‘Now You See Me’s’ Magic Box-Office Trick

Guest blog: Original movies can beat reboots and make money in summer

News report: “Now You See Me” opens to $27 million,  $10 million more than estimates.

News report: “The Great Gatsby” on pace to take in more than $330 million at box office.

Ah, gee me, gee you, what-do-ya-know? You actually can make money at the movies without sequels, reboots or other franchise tentpoles.

Anyone who’s read this space knows how I feel about the summer “bonanza” of giant movies. And you don’t have be “John Carter” to know “Olympus Has Fallen” and that most of them “Die Hard,” never really earning out, at least in a way that makes a measurable difference.

In short, there’s no real “Safe House,” even for “Cowboys & Aliens,” with hits like “Iron Man” not able to make up for, in aggregate, the steady stream of losers.

It’s one thing to reboot the "Batman" franchise two decades after the first reboot of the original TV show, but “Spider-Man”? Even while the stars of last decade's series are still young? At least the rebooters of “Superman” had the decency to wait till the director of the first, Richard Donner, had “quasi” retired!

This summer has been worse than most, however, with the corpse of “Oblivion,” a somnolent rehash of 40-year-old Stanley Kubrick images (did we have to keep staring into a red light behind a curved lens to realize that we were headed through the Star Gate?) hardly cold before we rushed into the reboot of “Oblivion” that is “After Earth” or, oops, “Planet of the Apes”? Since Olympus has already fallen, I really don’t see the need to see another White House siege like, well, “White House Down” anytime soon….

All of which leads us to last week’s surprising triumph of “Now You See Me.” I’ll admit, I wanted to like it-after all, who in Hollywood doesn’t love a magic show? That’s what we do-sleight of hand: Now you see Batman, now you don’t. Here’s Ironman here, there he is there. Even the hoary “Fast and Furious” franchise (which has taken on a James Bond-like tone, with each edition leading directly into the sequel) is about magic-namely, how can those cars and drivers actually be going that fast?

Still, magic doesn’t explain the “Now You See Me” opening, more than 40% above what those famous Tinsel Town insiders had predicted. One reason: Those insiders-as anyone familiar with Hollywood journalism knows-are marketing execs at other studios and since they would never release a picture like “See Me,” they had no capacity for analyzing it. It should be noted that every one of these insiders also passed on “Gatsby,” but let’s not pile on.

No, “See Me” is, literally, a bit of magic masquerading as three-card monte-after all, lead Jesse Eisenberg‘s best-known film was the solid-but-not-spectacular “Social Network” (at least at the box office, creatively it was a stirring hit!); Woody Harrelson may be Lionsgate's “go to” guy (it also produces “The Hunger Games”), but his last starring role was a quarter-century ago in “White Men Can’t Jump”-and he even shared that with Wesley Snipes. As for Isla Fisher, well, she’s Borat’s wife! The fourth member of the “four horseman”? Oh, yeah, he’s James Franco’s brother Dave.

In short, hardly a star-driven hit. The director? Louis Leterrier’s last movie was “Clash of the Titans,” hardly an auteur! One of the writers, Boaz Yakin, has done interesting stuff but much of it dates back to 1990’s Clint Eastwood/Charlie Sheen starrer “The Rookie.” So let’s not give any single member of the creative team all that much credit

So to what do we credit the movie's success? To all of the above, of course-as they say in baseball, to the team, the complete crew of filmmakers, actors, writers, director, producers and the studio execs who were willing to take a chance on something, well, anything new.

More power to them and others like them. Like "Gatsby" director Baz Luhrman. Let’s keep the hits coming from out of left field or else we’re going to drown in the sea of cold popcorn that’s all the detritus of a summer of once-proud franchises that have run to ground…and the occasional original hit that reminds us all why we keep coming back, summer after summer.

P.S. A couple of years ago I suggested that, if the studios were set on sequels and/or franchises, they should revisit The Greatest Sequel Never Made. It’s the story of the erstwhile sequel to “Flatliners,” the most profitable picture in a decade at Columbia Pictures. Less than two months after I posted it, Columbia announced it had commissioned a sequel. I’m obviously no longer on the Columbia Christmas list. Anyone know what’s happened to it?