Consider this a weekly look at whether these big studio project should be crowding multiplexes or not. If we had our way, everything would be French, in black and white, with Asia Argento smoking cigarettes, naked, but we often try to look at matters in the eyes of the major studios. They have feelings too, you know.
This week: two female-led best-sellers.Click here for last week’s installment.
Who‘s Behind It: Essential Pictures, screenwriter Randall Wallace, Katherine Heigl
What Is It?: Based on the best-selling series of books, the “Outlander” chronicles concern a British WWII nurse who is able to slip back and forth between her world and the battlefield of 18th century Scotland, where she falls for her ideal mate amidst war.
Why Should It Be Made?: The “Outlander” saga, which has just branched out into graphic novels, has sold seventeen million copies worldwide, and with seven books of material to adapt, you could reasonably age the female protagonist, Claire Randall, over the course of three movies, and perhaps a television spinoff. The books have a time travel hook that viewers will find familiar as well as the contrast between epic WWII battle and rural Scottish romance, with a little medieval action for the boys. It’s textbook four quadrant material.
The books also have a lot of roles for colorful character actors, or at least appealing male performers men and women want to see. A hardcore fan could easily imagine the men of “Grey’s Anatomy” in each lead role, with emphasis towards husband and WWII soldier Frank Randall and his evil ancestor “Black Jack” Randall, men of the same genealogy who could conceivably be played by the same actor – Gerard Butler? Russell Crowe? Or, if you’re going discount, Kevin McKidd?
Why Shouldn’t It Be Made?: These movies would need a strong anchor, so casting is everything. Unfortunately, Katherine Heigl is currently involved with the process with an eye towards playing Claire Randall. Heigl’s touch has been suspect, as her films since “Knocked Up” (which she apparently disliked) have been of substandard quality. As a box office draw, she remains a somewhat viable leading lady (though too one-dimensional to play a supporting role), but her last effort “Killers” was DOA and her upcoming “Life As We Know It” faces stiff box office competition. As a leading lady, she’s also become a brand, one that exclusively caters to female fans, which could mean men are indifferent, or (quite possibly) that they don’t like her. If “Killers” was a hit, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but Lionsgate dumped that in mid-summer with little care.
She’ll need that male audience too, because “Outlander” wouldn’t be cheap. 18th century Scotland might afford some affordable, obscure filming locations, but World War II won’t be easy to render. And battle scene extras in two time periods won’t feed themselves. With the salaries of Heigl and a strong male lead, the budget for this could conceivably run up to $60-$80 million, though a more resourceful filmmaker could tweak it back to $50. But Heigl’s taking creative control, and she and her producing partner/mother haven’t exactly been handpicking a bunch of Spielbergs and Scorseses for her films so far.
Similar Films: With the time travel and ancestor romance, “Outlander” bears a strong superficial resemblance to “Kate And Leopold,” the Hugh Jackman-Meg Ryan romance that actually almost went out to the public despite strongly hinting at an incestuous romance. The film was released in a busy Christmas period and grossed $47 million in America, $75 overall.
Final Word: It’s hard not to imagine “Outlander” not being an eye-roller with Heigl in the lead. The fish-out-of-water stuff could be pretty irritating, especially considering Claire Russell has to avoid accusations she is a witch by marrying a Scot, which results in an icky forced-marriage love. Really, the only element keeping Russell from being just another passive female protagonist in modern literature is that she is a nurse, but then you have the image of Heigl returning to her “Grey’s Anatomy” roots, this time in a British accent, and its wince-worthy. If “Outlander” is a hit, then Heigl rises to the A-List for the next five years or so, but that ship may have sailed, and considering this will cost more than the average Heigl picture, it just doesn’t seem worth the gamble.
Should It Be Made?: No.
Who’s Behind It?: Angelina Jolie who signed on in 2009, but then cautioned this summer that the project is, “still in development.”
What Is It?: Kay Scarpetta is a crafty medical examiner in Richmond, Virginia, always able to crack the case, even if the culprit ends up in her backyard.
Why Should It Be Made?: The Scarpetta books, from author Patricia Cornwell, have spanned eighteen entries and consistently ranked at the top of the best-seller list. It’s safe to say there’s a fan base. The books in question combine the “CSI” medical examiner action with more traditional suspense thriller tropes and an ongoing romantic saga, as Scarpetta finds herself getting involved with a series of men as she ages. It’s arguably the most viable un-adapted literary property for a female lead, so of course Jolie would be everyone’s first choice to star in the films.
For Jolie, this is a role where you’d match her naturally aggressive, action film appeal with a softer, more feminine approach. Scarpetta isn’t a wallflower, but she isn’t a kung-fu master like “Salt” either, so it would be a change-of-pace for her, but not so different as to alienate her core. Of course, her movies are also much bigger overseas, so signing or not signing her is the difference between a $200 million worldwide gross, and a $50 million score. Which is nice if you have multiple movies.
Why Shouldn’t It Be Made?: The stories in the Scarpetta novels are pretty standard boilerplate crime narratives, not any different than what you’d see on an average episode of “CSI.” It’s not exactly stretching the medium or defying the genre. Hire the wrong director, and these will be stage-bound TV-movies, where you won’t be able to tell the difference between Jolie in an $80 million studio offering, or Dana Delany in a $4 million Lifetime movie.
And there’s always the moviestar gamble. With Jolie, when gunfire erupts, the audience can’t be left wondering why she doesn’t start dropkicking fools. She has to play Italian as well, which could be questionable, though it won’t involve an accent, thankfully. Furthermore, studios struggle to cast her next to strong leading men, which is why she’s usually sharing the screen with either a softer, more feminine lead (James McAvoy) or another movie star significantly de-glammed (Johnny Depp, “The Tourist“). “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” differed in that she wasn’t the face of that film, but she is most definitely the face of “Scarpetta.”
Similar Films: James Patterson’s superstar creation Alex Cross featured in two films, “Kiss The Girls” and the prequel “Along Came A Spider.” “Girls” was a hit, with $60 million domestic tally, while “Spider” was even bigger, collecting a $100 million global take. For some reason, the franchise lay dormant for years, but Idris Elba is set to take on the mantle in “Cross.”
Final Word: If you can get Jolie, you get Jolie, it’s as simple as that. And if it involves putting her in some airport novel garbage, as long as she’s willing, it’s an easy decision to make. The “Scarpetta” movies wouldn’t cost much, as there are rarely big action sequences, nor are there complex big city shooting locations. Jolie onboard means you can juice at least two profitable, mediocre movies from this property at worst, a decent-sized franchise at best. With Jolie’s robust salary, that’s a $60 million budget at least, and considering Jolie’s global popularity, there’s no way to say no.
Should This Be Made?: Yes