Monday, 16 August 2010

Slippery, When Wet

Shooting movies that centre on watery settings has been a slippery process at best. It's a well known fact that filming in and around water seriously inflates budgets and production schedules. It's a gruelling process that's as hard on crews as it is on cast. Furthermore, filming on the high seas hasn't always been a profitable endeavour. Raise the Titanic and Cutthroat Island are colossal failures; while movies like Jaws and Titanic took alarming emotional tolls on all involved. In these tough economic times, even bonafide franchises like Pirates of the Carrabin have been ordered to trim their budgets. Disney has told the logistical team behind PIRATES OF THE CARRABIN: ON STRANGER TIDES to tighten its script and make it less water-based than the previous films even though the previous films yielded $1.6 billion profit for the studio.

With all this aversion to commissioning movies that need to be filmed on water, it seems crazy for Universal Pictures to have greenlit their $200 million adaptation of Hasbro's boardgame BATTLESHIP. The inside buzz actually claims the movie will cost upwards of $250 million, which isn't so much of a big deal for a major tentpole flick until you consider it features no notable cast other Taylor Kitsch (who?) and Rihanna (yes, the pop star making her movie debut). It's also being directed by Peter Berg who has made action movies like The Kingdom and Hancock, but nothing on this scale and is hardly a brand name in the big-budget action genre the way Michael Bay or Paul Verhoeven are. Universal Pictures' chairman Adam Fogelson stated, "It's a big bet like many, many big bets from many studios. We will be nowhere near the high point and nowhere near the low point of what people are spending." That's all fine and well, but Universal are not the best studio at making cost-effective hits that manage to strike it big. Although Battleship as a boardgame has sold 100 million units and cultivated $1 billion in sales, the public appetite for movie interpretations of branded concepts is untested and to spend so much money on this title seems a really risky strategy. The original Battleship game had something to do with navel tactics and Fogelson has defended his hiring of Berg by praising the latter's decision to incorporate a nautical sci-fi alien invasion plot that will separate it from its old-fashioned boardgame origins without veering too leftfield that audiences will dismiss its relationship with the Hasbro title it's based on. In further desperation, Fogelson defended Berg's involvement by saying, "[Peter Berg] has a very strong passion and affinity for this material. He is a fan of the history and the current state of the military. He knows that world really, really well, and he is inspirational when he is talking about it." Fogelson went on to claim Peter Berg is the son of a naval historian and wrote a high school essay about how the Japanese could have won the Battle of Midway.

A friend of mine did a school presentation on the Amritsar Massacre when he was a pupil at Bow Boys School but you don't see any studios asking him to direct a movie about it. I know I'm being facetious but Fogelson's desperate defence of Berg is as insulting to the director as it is to the studio he works for. It gives the impression Universal hasn't clearly thought this one through and may be unsure of what they want from this adaptation.

Universal, like most Hollywood studios, has had a shite 12 months so far. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which opened last Friday in the US, cost Universal $80 million-$90 million (the studio puts the number closer to $60 million) - rather pricey for a genre movie that could only make $10.5 million over the weekend. Last year, the studio spent $100 million on the Adam Sandler's underperforming comedy Funny People, compared with the more modest $60 million that Paramount, DreamWorks and Spyglass recently spent on a comparable film, Dinner for Schmucks.

Universal Pictures don't want BATTLESHIP turning into this decade's Waterworld, which was another water-themed tentpole movie released by the same studio and had a budget that soared to a then-record $175 million; grossing only $88 million domestically. BATTLESHIP will begin shooting next week in Hawaii and Universal will hope to keep BATTLESHIP from going over the brink by organising the shoot in a way that keeps it on land as much as possible. At this point, the plan calls for only five days of production on the water, with the remainder of the five-week shoot in Hawaii land-based. The rest of the sea action will be shot on soundstages in Baton Rouge, La., and the production will be CGI-heavy. Either way, BATTLESHIP does seem set to be Universal Pictures' most expensive wet dream yet.

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