"On every 'Men in Black' movie I have worked on, it's a little bit of a Rubik's Cube to line up the elements," he said.
Those efforts were made even more difficult by a shifting comedy zeitgeist. "Men in Black 3," rated PG-13 for some salty language and violence, comes after a wave of raunchy hit comedies such as"The Hangover"and"Bridesmaids"have made for a very different moviegoing experience than that faced by the first two films.
"To come back to a franchise after 10 years and try to recapture the spirit of the original from 15 years ago is very unusual and requires you to be bold creatively," said former top Sony executive Jeff Sagansky, whose film investment firm Hemisphere Media Capital covered about 25% of the movie's budget.
Despite all of the film's obstacles, Sony executives believe they have a hit on their hands. Pre-release "tracking" surveys indicate that moviegoers' interest in "Men in Black 3" is solid if not spectacular in the United States, and is through the roof across Europe and in such fast-growing markets as Russia and Brazil. Today, overseas ticket sales for big 3-D Hollywood movies frequently outsize their take at the North American box office. And Smith is a proven box-office draw around the world.
Still, with combined production and worldwide marketing and distribution costs of close to $375 million, "Men in Black 3" needs to be a huge hit to turn a profit. Staying out of the red is further complicated because the big-name talent involved, which includes executive producer Steven Spielberg, will get a share of the proceeds.
If the film succeeds, it could pave the way for a "Men in Black 4." But any easy greenlight won't necessarily guarantee an easy path back to theaters.
"When producing a big-budget sequel … you have to balance the desires of the studio, the talent and the creators while giving fans a compelling reason why it's worth telling this new story," said producer and formerWarner Bros.executive Dan Lin, who did not work on "Men in Black" but has overseen several franchises, such as "Sherlock Holmes."
"Doing it successfully is one of the greatest challenges in the industry," Lin acknowledged.