LOS ANGELES — “The Green Hornet” needed a superhero to save it.
Sony Pictures has long been counting on the big budget action-comedy to be a new franchise that could stand alongside hit movie series like “Spider-Man.”
Coming off a disastrous holiday season, capped by James L. Brooks’ flop “How Do You Know,” the studio could ill afford to have “The Green Hornet” play to empty theaters after it invested more than $200 million to make and market the film around the world.
But last summer, early cuts of “The Green Hornet” and scoffs from fanboys at the Comic-Con comic book convention in San Diego had Sony executives worried that they had a flop on their hands, people close to the picture said.
“The studio was nervous, and the fans were cynical,” producer Neal Moritz said.
An updated version of a 1930s radio serial, “The Green Hornet” stars comic actor Seth Rogen as a masked crime-fighting vigilante with a tricked-out car and a sidekick named Kato.
The problem: People didn’t know what to make of a seemingly awkward hybrid of high-octane action and lowbrow laughs.
“It’s a difficult movie to conceive of, and I think that’s one of the reasons people were so weirded out when this first came along,” said Rogen, who is also a co-writer. “You don’t instantly picture a good version of this.”
However, the addition of several new scenes, a reshaping in the editing room and a revamped marketing campaign, all aimed at balancing the film’s disparate elements, appear to have turned around the film’s prospects.
Although its ultimate success will depend on word of mouth, “The Green Hornet” is on track for a strong opening this weekend in the U.S. and Canada of more than $40 million, according to pre-release audience surveys, and is likely to gross as much or more overseas.
If the movie catches on, it could demonstrate that even seemingly doomed projects can be salvaged if a studio is willing to confront and fix its problems.
“There was a period of time when people felt the movie was in trouble, but I don’t think we ever lost faith in it,” said Doug Belgrad, president of Sony’s Columbia Pictures label. “We’re absolutely hopeful now that the response to the movie will justify going forward with more.”
Sony’s confidence was so shaky last year that after production was complete last summer, the studio sought a co-financier to share the risk on the film’s cost, which totaled about $130 million, according to two people familiar with the budget (a studio spokesman insisted it was closer to $110 million). But the studio could not find a partner.
It was only the latest problem for a long-troubled project. Two studios spent 15 years unsuccessfully attempting to develop “The Green Hornet” before Moritz brought it to Sony in 2007.
Chinese filmmaker Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) and Nicolas Cage, who was to play the villain, both dropped out. They were replaced by “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” director Michel Gondry and actor Christoph Waltz of “Inglourious Basterds.”
Along with recutting the picture, the filmmakers shot several new scenes in late 2010. One features James Franco in a cameo role as a crime boss who is shot by Waltz after questioning his ability to intimidate foes.
“That scene did so much to explain the tone of the movie and allow audiences to know it was OK to laugh,” Belgrad said. “It was one of many changes that went into finding the right tone.”
Another challenge: Although the Green Hornet is a crime fighter in a mask, he doesn’t bring the same brand value of superheroes like Batman or Iron Man.
Originally created as a radio show about a newspaper publisher named Brit Reid who fights crime with the help of his valet, the Green Hornet was also a World War II-era film serial. A television show featuring Bruce Lee aired in 1966-67, and the character has appeared only intermittently in comic books.
“The Green Hornet doesn’t offer much of a built-in fan base compared to almost any other superhero today,” said Craig Shutt, a comics historian and writer.
Sony has tried to take advantage of that ambiguity. “People know the name but don’t know what it is,” said Marc Weinstock, worldwide marketing president. “We could have fun with the brand without adhering to specific things.”
Figuring out just how much fun to have was tricky, however. After a poorly received first trailer that Weinstock admitted “wasn’t as fun as the movie really is,” the studio recast its advertising and punched up the comedy.
TV ads play up “The Green Hornet’s” comedic elements. One much-buzzed-about spot uses the 1995 rap song “Gangsta’s Paradise,” which is played for comedic effect in the film.
Polling indicates that the materials have caught on with domestic audiences, particularly men under 25. Studio executives are also enthusiastic about the film’s prospects overseas, where 3-D tends to be more popular and co-stars Waltz, Cameron Diaz and Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou have established followings.
“People thought the combination of a star known for stoner comedies, a director known for heady art films and myself who makes big action films was crazy,” said producer Moritz (“Fast and Furious”). “I can’t explain how it worked, but it really did.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Chris Lee contributed to this report.
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