Will Superman Fly?

The Hollywood buzz on Bryan Singer’s blockbuster.

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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.”