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LOS ANGELES - It’s been nearly two decades since Indiana Jones graced the silver screen and while times have changed, the initial box-office draw of the aging adventurer is expected to be as strong as ever.


The question is not whether audiences will flock to see “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” this weekend in its worldwide debut; some industry watchers say it may even set records. It’s whether they’ll keep coming after the Memorial Day holiday, one of the industry’s most lucrative weekends, is in the rear-view mirror.


cover art

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Ian McDiarmid

(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 22 May 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 22 May 2008 (General release); 2008)

Review [21.May.2008]

Online ticketers say it’s the most anticipated film of the summer, though there’s no indication of whether it will set new records in audience attendance.


“I think estimates for that are off the charts,” Stephen Prough, founder of Salem Partners, a Los Angeles-based investment bank specializing in media properties, said of “Indiana Jones’s” opening weekend prospects.


Prough said it could end up being the best five-day opening weekend in history, a period that runs from Thursday through Memorial Day. After that, though, it’s anyone’s guess.


“The quality of the picture obviously will determine whether it’s going to be a $225 million (domestic) box-office picture or a $350 million box-office picture,” Prough said.


Reviews are mixed to warm, plus there are several leaps audiences will have to make. First, they must believe Jones portrayer Harrison Ford, now 65 and eligible for Social Security, can continue to dodge bullets and crack his bullwhip with the same aplomb a generation after the fact.


Fans also will have to digest the fact that in this fourth installment, Jones discovers he has a love child. And they’ll need to buy the concept when it’s all said and done, their swashbuckling hero will have had a close encounter with aliens.


“Drink the Kool-Aid, jump the shark. This movie does it all,” said Bob Strauss, film critic for the Los Angeles Daily News, of “Indiana Jones’s” believability. “I can’t say I like much of it.”


If audiences share that sentiment, that won’t bode well for the film that cost at least $125 million to make. More than any other franchise with this long a gap between sequels, “Indiana Jones” will need to reach back and capture those audiences that were enamored of the three films released in the 1980s, plus generate interest among a new crop of movie-goers.


And it probably will have to retain business at least for a few weeks. While $125 million is the figure being circulated for “Indiana Jones’s” budget, that’s relatively cheap for big action-adventure releases. Some speculate that the principals involved - Ford, director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas - may have “back-end” deals in which their compensation is a slice of the profits.


Other reports, though, put the “Indiana Jones” production budget as high as $185 million. Tack on another $50 million to $65 million in marketing, and that brings the cost of the film somewhere between $175 million and $250 million.


That means distributor Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc., which has to split box-office receipts with theater owners, may have to make somewhere between $400 million to $500 million worldwide just to break even, then rely on home-video residuals for profits. Paramount officials would not comment for this story.


The consensus is, however, that if any film can do it, an Indiana Jones sequel can. Each of the three previous films - “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1981, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984 and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989 - easily cleared that mark in current dollars. Each also went on to make at least 10 times their production budgets in global receipts.


“I don’t see any way that this picture doesn’t become profitable,” said Carl DiOrio, deputy film editor for the Hollywood Reporter. DiOrio says overseas interest is expected to be intense, as it usually is for action-adventure pictures.


He adds that while there are many aspects to the film that stretch the bounds of believability, there are no show-stoppers in the bunch.


“I just don’t see it really being a stinker,” DiOrio said. “I think it’s going to get decent word of mouth.”


Reviving a long-slumbering film franchise usually is a profitable venture, but there can be potholes. In some cases, audiences either have stayed away or haven’t turned out enough to offset massive production budgets.


The most notorious flop was 2006’s “Basic Instinct II” from Sony Corp.‘s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That sex-charged thriller was released 14 years after the original, and it fell flat with audiences. On a production budget of $73.8 million in inflation-adjusted dollars - a figure that doesn’t include marketing costs - the film returned just $40.7 million worldwide and a feeble $6.3 million in the U.S.


A more relevant example may be found in the “Superman” franchise from Time Warner Inc.‘s Warner Bros. unit. Like “Indiana Jones,” the company also waited 19 years to release “Superman Returns” in 2006, and met with what normally would be considered a warm reception with $412.1 million in inflation-adjusted global receipts.


The film set the wrong kind of record, though, by costing $284.5 million to make in current dollars, and that excludes marketing costs. It also featured a new lead actor, relative unknown Brandon Routh, in the title role.


“If it’s a real long time, and a really big budget, it can reach the point of diminishing returns,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers.


Reviving a long-dormant franchise with the same actor in the lead role can be quite profitable - if spending is kept to a minimum, history has shown.


It appears the record for dormancy in film franchises belongs to “Psycho.” The property of General Electric Co.‘s Universal Pictures unit, there was a 23-year gap between the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic and the 1983 resumption of the story of troubled Norman Bates. Anthony Perkins starred as Bates in both films, as well as a third movie in 1986, which he also directed.


While it didn’t set any box-office records, “Psycho II” turned a tidy profit, making $73.7 million on a $10.6 million budget in current dollars.


The second-longest mark for inactivity was set earlier this year, when the “Rambo” action-adventure franchise was revived with Sylvester Stallone reprising his title role as the mercenary extraordinaire 20 years after “Rambo III.”


Stallone, also producer and director of this latest film, kept its production budget down to $50 million. The Lionsgate release has made only $103.9 million worldwide, meaning that home-video receipts likely will have to provide its margin.


But Stallone, who at 61 is four years younger than Ford, was more successful when he recently reprised another quiescent role with 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” 16 years after “Rocky V.” Continuing the story of the humble boxer with a heart of gold, the MGM release was made for a paltry $25.3 million in current dollars and went on to rake in $164 million globally.


“Rocky Balboa” may provide the producers of “Indiana Jones” with the metric they need to determine if a sexagenarian can still be a viable action star. Stallone was 60 when that film was released.


Much was made, however, of the boxer’s age in the film, a subject barely discussed in “Indiana Jones.” And Stallone’s character learns a life lesson as he narrowly loses an exhibition match to a much younger boxer in the theatrical version, an element of believability that endeared the film to both critics and audiences.


Strauss, the Daily News critic, says that while past Indiana Jones films stretched the limits of credibility, this episode goes beyond the pale of reason. For one, Jones survives a nuclear blast by hiding out in a lead-lined refrigerator. Then he takes part in an elaborate chase scene in a jeep in a jungle that happens to have two parallel roads close to each other.


“It seemed very much to me to be going through the motions, piling it on when things start happening,” Strauss said. He adds that the film does little to address the aging hero, an element that could be played up more.


“He looks his age, I think,” Strauss said of Ford.


Does that mean Ford can’t come back to play Indiana Jones for a fifth film?


Lucas, the creator of another franchise that had a long gap between sequels in “Star Wars,” had envisioned five “Indiana Jones” films at one point. There likely will be no word on whether he or Spielberg will keep going, though, until the two get an idea of how well this film performs, said Salem Partners’ Prough.


“If the picture does $800 million to $900 million worldwide at the box office, I have a feeling there’ll be enough money to get everybody back together,” he said.


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