Nicholas D'Agosto, left, stars in "Final Destination 5,"… (Doane Gregory, New Line…)
The "Final Destination" series has skirted death many times.
Originally conceived as a sample script for "The X-Files" in 1995, it made the unusual transition into a feature film five years later. That horror movie was thought of by executives at New Line Cinema as a low budget one-off, but when it became a surprise hit, a sequel was quickly cooked up.
By 2009, fourth entry "The Final Destination" was, as its title implied, intended to finish the series. But despite negative reviews and fan reactions, 3-D projection saved the day. Domestic box-office sales rose modestly to $66 million, and international grosses nearly doubled from the previous high to $120 million, sending producers back to the drawing board yet again.
As "Final Destination 5" hits theaters in 3-D this Friday, the future of the franchise about teenagers who cheat death only to meet a grisly demise as retribution is uncertain. Pre-release audience polling indicates it could open $10 million lower than the $27.4-million debut of "The Final Destination," perhaps in part because audience interest in 3-D has waned over the last year.
"We're really fortunate to have a concept that can keep going and going with new cast members or writers or directors," said Craig Perry, who has produced all five "Final Destination" films. "We could even take these movies into the Old West or outer space. It's only up to how long the audience will have us."
In an industry obsessed with repeatable franchises and cost control, "Final Destination" may be a Hollywood marketer's dream: an idea with endless iterations. Each movie is built around a series of set pieces in which young cast members fall victim to, or narrowly escape, an unlikely but painful end. Instruments of killing in the fifth entry include a bridge collapse, acupuncture needles, and eye surgery.
Every sequel includes a new group of young, up-and-coming, inexpensive actors, such as Nicholas D'Agosto from the TV show "Heroes," who leads the cast of the latest installment. And after two directors worked on the first four films, Steven Quale, who previously did second-unit work for James Cameron on "Avatar" and "Titanic," took charge of "Final Destination 5."
As a result, Warner Bros. label New Line was able to bring down the budget from close to $50 million for "The Final Destination" to a little over $40 million for the new movie.
"Being able to re-create the experience but keep costs down by never making this a star-driven franchise means we have continued to feel it's worth repeating," said New Line production President Richard Brener.
Original co-screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick had come up with the concept of fate seeking revenge on people who find a way to cheat death as a sample "X-Files" script in order to land an agent. But when it turned into a feature in development at New Line, where Reddick worked as an assistant at the time, executives were wary of the lack of an iconic villain like Freddy Krueger of "A Nightmare on Elm Street."
"That was always the hard part about getting the studio to come on board," Reddick said. "For a while they had me conceptualize death as a spectral figure."
In the modern world of horror films, where high-concept series with unseen villains like "Paranormal Activity" are red hot, "Final Destination" may be more relevant than ever. But Perry said pumping out annual sequels, as Paramount is doing for the third year in a row with "Paranormal," is impossible for his franchise given the extensive special effects.
The hardest part, however, is simply coming up with creative ways for more kids to die. People involved in making 2009's "The Final Destination" admit the picture was creatively lacking, citing uninspired scenes such as an explosion in a theater where people are watching a 3-D movie.
They're hoping to make up for it this time around with a new idea in "Final Destination 5": People targeted for death can escape their fate by killing another person. Initial skepticism among horror fans who felt burned in 2009 might make it tough to match the $27.4-million opening of "The Final Destination." But if word of mouth is good enough, the studio is hopeful that this new entry could still match the $186-million worldwide total of its predecessor and merit another entry in 2013.
"We don't have a script in development yet," Brener said, "but we're always tossing around cool ideas for a death."