The Hollywood buzz on Bryan Singer's blockbuster.

Inside the industry.
June 29 2006 1:30 PM

Will Superman Fly?

The Hollywood buzz on Bryan Singer's blockbuster.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or visit Slate's new podcast home page on iTunes.

James Marsen as Richard White and Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. Click image to expand.
James Marsden as Richard White and Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane

The release date of Superman Returns crept steadily backward—from Friday to Wednesday to Tuesday night—as Warner became nervous about a giant hulking pirate ship on the horizon. It's pretty much accepted in Hollywood at this point that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest will eclipse Spider-Man for the biggest opening of all time. Thus, Warner has only a few days in which to get Superman flying before Pirates debuts on July 7.

The tracking for Superman had been frighteningly weak for a film that clearly cost in excess of $200 million—probably closer to $300 million when marketing and other costs are included. Warner was in for millions before it even shot an inch of film, having spent many years pursuing the visions of different directors—from Tim Burton to McG to Brett Ratner—before getting hold of Bryan Singer. The Wall Street Journal estimated those costs at $60 million.

Tracking perked up as the film's opening drew nearer and the buzz was largely positive. But for weeks, many in Hollywood have been second-guessing the Superman marketing campaign. "This is a marketing department that was clueless or did not have the backbone to stand up to Bryan Singer," says the marketing chief at a rival studio. "It was an old-fashioned, pretentious campaign that never struck a nerve with the movie-going public."

"I thought the early stuff looked flat," agrees the president of one studio. "That could be a function of not having the visual effects in time. That's what we grapple with the most. That's a nightmare and it happens all the time no matter what."

Weighing in at a hefty two hours and 38 minutes, the picture seems to be performing well in the early going and looks to open strongly, if not spectacularly. The problem is that when Pirates opens, Superman certainly will take a dive. The head of distribution at another studio says that doesn't mean it's curtains for the Man of Steel. "There will be life after its major drop-off when that juggernaut hits," this executive says. The question is how much life?

It's looking to be a long, dry summer for Warner. The costly Poseidon bombed. The less expensive but inexplicable Lake House didn't do much business. Later this month comes M. Night Shyamalan's moderately expensive Lady in the Water. In a remarkable story last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Shyamalan cooperated in writing a new book about his traumatic struggle to get the film made. The book, which will be released at the same time as the film, blasts top executives at Disney (where Shyamalan made previous movies) for failing to grasp the beauty of his vision.

The Los Angeles Times, however, left out the punch line: The buzz on the movie—about an apartment-building superintendent who finds a sea nymph in a swimming pool—is not good. Shyamalan may be unaware of this. The director wrapped up by test-screening the film for 40 people in his barn near Philadelphia. And they loved it! If that audience was deceptively enthusiastic, Disney will have the last laugh. Warner will not be laughing at all. Shyamalan has a passionate group of fans who will probably help the movie open respectably but its success is far from assured. "He's going to make Disney look brilliant," predicted one high-level producer.

As it became clear that many of Warner's summer "event" movies were iffy, Superman Returns was supposed to be the sure thing. But considering the expense of making the picture, it has to do huge numbers just to come out OK. And it needs to do more than come out OK. An event film like Superman is supposed to make up for the other movies that fail. "If what you can say at the end of it all is, 'We broke even,' that's awful," says a top executive at another studio. "It's not why you mount this type of movie. They're so painful, they're so stressful, they use up so much capital and they tie up the infrastructure. You need those to give back and when they don't, it's costly."

Warner's sources say that the studio has partners on its big films, including Poseidon, Superman Returns, and Lady in the Water, which means that getting out in one piece won't be nearly as hard as it might appear. (Of course, leaving your partners burned is not the path to long-term success.) Another source familiar with the studio's thinking says that Warner is taking a long view of Superman Returns. "Their hope is that the investment is in the life of the franchise," this observer says. "But it doesn't get cheaper the second time."



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.