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Trapped down in the depths

New Line thought it had a killer franchise. Millions were spent on 'Meg.' But the film may never surface, showing how hard it is to develop big action films.

April 13, 2008|Robert W. Welkos | Special to The Times

THE scene opens with a herd of duckbill dinosaurs gorging on kelp. A Tyrannosaurus rex, towering 22 feet, suddenly appears, unleashing a blood curdling roar as its prey scatter, but one duckbill dinosaur remains trapped in the water.

The T-Rex crashes through the surf and ruthlessly rips him from the sea. It suddenly stops -- sensing a powerful presence in the water. Its red reptilian eyes, glowing like lasers, scan the ocean. A massive creature hidden in its own towering wave explodes out of the water. The T-Rex is rocketed off its feet with an anguished roar, flipped onto its back with its feet in the air and spun like a cylinder as it is dragged beneath the water. A slick pool of blood floats on the surface.

We've witnessed a prehistoric homicide but the identity of the undersea killer remains a complete mystery . . . ."

Thus begins "Meg," a screenplay by Shane Salerno based on author Steve Alten's 1997 bestselling pulp novel about a Carcharodon megalodon, the 80-foot, 70,000-pound shark that roamed the Earth's oceans millions of years ago. When the book was first published, Alten figured that his story about a prehistoric being that mysteriously resurfaces from geothermal layers of the oceans' deepest gorge -- the Mariana Trench -- to terrorize the modern world would make for a great summer popcorn movie, "Jaws" for a new generation. So did Hollywood.

But a dozen years later, Alten, who resides in Florida, is still looking for a studio to make a film of "Meg," after Disney's Hollywood Pictures and then New Line Cinema each developed the project but ultimately passed on producing it. "I thought the movie would have been out and we'd be in sequels now," Alten said. "We think we have a billion-dollar franchise. . . . Unfortunately, the timing hasn't worked out."

In recent weeks, however, a new financier has stepped forward with plans to finally bring "Meg" to the big screen. Apelles Publishing Inc. of Abington, Va., has optioned the rights from Alten with veteran Hollywood producers Lawrence Gordon ("Die Hard") and Lloyd Levin ("Boogie Nights"), along with Virginia-based film financing consultant Belle Avery, set to produce. Gordon and Levin have a track record of taking projects put in turnaround at one studio and successfully setting them up at another, the latest examples being "Watchmen" at Warner Bros. and "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" at Universal.

But the story of how "Meg" went from a white-hot book property to a troubled movie project illustrates the difficulties studios face when developing large-scale action movies, especially when they're set on the water ("Jaws" and "Waterworld" being two legendary examples). It also provides a behind-the-scenes look at how a studio -- in this case, New Line -- grappled with a project for years but couldn't figure out how to make it work, even after investing millions.

After a 40-year run, New Line -- the company that made the blockbuster "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and more recently, the expensive but underperforming "The Golden Compass" -- was recently folded into parent company Warner Bros. after essentially three years of box-office flops (with a few exceptions). More and more these days, success in Hollywood depends on betting on big-budget franchises, and at one point, New Line seemed poised to gamble on "Meg," which had obvious sequel potential. The studio hired director Jan de Bont ("Speed"), who brought in a team of special effects and production experts to assist him, and even pre-sold rights on the picture to foreign distributors. But after 2 1/2 years in development, the studio pulled the plug.

New Line cited a number of factors that went into its decision to cut bait on "Meg" -- primarily because it says the risks ultimately outweighed the benefits. "The script needed a lot of work; it was very expensive; and we did not choose the director or producers, who were already attached," a New Line spokeswoman said in a statement e-mailed to The Times.

But others involved see it differently: "It was a completely blown opportunity," lamented De Bont. "It is such a fantastic subject matter."

In the summer of 1995, Alten had read a magazine article about the Mariana Trench and thought, "What if a shark lived down at those incredible depths?" Thus, "Meg" was born. During the day, Alten worked as manager of a wholesale meat company. At night, he would stay up until 3 a.m. writing his book. Then in 1996, on a Friday the 13th, he was fired from his job. But four days later, his book idea paid off big-time.

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