The Dark Knight Without Heath Ledger

How will Warner Bros. sell a summer blockbuster marked by tragedy?

Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight 

Knight’s Tale: Despite persistent rumors that Heath Ledger had not finished recording all his lines for the upcoming Batman movie, Warner Bros. insists that director Christopher Nolan got what he needed while filming.

Warner has kept largely mum about how it will manage its big investment in The Dark Knight after Ledger’s sad and untimely death. The studio is still figuring out what to do not just with the film but with products like T-shirts and toys. In fact, the studio has set a big meeting for today to discuss those merchandising questions.

Warner plans to release the movie as planned in July. Usually, after filming is completed, actors do looping sessions—that is, they record and perfect their lines in a studio. It would be unusual for Nolan to have all the sound that he wants at this early stage but a producer—not associated with this project—tells us that it’s not impossible. “I can’t think of a movie where there were no looped lines whatsoever, but I can think of movies where a main character was not looped,” he says.

On a big-budget franchise picture like The Dark Knight, he adds, looping would be the norm. “When you are doing a movie like Batman, as opposed to The Savages, you loop,” he explains. “You are a perfectionist because you have the money to do it and the studio gives you whatever you want. You go through 17 takes of Heath Ledger saying, ‘I’m the Joker,’ and if it isn’t just right, you loop it.”

Warner could use a voice artist if needed—and there are rumors that the studio will do that. If so, the studio’s denials would be understandable: Warner wouldn’t want the public to be listening for variations in the voice when the movie is released. But the producer assures: “With a good voice artist, you would never know the difference.”

Indeed, when Spartacus was rereleased in 1991, the studio wanted to insert the deleted seduction “snails and oysters” scene between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier. The footage was there, but the sound was not. Curtis was available to redo his lines; Olivier’s part was seamlessly performed by Anthony Hopkins.

A Warner executive acknowledges that another actor may at least have to provide a Joker voice for such things as a planned theme-park attraction. Some marketing efforts—like an idea that involved calls to fans’ cell phones—may be scrapped.

Dozens of licensing agreements have been in place for months, but another studio source says that relatively few involve Ledger’s image. Many Batman-associated products are aimed at children aged 5 to 9, so, this executive says, Warner was proceeding with a degree of caution even before Ledger’s demise because of the intensity of the Joker’s character in the film. For some products, the cartoon image of the Joker was already being used. And Ledger did photo shoots so that his likeness could be used on certain products such as T-shirts.

Now Warner has to figure out what to do with products bearing that likeness. “You don’t want people to think you’re exploiting his death,” the source explains. “But his character is part of the movie, and he was on board with wanting to do this with his character.” And if Warner doesn’t release the merchandise, “The pirates would come out of the woodwork, and then it’s completely out of control.”

Meanwhile, Warner is likely to alter some of its marketing campaign, which featured Ledger’s image in the early going. A source close to the project says the plan all along was to start with the Joker and then segue to the image of Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face. In the film, Two-Face is in a love triangle with Rachel Dawes, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. It was clever to cast Gyllenhaal in the role vacated by Katie Holmes. Both have similar kewpie-doll faces, so it’s not a grating change. And Gyllenhaal brings more weight to the part. That’s one less thing to worry about in a blockbuster that’s already carrying a lot of weight. (link)

Jan. 22, 2008

Oscar nominations were announced today

The Oscar Nominations: Atonement?

Seriously, Atonement?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is predictable in some ways and mysterious in others. For example, the academy luh-luh-loves George Clooney. But Atonement was snubbed in awards nominations by the big guilds—which was OK with many critics—and there it is in the best-picture category.

Nothing for director Joe Wright, mind you, or his stars. Must be a bittersweet moment for him, and for Julian Schnabel, nominated for his brilliant direction of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. His movie is left out in best picture and knocked out of contention for best foreign-language film by the French because he is American.

The bottom line for these nominations is that once again, there are lots of films that most people haven’t seen and don’t care about. The only nominee in the best-picture category to generate real heat at the box office is Juno. Should commercial success figure into Oscar nominations? Of course not. But when it comes to generating big ratings for the telecast, this year’s slate spells trouble.

Of course, there is the small matter of the writers’ strike, which might provide a convenient excuse for the academy if it derails the usual type of show. That would be predicated on the strike continuing that long. We’re feeling giddy and reckless today, so let’s get into some predictions:

  1. The strike will settle in time for the show to go on.
  2. No Country for Old Men will win best picture.
  3. Best director? Let’s go for the Coen brothers.
  4. Daniel Day-Lewis will win best actor.
  5. Best actress? A little tougher. Julie Christie or Marion Cottillard. The academy feels love for Christie but also adores celebrity-channeling, as in Capote, The Last King of Scotland, and many other cases. (It was a very pleasant surprise to see Laura Linney nominated in this category, although probably not to Angelina Jolie.)

These do not—repeat, not—represent choices that Hollywoodland would make. These are not necessarily what should win but probably what will win. And that’s as much help (or harm) that we’re willing to provide (or inflict on) the office pool at this point. Except for one more tip. Best animated feature: Ratatouille. Bet the rent. (link)

Jan. 18, 2008

Park City, Utah, hosts the Sundance Film Festival

Ice Follies: Your Hollywoodland correspondent is freezing off her extremities at the Sundance Film Festival. There has been a lot of talk that the festival would be even more frenzied than usual thanks to the writers’ strike, with the idea being that a lack of product in the pipeline would lead the Weinsteins of the world to make crazy deals.

Now, of course, the Directors Guild of America might have upended that conventional wisdom. The DGA has settled with the studios, and the question is whether this means that the writers, too, will soon settle and end the strike. That doesn’t seem like an unreasonable bet even though the directors’ deal—while a big improvement in some respects over what had been offered to the writers—is not one that will cause the champagne to be uncorked at the Writers Guild.

Attorney Jonathan Handel, who’s been watching the negotiations closely, says the DGA deal provides a bit more than double what the studios were paying for downloads. The writers wanted a much bigger bump than that. But more importantly, many writers won’t like the deal on material that is streamed over the Internet. In simple terms, the studios are offering a formula that works out to about $1,200 a year for programs that are streamed. That is far more than the $250 figure offered in the Writers Guild negotiations. But the writers want the number of viewers to factor into the payment so that they benefit from success.

It seems that the directors’ deal is just good enough and just bad enough that it could split the writers, which would probably mean that the Writers Guild will end up accepting it.

So, will the buyers at Sundance bank on that? Hard to say. But many claim to doubt that the buyers will overspend as much as expected. They say the hysteria peaked last year and that this will be a time for caution, given the fact that buyers fared so badly last year.

As Anne Thompson wrote in Variety, 2007 was the worst year ever in terms of box-office results for films that were snapped up at Sundance. Twenty films were bought for $53 million. So far, 14 have been released and grossed $34 million. Among the failures: Grace Is Gone, bought for $4 million. So, while it’s easy to get caught up in festival hype, the buyers might remember that result. Maybe they should wear buttons reading, “Grace is gone and the money’s gone, too.” (link)