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Fox's success with lighter fare paves the way for darker films like 'Water for Elephants'

The adaptation of Sara Gruen's novel, a tale of love in a Great Depression circus, seems risky, but studio boss Tom Rothman says films 'by grown-ups, for grown-ups' can do well if they're made on a limited budget.

April 21, 2011|By Dawn C. Chmielewski, Los Angeles Times
  • "Water for Elephants" director Francis Lawrence, left, confers with stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.
"Water for Elephants" director Francis Lawrence, left, confers… (David James )

At a time when studios are obsessed with sequels, "reboots" and family-friendly spectacles, 20th Century Fox is releasing precisely the kind of film that has largely fallen out of favor in Hollywood: a dark adult drama.

News Corp.'s Fox 2000 division is bucking conventional wisdom with this weekend's debut of "Water for Elephants," a literary adaptation of Sara Gruen's tale of love set in the stark 1930s world of traveling carnies. The studio is betting it can succeed in attracting the millions of (mostly female) readers who propelled the book to bestsellerdom by remaining faithful to the tone and spirit of the story.

It's a strategy made possible because of Fox's success with more mainstream fare.

"The studio's profitability on movies that are less artistically ambitious is what gives them the ability to make a movie like this," producer Erwin Stoff said. For Fox "to have a machinery that is capable of turning this out, and being able to take this kind of artistic risk, is pretty extraordinary."

A big-studio film with artistic ambitions and brazenly aimed at adults would appear to stand little chance of success in a business in which animated films, raunchy comedies or superhero sagas rule the box-office roost. Yet movies made for the Chardonnay-and-brie set can occasionally cross over to the popcorn masses, as "Black Swan," "The Kings Speech" and "The Social Network" all recently proved.

Fox Studios Co-Chairman Tom Rothman said films "by grown-ups, for grown-ups" can be profitable when made on a limited budget. For example, "The Devil Wears Prada," the studio's 2006 adaptation of the novel lampooning the New York fashion world, was made for $35 million and raked in $327 million in global ticket sales. ("Water for Elephants" cost about $40 million, people familiar with the matter said.)

"We have had some very big, significant hits with exactly those kinds of films: grown-up literary adaptations. Whether it's 'Devil Wears Prada' or 'Marley & Me,'" Rothman said. "If you make them well, and you make them for an intelligent price, you absolutely can make intelligent movies."

The studio has taken licks for releasing its share of mindless, formulaic flicks like "The A-Team" and "Marmaduke." It has also relied on the appeal of digital animation, as in the "Ice Age" trilogy, and mined Marvel's "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four" comic books, as a bulwark for profits.

But studios don't like to be known solely for kids' stuff and teen fluff. Rothman said Fox's multiple divisions enable the studio to make movies for varying audiences, giving it latitude to release the acclaimed "Black Swan," which garnered actress Natalie Portman an Oscar, as well the popular "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," which didn't win any nods for either Alvin, Simon or Theodore.

"We couldn't survive as a company if we made only 'Water for Elephants' and 'Life of Pi,'" Rothman said. "Likewise, I don't believe we could survive as a company if we only made 'X-Men' and 'Mr. Popper's Penguins.'"

It took five years and numerous script revisions for "Water for Elephants," a story about the marginal lives of circus performers during the Great Depression, to reach the big screen.

Producer Andrew Tennenbaum had secured the film rights to the book and was working with Gil Netter, whose producing credits include "Marley & Me" and "The Blind Side." About the same time, Stoff's client, director Francis Lawrence, was interested in turning it into a film. Stoff called Netter and Tennenbaum about a collaboration.

The three producers and the director then banded together, Stoff said, to improve their chances of successfully pitching the project to a studio.

"On the surface, a book set during the Great Depression about a circus is not the most obvious sale in the world — in spite of the fact that it might have been a bestselling book," Stoff said.

Lawrence and Stoff approached Richard LaGravenese, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on "The Fisher King," to adapt Gruen's book for the big screen. The screenwriter made some changes to the story, combining two major characters: August, who in the novel is the head animal trainer, and Uncle Al, the book's abusive circus owner. LaGravenese also reworked how the central character, Jacob, recounts his experiences with the circus and his relationship with his longtime love, Marlena.

Fox 2000 President Elizabeth Gabler said she recognized it would be challenging to make a commercially viable film drawn from a story that unfolds during a bleak period in the nation's history. But she was sold by the filmmaker's decision to focus on the romance and the circus spectacle. "It was a love story, it was a story of redemption, it was a story of hope," she said, ticking off classic Hollywood crowd-pleasers.

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