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`Miami Vice' Far Less Than a Universal Thriller at the Box Office

The studio could lose as much as $30 million on the movie, dashing parent GE's hopes.

September 04, 2006|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

General Electric Co. was counting on "Miami Vice" to sizzle at the box office this summer. But fizzle is closer to the truth.

At a cost of at least $235 million to make and market, the remake of the iconic 1980s TV cop show was the biggest bet of the year for the company's studio Universal Pictures. During an earnings call with financial analysts in July, GE's chief financial officer singled out the stylish crime drama as a coming bright spot for the third quarter.

That could leave GE backpedaling on Wall Street: Universal Pictures could lose as much as $30 million on the picture, according to sources who asked not to be named because movie finances are closely guarded.

A little more than a month after its debut, "Miami Vice" has grossed only $63 million at the U.S. box office. An abrupt fall-off in attendance has dimmed the prospect that the film could muster $100 million in domestic receipts, as Universal had projected.

The poor results also could damp hopes at GE that its film division could help offset the continued hard times this year at the NBC broadcast network, which has suffered from a prolonged ratings slump.

Universal is expected to eke out a slight profit this year, thanks to box-office winners such as "The Break-Up" and "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift," which grossed $189 million and $147 million worldwide, respectively. But the studio has fallen behind most of its rivals in domestic market share this year after ranking third last year, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., a box-office tracking firm.

"The studio underestimated the inherent challenges of translating 'Miami Vice' to the big screen," said Universal Pictures Chairman Marc Shmuger. "As a commercial proposition, it had a familiar title but not a really deeply appealing connection to the larger audience."

"Miami Vice" was doomed not only by its failure to resonate with young audiences but also by the cost of talent -- a recurring complaint among studio owners this summer. The biggest winner in the case of "Miami Vice" could be director Michael Mann, who will make at least $6 million, plus a percentage of the box-office receipts, before Universal makes a dime, according to people familiar with his deal.

" 'Miami Vice' is symptomatic of a malaise in the industry," said independent media analyst Harold Vogel.

"The industry is undergoing a transition in terms of business models. For the first time in many years, they are encountering strong head winds against whatever they throw up against the screen."

Just last month, having publicly dismissed Paramount Pictures' biggest star, Tom Cruise, Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone called for a reexamination of Hollywood's star system. As he put it, "Studios make peanuts compared to the stars, and unless they learn how to say no and demand more for less, they won't survive."

Studio economics have gone from bad to worse since General Electric entered the movie business three years ago. GE bought Universal at a time when DVD sales were near their peak. But growth has flattened as consumers fill out their home libraries.

"It's a different world than it was three years ago," Vogel said.

For their part, Shmuger and Universal Pictures co-Chairman David Linde said they would continue to take "creative risks," but they acknowledged a changing tide in the business.

"A mind-set is taking hold which is a reflection of the economic realities we are facing as an industry," Shmuger said. "We just have to be smart about how we take risks."

Universal has stepped boldly onto the ledge again, in hopes of increasing the visibility of its upcoming film "Children of Men." After looking at a crowded fall lineup of movies, the studio decided to move the release date of the futuristic thriller directed by Alfonso Cuaron from late September to Dec. 25. Universal executives see the film, about the possible extinction of humans as they can no longer procreate, as an intelligent action thriller that could be an awards contender.

"We are planting our flag," Linde said. "It is a resonant movie for contemporary audiences."

Yet December is a highly competitive time for movies. Because media buys are more expensive during the holiday, the move will greatly increase the expense of marketing the film, which cost an estimated $70 million to make. What's more, the stars of "Children of Men," Julianne Moore and Clive Owen, though well-regarded actors, are not big box-office draws.

In addition, the futuristic genre is "a tough sell," according to Brandon Gray of online tracking firm Box Office Mojo. "These pictures tend to be box-office disappointments. A lot of them develop an audience later on television or DVD. They grow in esteem over time."

Universal needs "Children of Men" to work after the disappointment of "Miami Vice," which was put into production by former Universal chief Stacey Snider, who left Universal this year to run DreamWorks SKG.

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