tampabay.com

In the land of sequels, creativity still stands out

By Steve Persall
Published March 30, 2007


LAS VEGAS

Spider-Man skipped this year's ShoWest convention, at which movie studios typically try to woo theater owners with celebrities, sneak previews and splashy events.

Harry Potter never materialized. Shrek apparently had better things to do, too.

After all, when you're a movie hero with a surefire sequel on the way, why bother making friends with those who already love you?

Theater owners know that Spider-Man 3 May 4, Shrek the Third (May 18) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (July 13) are blockbusters they'll want on their screens. The only question is how much popcorn to stock for the summertime sequel glut.

Except for New Line Cinema's dynamic coming-out party for Hairspray and a couple of closing-night banquet appearances, ShoWest 2007 was as predictable as this summer's slate of movies.

The event played like a pep rally for a box office game already won. An opening day invocation from a non-denominational "life coach" thanked God for robust 2006 ticket sales - $9.6-billion in the United States - which reversed a three-year decline. Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, cited the onslaught of movie sequels to whip the 4,000 conventioneers into a frenzy of cheers.

"We have the makings of an extraordinary sequel of our own, in terms of the year's growth," Glickman said. "My prediction is that 2007 will be much bigger than 2006, for all of us."

He ticked off a dozen movie franchises with sequels coming in 2007, including Ocean's Thirteen (June 8), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (June 15), Evan Almighty (June 22) and Rush Hour 3 (Aug. 10). Audience potential is enormous: Those franchises have combined to sell more than $7-billion in tickets worldwide.

Quick peeks

But most studios didn't tip their winning hands in Las Vegas.

Sure, Disney unveiled a preview trailer for Pirates of The Caribbean: At World's End that we'll know by heart when the film debuts May 25. Director Brad Bird showed 12 amusing minutes of Ratatouille (June 29), although an animated rat who's a gourmet chef seems dicey after the recent Taco Bell incident in Manhattan. Sony trotted out their penguins - every animation studio owns some these days - for funny clips from Surf's Up (June 8).

Paramount and DreamWorks showed six loud - very loud - minutes of Transformers (July 4) inside an RV disguised as a U.S. intelligence outpost. It was a rare example of old-school ShoWest ballyhoo. Director Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) obviously has done it again, and you can make up your own mind about the merits of that achievement.

However, ShoWest didn't deliver any full-length screenings of important movies, unlike past years when it premiered future hits such as Cars and Shrek.

The clips that were offered from El Cantante (The Singer) (Aug. 1) starring Marc Anthony as doomed salsa musician Hector Lavoe, and Mr. Brooks (June 1) with Kevin Costner as a serial killer didn't suggest either would make for boffo box office. Neither did well-received screenings of the April releases Disturbia and Hot Fuzz.

A hilarious peek at The Simpsons Movie (July 27) was one of the few non-sequels that appears poised to rake in a fortune. Of course, it has 18 years of television success in its favor.

Long shots

Skipping the blockbusters did leave room to promote interesting dark horses such as An American Crime (Aug. 17) starring Catherine Keener as an abusive foster parent, Don Cheadle as a 1970s radio host in Talk to Me (July 20) and Emma Roberts as Nancy Drew (June 15), placing the classic teen sleuth in Mean Girls territory. Picking sleepers from the bunch offered amusement between seminars on the ratings system, consumer surveys and trans fats in concession items.

What ShoWest missed - until Day 3 - was the celebrity pizazz that gets cameras clicking. Optimism from industry executives is nice, but seeing Jennifer Lopez on an independent filmmaking panel - well, she did produce her husband's star vehicle El Cantante - is more appealing to starstruck theater owners. Even Dane Cook (Mr. Brooks) drew an admiring crowd starved for celebrity sightings.

For a while it seemed that 20 minutes of stand-up comedy by Larry the Cable Guy (Delta Farce, May 11) at a Lionsgate luncheon might be the celebrity highlight.

Pulling out the stops

Then Hairspray (July 20) stole the show, emerging as the movie most likely to steal the sequels' thunder. Based on the Broadway musical (which was based on John Waters' 1988 movie), Hairspray displayed more vitality in a half-dozen clips than Dreamgirls did in two hours.

Presentation had a lot to do with it.

The show began on screen with the opening number, Good Morning, Baltimore, performed by this year's Jennifer Hudson, Nicole Blonsky. She was discovered online by producers to play Tracy Turnblad, a plump, bubbly teen in 1962. Blonsky's breathtaking voice, along with the snappy editing of perfectly rendered period designs, instantly impressed.

Midway through the number, the screen went blank and Blonsky pranced in from stage left, picking up the vocals with dancers doing the mashed potato behind her. It was a mixed-media pattern repeated in scenes by co-stars James Marsden, Zack Efron and Elijah Kelly. Finally, there was Queen Latifah, out of costume but in glorious voice singing Motormouth Maybelle's ode to gluttony, Big, Blonde and Beautiful.

Hairspray also features John Travolta's return to musicals, playing Tracy's mother, Edna. The role was pioneered by Divine in the 1988 movie and Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. A couple of scenes proved Travolta is frighteningly funny in fat-suit drag, although he declined to get into costume for a group bow with co-stars including Christopher Walken and Michelle Pfeiffer.

For those 20 minutes, movies were magical again, not strictly business. The Hairspray hullabaloo was creatively produced, starry enough to satisfy, yet with an appealing modesty that made director Adam Shankman's dumbfounded reaction to the acclaim the second-most sincere moment of the week.

First place goes to Bird, who introduced the Ratatouille clip by admitting he'd feel more confident competing against the summertime behemoths by naming his movie Ratatouille 1: The Prequel to the Sequel.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com.