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'Speed' Trap? : Can a Sequel With a New Star Succeed?

June 07, 1996|CLAUDIA ELLER

How big a business risk is it for a studio to make a sequel without one of the original stars?

Industry pundits say it all depends on the movie.

Earlier this week, Keanu Reeves fell out of Twentieth Century Fox's sequel "Speed II," a follow up to the 1994 hit that made the actor a bigger star and elevated the career of Sandra Bullock. Supposedly, Reeves would rather tour with his rock band this summer than make the movie right now, so the studio is rushing a rewrite and looking to shoot the Jan De Bont-directed production this fall as planned.

Because of the on-screen chemistry between Reeves and Bullock in the original "Speed," which grossed more than $300 million worldwide, some executives with other studios are questioning the wisdom of Fox making an expensive sequel (sources say the actual budget is somewhere between $70 million and $80 million) without one of the original's two main stars.

"If I was asked to spend almost $100 million on a sequel to 'Speed' without Keanu Reeves, I wouldn't do it," said one studio chief. "Given the size of the franchise, it's a big business risk." He based his argument on the fact that historically, all of the successful sequels spawned from original stories have kept their creative elements intact.

Those would include follow-ups to "Die Hard," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Lethal Weapon," "Back to the Future," "Star Wars," "Home Alone" and "Dirty Harry."

Said another top studio executive: "You wouldn't make 'Lethal Weapon' without Mel Gibson and Danny Glover; it's about audiences wanting to spend time with those two characters in cool situations, it's not about the situations."

But some would say that the runaway bus in "Speed" was the star of the movie, not the two characters played by Reeves and Bullock, whose screen names are impossible to recall.

"There's no character identification in 'Speed,' " said United Artists President John Calley. "It was the story about a thrilling incident, not a character."

Fox executives declined to comment about their decision, but they would presumably argue that there are several instances in which original stars were replaced in sequels and that those movies fared very well.

When Michael Keaton bailed out of the third installment of "Batman," Val Kilmer stepped in as the Caped Crusader. Recently, when Kilmer decided not to appear in the next sequel, "Batman and Robin," Warner Bros. wasted no time in making a deal with "ER" heartthrob George Clooney.

After he starred as CIA officer Jack Ryan in "The Hunt for Red October," Alec Baldwin opted not to reprise his role in the sequel and Paramount's decision to cast an even bigger star, Harrison Ford, in the subsequent screen adaptations of Tom Clancy's novels, "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger," paid off handsomely, in great part because of Ford's strong box-office appeal overseas.

And, of course, James Bond has been played by four different actors since Sean Connery first played the suave secret agent on the big screen in 1962's "Dr. No." Pierce Brosnan starred in the most recent sequel, "GoldenEye," which not only resurrected the Bond franchise but is the most financially successful of all the films in the series.

But several studio executives suggested that changing a lead in a film such as "Speed"--where it presumably was the romantic relationship between Reeves and Bullock as much as the action that made the movie so popular--is different than making key cast changes in other movie series.

"All of the others, like the 'Batmans,' the Bond movies and the Clancy movies, have already . . . entered into audiences' imagination through another medium like comic books or novels, so they're different," said one executive. "The characters in 'Speed' were originated by these two actors, so audiences expect to see them again."

Warner Bros. co-Chairman Bob Daly, whose studio owns the profitable "Batman" franchise, said, "There's always a risk factor when you make a change, but 'Speed' takes on more risk without its star than 'Batman' because 'Batman' is unique and there are a lot of elements that make up the movie," including a whole host of recognizable villains such as the Joker (Jack Nicholson), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), the Riddler (Jim Carrey), Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Two Face (Tommy Lee Jones).

It also becomes less important who plays Batman, because the actor spends half the movie as his millionaire alter ego, Bruce Wayne, and the other half as a face behind a mask and cape. In some of the stunt shots, he's even a double.

" 'Batman' is more about the adventure than who's behind the mask," said one executive, noting, "When the movie idea itself is bigger than the people in it, then you'd take a risk."

In some cases, such as Carrey in "The Mask" or Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump," the screen personas are so strongly identified with the actors who play them that it wouldn't make any sense to do a sequel without the original star.

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