‘Bourne’ Without Damon Signals Box-Office Drop for Universal

Universal Pictures’ reboot of the “Bourne” films, without series star Matt Damon or the character he played, will struggle to match the success of the previous action thrillers.

U.S. weekend forecasts for “The Bourne Legacy,” opening tomorrow, extend from the low $30-million range to about $40 million, compared with $69.3 million for the previous Bourne movie, released in 2007. For its full U.S. run, “Bourne Legacy” projections stretch from $105 million to $160 million. Damon’s last Bourne took in $227.5 million in the U.S. and Canada. The new film is expected to lead sales this weekend.

The studio, part of Comcast Corp.’s NBC Universal, is trying to replicate the staying power of franchises such as “Fast & Furious” by creating a new Bourne-like super soldier played by Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner. Sony Corp.’s most recent “Spider-Man,” swapping Andrew Garfield for Tobey Maguire in the title role, failed to bring in as much as earlier pictures.

“Like every studio, we have to be very mindful of the franchises we’ve established and look for ways to keep them fresh,” Peter Cramer, Universal’s co-president of production, said in an interview. “In that sense this is important for us. We thought this was a much better -- in fact, unique -- way to do it.”

Studio Rebound

Universal is rebounding from years of low box-office rankings with a slate that includes franchises like “Bourne” and more big-budget pictures, including “Snow White and the Huntsman,” estimated by Box Office Mojo to cost $170 million.

The Los Angeles-based studio’s top 2012 films are “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” and the comedy “Ted,” pictures that cost $70 million or less and collected more than $280 million worldwide each, according to Box Office Mojo. “Battleship,” made for $209 million, didn’t fare as well, with sales of $302.8 million, much of which is shared with theaters.

Reboots often underperform their predecessors as audiences adjust to new actors and settings. The “Bourne” filmmakers have set their sights accordingly, Ben Smith, one of the producers, said in an interview. In addition to “Spider-Man,” new versions of James Bond and X-Men also opened lower than their immediate predecessors, box-office data show.

Fast, Furious

“Our expectations are definitely in check,” Smith said. “My biggest desire is that it satisfies our fan base and expands it. If it does that we’ll do phenomenally financially. We want fans to go, ‘That was a Bourne film.’”

Universal’s “Fast & Furious” street racer films took a new turn last year with Dwayne Johnson joining the cast. The story morphed into a heist movie called “Fast Five” and took in $209.8 million in the U.S. and Canada, more than any predecessor. “American Reunion,” released in April, renewed the “American Pie” series.

An opening of $35 million to $40 million, about half of the last “Bourne,” would be a strong start for the film, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com Box-Office. That’s also in line with the studio’s projection. The film cost about $125 million, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. That would be the most of any Bourne film, according to Box Office Mojo.

“You have to treat it like a new movie,” Dergarabedian said.

Universal ranks third this year with $1.07 billion in domestic sales as of Aug. 6, about $20 million behind first-place Sony, according to Box Office Mojo. The studio, which hit the $1 billion mark sooner than ever before, will probably have its best year ever in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales. Universal hasn’t finished better than fourth since 2005.

Franchise Dependent

Film franchises are crucial to an industry that has become dependent on familiar characters to attract audiences to the multiplex. Sony successfully restarted “James Bond” with a new star. Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures did the same with “Star Trek,” casting young actors in roles played by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy starting in the 1960s on TV.

“The Bourne Legacy” may also suffer from being sandwiched between “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Expendables 2,” scheduled for release next week, said Phil Contrino, editor of the Boxoffice.com industry website. He estimates a $105 million domestic run for “The Bourne Legacy.”

“We’re not that impressed with its activity on Twitter, and Facebook is also not that great,” said Contrino, who predicts opening weekend sales in the low $30-million range. “The franchise came with a base from the other films. What that says to me is audiences are a little skeptical that Matt Damon has been replaced by Jeremy Renner.”

“The Bourne Legacy” had a 55 percent approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com yesterday, with 11 positive reviews among the 20 listed on the site.

Acting Pedigree

Renner established himself with critics and fans in “The Hurt Locker,” gaining an Oscar nomination for best actor, and in “The Town,” which brought a supporting actor nomination. He played Hawkeye in “Marvel’s The Avengers,” this year’s top-grossing film, and was in last year’s “Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol.”

The idea for the new character and story came from writer/director Tony Gilroy, who co-wrote the previous Bourne films. Universal executives, deciding they couldn’t replace Damon as Jason Bourne, invited Gilroy to come up with a new approach, Cramer said.

Gilroy suggested a film exploring the government program that gave Bourne and other agents their enhanced abilities. In “The Bourne Legacy,” Renner’s Aaron Cross learns he was genetically altered. Like Bourne, he fights back when the agency tries to have him killed.

More Bourne?

“This gave us the opportunity to expand this franchise and have another character who lives in this world,” Cramer said. “We feel like there is a lot more life for Aaron Cross.”

Rachel Weisz co-stars as one of the scientists who developed the gene-altering techniques. Scott Glenn, David Strathairn and Joan Allen return from “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

Audiences for the Bourne movies have always skewed toward males. A developing romance between Cross and Weisz’s character may draw more women to “The Bourne Legacy,” Cramer said.

Cramer said Universal is considering more reboots, including “Jurassic Park,” the most successful franchise in the studio’s history with $1.9 billion in worldwide sales, according to Box Office Mojo.

The studio is also developing a new “Mummy” film, Cramer said. The first four movies took in $1.42 billion globally. There may be another “American Pie,” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” may get a sequel, he said.

Jeremy Duns, author of the spy novel “Free Agent,” credits the Bourne series with inspiring the grittier Bond films introduced in 2006 with Daniel Craig in the lead role.

“If the ‘Legacy’ film works we may see more of this sort of thing,” Duns said. “Professionally, I’m looking forward to seeing how it stacks up to the first three in the series, and as a fan, too.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE