LOS ANGELES — Film sequels often are slam dunks at the box office, a seamless continuation from where a previous hit left off. But as the new installment of the 15-year-old franchise Men in Black proves, getting to the big screen isn't always a cakewalk.
One of the most troubled productions in recent Hollywood memory, Sony Pictures' latest movie in the Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones sci-fi-comedy franchise encountered multiple script rewrites, a discontented star and a three-month production shutdown as writers and studio executives scrambled to fix a project that nearly fell apart.
By the time it was over, the studio had run up a tab of nearly $250 million — making Men in Black 3 one of the most expensive releases of the summer.
Opening Memorial Day weekend, the film known as MIB3 faces formidable marketing challenges given that the last sequel came out a decade ago. That means an entire generation of youngsters has never seen an MIB in theaters, and the bar for summer event pictures has risen considerably by mega-hit The Avengers and other high-octane spectacles.
Nonetheless, Sony and the filmmakers are confident that their 3-D movie will lure families, Smith's fans, and those with fond memories of the franchise — an optimism backed up by pre-release research.
Regardless of its commercial fate, the rocky production path of Men in Black 3 shows that, contrary to the common perception, sequels are neither simple undertakings nor safe bets.
"With something like Men in Black, a sequel is actually more difficult than the original," said Walter Parkes, who has produced all three of the MIB films. "The challenge is to be fresh and original but also deliver on the core values of the franchise."
When Men in Black II came out in 2002, it grossed nearly $150 million less than the 1997 original and was panned by critics and fans, leaving a sour taste for many moviegoers. Even the filmmakers acknowledged that the last movie was flawed.
A family trip to Southeast Asia about three years ago convinced Parkes that Men in Black still resonated around the world. While there, he spotted locals watching the original movie on TV in an airport. Smith, meanwhile, had a long-gestating concept for a new movie involving time travel (in Men in Black 3, his character, Agent J, jumps back to 1969 to team with a young version of Jones' Agent K, played by Josh Brolin). Eager to revive the franchise, Sony executives hired screenwriter Etan Cohen, hot off the success of the action-comedy Tropic Thunder, to write the script.
Picking a director, though, wasn't easy. Smith and executives were leery about bringing back Barry Sonnenfeld, who made the first two installments, because of conflicts on the set of Men in Black II, according to a person familiar with the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly. In a lawsuit filed against his former agents over commissions, Sonnenfeld said Sony considered other directors for Men in Black 3 before bringing him on. He ultimately convinced all involved that he had a strong vision for the film. He was paid less than $10 million — less than half the fee he collected on the first sequel, according to the lawsuit.
Sonnenfeld declined to comment for this story. A Sony spokesman said Smith was not available.
Despite all the obstacles, Sony executives say they have a hit on their hands. Pre-release "tracking" surveys indicate moviegoers' interest in Men in Black 3 is solid if not spectacular in the United States but is through the roof across Europe and in two fast-growing markets, Russia and Brazil. Today, overseas ticket sales for big 3-D Hollywood movies frequently outsize their take at the North American box office. And Smith is a proven box-office draw around the world.
Still, with combined production and worldwide marketing and distribution costs of close to $375 million, Men in Black 3 needs to be a huge hit to turn a profit. Staying out of the red is further complicated because the big-name talent involved, including executive producer Steven Spielberg, will get a share of the proceeds.
If the film succeeds, it could pave the way for a Men in Black 4. But a green light won't necessarily guarantee an easy path back to theaters.
"When producing a big-budget sequel, ... you have to balance the desires of the studio, the talent and the creators while giving fans a compelling reason why it's worth telling this new story," said producer and former Warner Bros. executive Dan Lin, who did not work on Men in Black but has overseen several franchises, including Sherlock Holmes.
"Doing it successfully is one of the greatest challenges in the industry," Lin said.