‘X-Men’ vs. ‘Superman’: Fox Has Hit, Warners has Singer
By Anne Thompson
LOS ANGELES – As summer nears its end, “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which nabbed middling reviews, seems to have exceeded expectations with a $441 million worldwide gross, while “Superman Returns” — though it earned a strong, positive ranking of 76 percent on RottenTomatoes.com — has yet to break the $200 million mark domestically.
Although “Superman” is still playing overseas with a $347 million worldwide gross to date, it has failed to return on its lofty expectations. The drama behind Bryan Singer’s departure from 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men” franchise to direct “Superman” for Warner Bros. Pictures left much Sturm und Drang in its wake. But who were the real winners and losers on this deal?
Warners was delighted to poach Singer — a proven tentpole director with a canny understanding of the action-adventure universe — from Fox. He was available because Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairman Tom Rothman had been playing a game of chicken with him on his “Last Stand” deal: Singer wanted to cash in on the final installment of the “X-Men” saga.
When Warners lured Singer away with the chance to direct “Superman” and a top-dollar deal — sources say it was $10 million versus 7 percent of the gross — Rothman was livid. He promptly shut down Singer’s Bad Hat Harry Prods. office on the Fox lot — though Singer returned the next day to the Fox set of his TV series “House.”
“We were in a heightened emotional state of mind,” Fox president Hutch Parker says. “We believed that Bryan was going to do ‘X-Men 3,’ and when he made a different choice, it was scary and daunting to be losing someone so essential to the expression of the franchise. We had to rethink how to approach this. There was a lot of anxiety for everybody.”
Rather than wait for Singer, Fox made the decision to go full steam ahead. “We needed the movie,” Parker says, “and it was critical that it get made in that window. We were wary about where the comic movie would be in the larger cycle.”
Fox first proceeded with director Matthew Vaughn and then with Brett Ratner to meet the tentpole’s original May 26 release date. But it cost the studio to make that target. (According to sources close to the movie, “Last Stand” cost about $168 million after tax rebates.)
Producer Lauren Shuler Donner shouldered the burden of wrestling the movie into submission; the studio rushed two pricey screenwriters, Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg, to complete their scripts; and the studio paid dearly to get elaborate visual effects from about six special-effects houses, including Weta Digital, finished in time. In the short term, the studio clearly won the summer 2006 battle with Warners. But where is the “X-Men” franchise going forward?
Singer was the creative force behind the “X-Men” franchise, and now he’s gone. Ratner is not in the picture; the sense in Hollywood is that Fox scored with “Last Stand” despite the director, not because of him. With its “X-Men” actors now too expensive to reassemble, Fox is proceeding with development on two “X-Men” spinoffs, starring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (David Benioff and David Ayer have written drafts) and Ian McKellen as Magneto.
The bloom is definitely off the “X-Men” rose. One could argue that in the long term, the studio would have been better off paying Singer to keep him or waiting to get him back. (Rothman and Singer eventually buried the hatchet over lunch.)
Freed from Fox’s tough budget controls (“X-Men’ cost $80 million and “X-Men 2″ $120 million), Singer was ecstatic to be moving to a studio like Warners, which was willing to let him spend. But at the July 2005 Comic-Con International in San Diego, perhaps in a heady state of jet lag from his long flight from the “Superman” set in Australia, Singer launched the film’s marketing campaign on a spectacularly wrong foot, happily proclaiming that the movie he was shooting was the studio’s most expensive ever and might cost $250 million. From that moment on, Warners marketing tried to manage that number.
In fact, Warners failed to get out from behind that disastrous budget. The Internet ran rampant with reports that the movie was in the $300 million range. When the studio admitted to writing off about $60 million in costs from all the previous iterations of “Superman,” some reporters added that to the studio’s official $209 million budget — a figure no one ever believed.
If Warners had convinced Singer from the start to make a movie closer to two hours, it might have saved some money and come out ahead, instead of leaving entire $10 million sequences on the cutting-room floor.
“‘Superman Returns’ will be profitable for us,” says Warner Bros. production president Jeff Robinov. “We would have liked it to have made more money, but it reintroduced the character in a great way and was a good launching pad for the next picture. We believe in Bryan and the franchise. Clearly, this was the most emotional and realistic superhero movie ever made.”
SUPERMAN RETURNS AGAIN?
But what really mattered to Warners was the successful relaunch of its franchise, and to that end they wanted to keep their director happy — even if it meant letting him deliver a two-hour, 40-minute movie. “If Warners goes ahead with the ‘Superman Returns’ sequel,” says producer Don Murphy (“From Hell”), “then they’ve ended up well because they’ve gone from having a wannabe franchise to a real franchise.”
Returning to Comic-Con in July, Singer announced that he and Warners are in discussions about doing the sequel for 2009. But Singer said he “had certain issues” with Warners’ marketing campaign. He also acknowledged his film’s competition. “Superman,” he says “had a little ‘Pirates’ and a little ‘Prada.’ It is a chick flick to some degree; it is a love story.”
As challenging as it was for Singer to re-establish “Superman” by building on Richard Donner’s 1978 classic, he also was working with a decidedly retro hero from a bygone time. There was little that Warners marketing could do to make Superman seem less square, wholesome and, finally, old-fashioned. (The “X-Men” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises do seem younger, hipper and more dangerous.) Choosing to reprise Lex Luthor might have been a too-familiar choice as well.
UPPING THE SCI-FI FACTOR
“Bryan kicked ass,” journalist Cheo Hodari Coker says. “But the principal argument does hold: Does the world really need Superman? Clark is a big blue Boy Scout. I wonder if this generation really has any heroes. Everyone is pushing in some way to be unheroic.”
But Singer does know where he has to go with the sequel. He told Comic-Can fans that he would add more “scary sci-fi in the next movie.” “We can now go to into the action realm.”
While some “Superman Returns” viewers objected to the addition of an illegitimate child of Lois Lane and Superman (which never appeared in any of the comic books), Singer intends to proceed with that story arc.
“There’s a lot of room to go with that character and his upbringing and human background and Krypton heritage,” he says. “He’s the genetic material of both parents. Superman doesn’t have that. It’s hard to write for Superman. He’s a tough character to create insurmountable obstacles for. This one is unique and insurmountable.” For the sequel, Singer will be able to expand and play around with what he’s introduced, and “bring in more of the energy” of the contemporary comics, he promised.
Singer likely will do another movie before the sequel to “Superman Returns,” according to sources, possibly Warner Independent’s “The Mayor of Castro Street” or a remake of “Logan’s Run” at the parent studio. Finally, though, Warners president Alan Horn and production chief Robinov want this tentpole director to be making movies on their lot — and not Fox’s. And that may, in the long run, be the real payoff to their “Superman Returns” investment.