Ben Stiller directs and stars in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." (Wilson Webb / 20th Century…)
Movie theater owners will converge in Las Vegas this week for their annual convention, checking out new hybrids of popcorn, the latest iterations of stadium seats and clips from potential summer blockbusters including "Star Trek Into Darkness," "Man of Steel" and "The Lone Ranger." A few studios, though, will use CinemaCon as a chance to give their year-end films a head start before the crowded holiday season.
Twentieth Century Fox will unveil footage from its planned Christmas release "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," one of the longest-in-development movies in recent Hollywood history. The film, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, isn't precisely a new twist on the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye or an update of the 1939 short story by James Thurber.
Instead, it's a romance-comedy-adventure about a daydreaming photo editor (Stiller) who goes on a series of quests — ostensibly to locate a missing image (taken by a photographer played by Sean Penn), but in fact to find his true self.
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In a year filled with easily understood sequels and remakes, "Walter Mitty" presents an unusual marketing challenge. So, Fox is using CinemaCon to try to start selling its story — half a year before the movie lands at the multiplex.
"The feeling was this was a great opportunity to plant the flag as to what the movie is," said John Goldwyn, who produced "Walter Mitty" with his grandfather, Samuel Goldwyn Jr.
The elder Goldwyn announced "Walter Mitty" remake plans back in 1996. In the intervening years, the project passed through multiple studios (New Line, DreamWorks, Paramount), directors (Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Gore Verbinski) and actors (Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Johnny Depp) before coming to Fox, which hired Stiller to direct and star.
"Nobody could figure out a way to make it feel contemporary and relevant," Stiller said of the epic series of false starts.
Stiller originally considered acting in the movie about eight years ago, but he felt the script wasn't working. But then Steve Conrad, who penned scripts for "The Weather Man" and "The Pursuit of Happyness," revised the screenplay from top to bottom, focusing the story on the inner life of an ordinary person and removing the first film's villain. In the Conrad adaptation, Stiller's Mitty is a photo editor at Life magazine whose daydreaming makes him an object of ridicule and keeps him from a woman he admires (Kristen Wiig).
"It doesn't go into a typical direction," said Stiller, whose character must survive shark attacks and avalanches to find the photo negative. "It becomes a detective story," said Stiller, who will show CinemaCon guests about 15 minutes of "Walter Mitty" footage. "And he ends up being more connected to who he is at the end of the movie."
Stiller thinks the gap in time between the original "Walter Mitty" and his new movie works both for and against his film. "He has become this iconic character — a cultural icon — but a lot of moviegoers, especially under 40, have no idea who Walter Mitty is," Stiller said.
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Stiller needs "Walter Mitty," which according to Fox cost $90 million to make, to work. Last year's "The Watch," which Stiller starred in, grossed just $35.3 million in domestic release, and a year earlier, "Tower Heist" opened well but faded fast, grossing $78 million. The last movie Stiller directed, 2008's "Tropic Thunder," was a hit, selling more than $110.5 million in tickets.
Last year, Fox traveled to the Las Vegas gathering with a few minutes of footage for a similarly tricky, big-budget sell: "Life of Pi." Theater owners had heard about "Life of Pi," directed by Ang Lee and based on the novel by Yann Martel, but it wasn't really top of mind, as the movie was still seven months from its November release. Furthermore, as with "Walter Mitty," "Life of Pi" was nebulous: The title was familiar, but what exactly was the story, and what genre — if any — was it?
Theater owners were electrified by the "Pi" clips, and their enthusiasm was well-founded: "Pi" went on to gross more than $600 million globally and win four Oscars.
The bulk of CinemaCon presentations this year will focus heavily on big summer tentpoles. Paramount will be promoting "Pain & Gain," "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "World War Z." Warner Bros. will present footage from "The Hangover Part III," "Man of Steel " and "Pacific Rim," while Walt Disney Studios will show off "The Lone Ranger" and "Monsters University." Sony and Universal representatives declined to say what movies they are promoting, but the latter may present footage from "Fast & Furious 6."
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