katniss isn’t awaiting a princely kiss as the final, puzzle-solving piece of her story.
From her ravaged future world, Katniss arrives in the multiplex as a fresh emblem, if not a fully realized cinematic creation. Through the books she already has staked a claim in the imaginations of girls and boys, women and men. And for now, she holds the mainstream movie spotlight as a vision of youthful defiance — feminine, unorthodox and unapologetic.
They don't call it "Tim Burton's Dark Shadows," but they might as well have.
Nominally based on the cult favorite 1960s daytime soap opera, this film has much more to do with what goes on inside director Tim Burton's head than with any TV show, no matter how beloved. In fact, "Dark Shadows" is as good an example as any of what might be called the Way of Tim, a style of making films that, like the drinking of blood, is very much an acquired taste and, unless you're a vampire, not worth the effort.
Blood, of course, figures prominently in both the original "Dark Shadows,"which ran on ABC for 1,225 episodes between 1966 and 1971, and this new version, for both focus on the character of Barnabas Collins, an 18th century vampire who reappears in today's world. Back in the day, having a contemporary vampire on a daytime soap was unheard of, and "Dark Shadows" soon developed a devoted following that extended into reruns, including two youngsters who grew up to wield great power in Hollywood, filmmaker Burton and his frequent star, Johnny Depp.
With Depp onboard as Collins, the director was free to construct his own version of "Dark Shadows," which plays much more fang in cheek, so to speak, than the more straight-ahead original. As a result, the film turns out to be an uncertain combination of elements that unsuccessfully tries to be half-scary, half-funny and all strange, a project that offers examples of the three Ws that make up the Way of Tim.
The first W, is, as always, wonderful production design, which comes courtesy of Burton's longtime collaborator Rick Heinrichs, who won an Oscar for his work on the director's "Sleepy Hollow." Heinrichs has two worlds to deal with in the Seth Grahame-Smith script, starting with the rocky seacoast of Maine in the 1770s. Here resides the Collins family, grown great on the wealth fishing provides, who've founded the town of Collinsport and who live in a looming mansion called Collinswood Manor.
The Collinses' only son Barnabas (Depp) is something of a ladies' man, but when he toys with the affections of servant Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) he finds he literally has hell to pay. For Angelique is a practicing witch who brings a bleak end to Barnabas' love for Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) and turns the man himself into a vampire. Then, just to rub it in, she has him buried alive "so that his suffering would never end." Ouch.
Eternity doesn't last as long as it used to, and a mere 200 years have passed when some unwary and unfortunate construction workers unearth Barnabas' coffin and set him free. "You can't imagine," he says after he's done his worst, "how thirsty I am...."
Barnabas soon makes his way to Collinswood Manor, where he's passed off to the locals as a distant relative visiting from England. Very distant. The only person Barnabas freely takes into his confidence is the lady of the manor, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (a welcome part for Michelle Pfeiffer, another youthful devotee of the TV series). Together they plot to return the Collins family to prominence.
Standing in their way is the latest incarnation of Angelique, the ageless witch of yore who still lives in the area and runs a fish company called Angel Bay. Similarly, a young governess named Victoria Winters who's employed at Collinswood Manor is an incarnation of Barnabas' old love Josette. And so it goes.
Helping to make all this folderol initially palatable is the second W of the Way of Tim, a certifiably weird performance by Depp, who likes nothing better than to disappear into the odd creatures that his director creates for his delectation. Burton and Depp have worked together so often — this is their eighth collaboration — that they are in danger of becoming a mondo bizarro version of John Ford and John Wayne. Still, Depp's performance is so unwavering in its commitment to eccentricity that it is hard not to be fitfully entertained.
Depp amuses himself and others as a man out of time, a priggish, somewhat effete individual who is astounded at his first glimpse of television ("Reveal yourself, tiny songstress," he says to singers on the screen) and, as many dieters have before him, mistakes the M in a huge McDonald's sign for the entrance to hell.
But as engaging as Depp can be, he and the rest of the ensemble (which includes Helena Bonham Carter, Chloe Grace Moretz and Jackie Earle Haley) are tripped up by the third W, which is Burton's woeful lack of concern with story and drama.
A director of moments rather than wholes, Burton is prone to wander off point and engage with peripheral concerns (like a pointless concert cameo by Alice Cooper) rather than such pedestrian matters as plot coherence. "Dark Shadows" is all over the place, getting more grotesque and less involving the longer it goes on, and that, as even the undead would admit, is a damned shame.