LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Remaking a universe is tricky. There’s a risk of destroying the whole thing in the process.
On May 8, Paramount will set out for a new and, it hopes, not final frontier when it relaunches the iconic sci-fi franchise “Star Trek.” After 43 years, 10 movies and more than 700 episodes of six TV series, the Melrose studio has bet at least $150 million (and tens of millions more in planned marketing) that Trekkies of all federations again will climb aboard the Starship Enterprise.
But reaching blockbuster status is a challenge only slightly less daunting than the Kobayashi Maru scenario.
The films based on Gene Roddenberry’s 1966 space Western serial have not been mega-hits, and, more importantly, they have failed to draw big audiences in increasingly crucial overseas markets. The top-grossing “Trek” feature was 1996’s “Star Trek: First Contact,” which grossed $146 million worldwide, with only $54 million coming from international (1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” actually has sold the most tickets in the series).
So rather than continue to milk a languishing franchise, Paramount essentially has started over, holding on to core elements of the “Trek” universe while courting a new audience as wide as the galaxy. The studio is gambling that a creative team of pop geeks coupled with a marketing juggernaut can rebirth a billion-dollar franchise the way Warner Bros. rescued the Caped Crusader with 2005’s “Batman Begins” (which laid the groundwork for last year’s mega-grossing “The Dark Knight”). The challenge is even tougher because the “Trek” franchise’s core fans are some of the most ardent in geekdom.
“Our intention was to make ‘Star Trek’ something that appeals to everyone who’s ever dismissed it in the past as being too sci-fi or too inaccessible,” co-writer Alex Kurtzman says.
Paramount signaled a new direction in the franchise by hiring Kurtzman and co-writer Robert Orci, who wrote the blockbusters
“Mission: Impossible III” and “Transformers.” Production president Brad Weston then spent three months convincing producer J.J. Abrams, who directed “M:I-3” but hardly was a “Trek” fanatic, to commit to helming the revamp.
Kurtzman and Orci say they had concerns about corrupting a prized cultural touchstone -- until they hit on a shockingly unexplored angle of the “Trek” mythology.
“There had never been any real story told about how the bridge crew came together,” Kurtzman says. “For us, there was only one way to do it, which was to go back to Kirk and Spock.”
An origin story revolving around James T. Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty and Bones not only allowed Abrams to cast young, good-looking actors but also meant the writers could sidestep the legacy guarded slavishly by die-hard fans and craft a story that didn’t rely on everything that had come before.
On the marketing side, Paramount was equally busy constructing an eight-month operation calculated to shift perception of the “Trek” brand without alienating the core.
A bump in the film’s release date from Christmas Day 2008 to May allowed the studio to take footage of the completed film on the road, hoping to show tastemakers that this isn’t your nerdy uncle’s “Star Trek.”
In November, Abrams, executive producer Bryan Burk, Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore and some of the cast escorted 20 minutes of the film on a tour that included Rome, Cologne, Madrid, Paris, London and New York. This month, they will head to South Korea and Japan to persuade the media, exhibition and promotional partners of its renewed viability.
Meanwhile, core fans aren’t being ignored. The writers will visit science fiction conventions and continue to interact with Trekkies on fan sites. The previous films and TV series are being released on Blu-ray Disc for the first time. And “Trek” toys and merchandise, which previously catered mostly to adults, will return to stores in April with the largest collection in a decade.
To appeal to younger fans, traditional action figures, play sets, comic books and board games will be highlighted along with a major Burger King promotional tie-in.
Wal-Mart even signed on to offer a new line of “Trek” Barbie dolls from Mattel.
Running in parallel has been a deliberate, slow-build, five-point trailer campaign.
The first teaser took off in the summer and showed the Enterprise literally being built (tagline: “Under construction”), aimed at the core fan base. It was followed by a more traditional narrative trailer that debuted in November in front of “Quantum of Solace,” designed to appeal to action-adventure and sci-fi fans by showing off the special effects and connecting a recognizable Earth with a space-epic scale. A third teaser during the Super Bowl this month targeted general audiences with a more generic, event-movie-style spot.
A new trailer will pair with “Watchmen” on March 6 and highlight the emotional aspects of Kirk’s story, and the final spot will reach out to families who saw and liked such similar PG-13 fantasias as “Indiana Jones” and “Transformers.”
The strategy is not without risks. In going as broad as possible with the story line and marketing, Paramount has all but courted a backlash from the most hard-core fans.
“Worst-case scenario is, they don’t market it correctly and offend the fans,” says “Trek” expert Richard Arnold, a former assistant to Roddenberry who once consulted for Paramount. “And they are going to be an important part of the boxoffice because there are 25 million ‘Star Trek’ fans worldwide.”
Roger Nygard, director of the documentaries “Trekkies” (1997) and “Trekkies 2” (2004), believes Paramount is smart to risk such backlash in favor of pulling new fans into the tent.
“What makes ‘Star Trek’ different among all the fan-based media is their intense desire to socialize with each other about the object of their affection,” Nygard says. “So this will give them an all-new topic of discussion, even if they hate it.”
Showing up is one thing, but helping Paramount market the film the way Warners did with fanboy support of “Batman Begins” and “Dark Knight” is a different story.
“Paramount keeps saying the fans are going to come and see it anyway,” Arnold says. “And I keep saying, ‘Yes, but you do want the choir to sing your praises, and if they’re not singing your praises, there’s not going to be word-of-mouth, and you’re not going to have that additional audience come to see it.’ ”
At the same time, the studio and filmmakers are quick to assuage “Trek” holdouts with the promise of a spectacle on par with the biggest sci-fi blockbusters.
“Certainly the scope of this ‘Star Trek’ is unlike any that’s come before it,” Kurtzman says. “So if you want ‘Transformers’-scope action sequences in space? That’s what you will get when you see ‘Star Trek.'”
And that’s the touchy point: Has the essential soul of the series been so altered as to end up inadvertently trading old fans for new? If it works, Paramount has another huge franchise in addition to its sure-thing “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” in June and potential hit “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” in August, plus the option to reboot new TV series, develop sequels and double down on the property’s $4 billion in revenue to date.
If the new “Trek” never gets into orbit, well, there always will be the conventions, though Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci might have to show up disguised as Talosians.
“That again goes back to the risk of it,” Orci says of initially hesitating to take the job. “Which is: If it didn’t work, it was going to be a very loud, visible failure.”
Arnold, who visited the set last year with Roddenberry’s widow, sees a lot of the creator in Abrams.
“Here’s what Gene said in an interview just before he died in August 1991,” he says. “Somebody had asked him, ‘What’s going to become of ‘Star Trek’ in the future?’ And he said that he hoped that some day some bright young thing would come along and do it again, bigger and better than he had ever done it. And he wished them well.”
Editing by Dean Goodman at Reuters