Liam Neeson shoots his way out of another dire in "Taken 2." (Magali Bragard, 20th Century…)
"Taken" was a rare phenomenon in Hollywood when it premiered in January 2009: a surprise smash hit. At a time when big screen brands are carefully managed and would-be blockbusters created from a list of ingredients, no one expected much from a low-budget European action movie starring Liam Neeson. Not even its distributors at Fox.
But, drawn by a story that balanced ruthless action with a compelling father-daughter relationship, audiences kept buying tickets over a five-month run at the box office, taking it from a solid $24.7-million opening to a fantastic final domestic take of $145 million. With a production budget of less than $30 million, it was one of the year's most profitable films.
Now Fox Filmed Entertainment and its partner Europa Corp. are trying to turn a surprise into a franchise. "Taken 2," which opens Friday, faces the delicate challenge of trying to draw the public back to a cinematic world that they felt they had discovered on their own the first time around.
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"Whether this succeeds depends on whether we can surprise them twice," said Fox marketing President and Chief Creative Officer Tony Sella. "It's the hardest thing to do."
All indications are that Fox has managed the build-up well. Several knowledgeable people who have seen pre-release surveys said they expect it will have a strong opening of $40 million or more. (A spokesman said the studio is looking for a smaller, but still decent, debut of $30 million to $35 million.)
The first "Taken" was born from a report that writer-producer Luc Besson saw on French television about a house near Marseilles where about 20 teenage girls were held hostage and turned into sex slaves. He fashioned that idea into a script about an American ex-CIA agent who must rescue his daughter after she is kidnapped while vacationing with friends in Paris.
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Star Neeson had never carried an action movie before and Besson was surprised to find out he was interested. But "Taken" ended up launching a career renaissance of sorts for the Irish actor, who has gone on to play a tough guy in such pictures as "The A-Team," "Unknown" and "The Grey."
But what ultimately connected with audiences, Fox Co-Chairman Jim Gianopulos believes, was not the way Neeson's character took out everyone who stood between him and his daughter.
"We've seen plenty of shoot-em-ups," he said. "This was at its core a powerful dramatic story about a man who gives up his life to be with his daughter."
The movie was developed and largely overseen by Europa, which Besson founded. Though Fox has no formal arrangement with the company, there was little question that the two would work together. The relationship between Besson and Gianopulos dates back to 2002's "The Transporter."
"Luc and I have become very close," said Gianopulos. "We don't have a piece of paper. We have something better than that."
Gianopulos was eager for a sequel soon after the release of the original "Taken," Besson said. But developing a story that wouldn't leave audiences rolling their eyes when Neeson's daughter was kidnapped again wasn't easy.
"At first I said, 'too bad,' because the film was not designed to have a sequel," Besson said. "Then we were talking and I thought it could be fun to do the opposite — if the daughter has to try and save him."
In "Taken 2," Neeson's daughter and ex-wife, played, respectively, by Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen, visit him in Istanbul, where the father of one of the kidnappers from the first movie seeks revenge.
When Neeson gets captured, his daughter must attempt to rescue him.
Sella said that switch has been a key part of recent advertisements.
"We're starting to show that the daughter is more proactive because teenage girls respond to that," he explained.
There's no question the follow-up will have a bigger opening than the original, but it remains to be seen if it will ultimately rake in more cash, or if the ticket sales will simply be more front-loaded. To ensure a healthy run, Fox is aiming its marketing squarely at young women.
Tracking surveys indicate that while men are the group most excited for "Taken 2," interest is very healthy among female, particularly those younger than 25. There's also strong interest among African American and Latino audiences.
Fox has somewhat more at stake than the first time around. With a higher salary for Neeson and a longer shooting schedule, the sequel's budget increased to about $45 million — higher than the original, but still low in a business in which most franchise follow-ups are in the $150 million-plus budget range. Fox paid for much of the film and Europa covered the rest with sales to other foreign distributors with which it has deals.
"Taken 2" has already opened in South Korea and grossed more than $10 million, already beating the total gross of the original "Taken" in the country. That's an early sign the sequel could significantly outpace the $82-million international gross of the original, regardless of how it ultimately performs in the U.S. and Canada.
That would spawn the obvious question: Can someone close to Neeson's character be taken yet again?
"I don't know, honestly," said Besson. "I would love to find another idea for this character I love. But in Hollywood they always try to know everything and I don't know anything."
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