With “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Warner Bros. is reaching 30 years into the past to recapture the box-office sizzle it once had with “The Dark Knight” and “Harry Potter.”
The studio spent an estimated $150 million on a reboot of the dusty 1980s car-chase trilogy and brought back director George Miller, who made a film that’s getting almost unanimous praise from critics. He cast Tom Hardy, who played the villain Bane in “Dark Knight Rises,” in the role that made Mel Gibson famous, and created a character so dominant for Charlize Theron that men’s rights groups threatened to boycott.
It’s a big investment for an R-rated film that isn’t even expected to debut at No. 1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is forecast to open with $44 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales this weekend, behind Universal Pictures’ “Pitch Perfect 2.” Time Warner Inc.’s film division is betting word of mouth and strong overseas sales will justify future installments.
“Mad Max is at a similar place to Batman before Christopher Nolan revived it, and is perfectly positioned to become a new franchise for the studio,” Dan Fellman, president of domestic film distribution for Warner Bros., said in an interview.
The filmmakers are also discussing a live show and other projects with Warner Bros., producer Doug Mitchell said Thursday.
“You know these characters live in your head, and we’ve got a lot of back stories,” Mitchell told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival in France, where “Fury Road” was screened. “If we get the appetite again to go into the Wasteland there are other films we want to do.”
“Fury Road” will need to tally $400 million at the global box office to get the green light for more, estimates Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co.
A new franchise generating hundreds of millions in sales each go-round would be a boon for Warner Bros., which led Hollywood in domestic ticket sales for nine of the 10 years through 2010, according to Box Office Mojo, but has since slipped. The studio, based in Burbank, California, has been rebuilding its lineup following the last “Harry Potter” film in 2011 and “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012.
Warner Bros. finds itself outgunned this summer by Walt Disney Co. and Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures. While the studio has had success this year with “American Sniper,” its summer slate lacks some of its biggest current properties. “Batman v. Superman,” from DC Comics, and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the next film from J.K. Rowling’s books, won’t come out until next year.
“Fury Road” could help hold the studio over. The film will open in 3,702 domestic locations, according to Box Office Mojo, the most ever for an R-rated film.
Forecasts have been rising. BoxOffice.com raised its opening-weekend prediction 10 percent from $40 million, and now expects a $150 million domestic theater run, versus a previous estimate for $130 million.
“It could be a surprise hit of the summer,” said Matt Atchity, editor in chief of review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com. “It is going to have great word of mouth.”
Critics have embraced the film, giving it almost unanimous support. Of the 144 reviews counted by Rottentomatoes, 143 have been positive.
Miller drew on work as an emergency-room doctor to create the post-apocalyptic wasteland of “Mad Max,” released in 1979. He told the New York Post last week that obstacles -- including the replacement of Gibson after numerous controversies -- delayed the new film for 17 years.
Warner Bros. executives Greg Silverman and Courtenay Valenti, who worked with Miller on the Oscar-winning “Happy Feet,” helped push the project over the finish line.
“It’s a wildly exciting, fresh and original film that really stands out,” Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, president of distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures International said in an interview.
Set in a barren desert, “Fury Road” is filled with epic stunts and explosions. Hardy takes on the role of road warrior Max Rockatansky. The loner is swept up by a group, led by Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, that is fleeing a tyrant’s gangs, and they embark on a high-octane road war.
Theron, her hair shaved off and face covered in grease, provides a strong female protagonist, which could widen the fan base. According to ticket vendor Fandango, 83 percent of online buyers were excited to see Theron as a hard-hitting action hero.
Men in their 40s and 50s who remember the original series are likely to show up too, said Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film-studies professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Miller asked playwright Eve Ensler, creator of “The Vagina Monologues,” to consult with the cast, and share her experience working in the Congo with women struggling with issues of rape.
“George wanted to create women who are not victims, and he certainly accomplished that,” Ensler said in an interview with Cultural Weekly.
Some bloggers have called for a boycott. The site Return of Kings, which advocates for masculine men and feminine women, called “Fury Road” “a feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick.”
In addition to its detractors, “Fury Road” faces competition this weekend at the box office. “Pitch Perfect 2,” a comedy from Universal about a singing competition, is projected to open with $56 million, according to BoxOffice.com. Disney’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” returning for its third weekend, is expected to generate $38 million.
Beyond this film, Warner Bros. has another challenge in bringing back “Mad Max” for new rounds. Miller is an auteur, not a cookie cutter, in his approach to films, said Bill Mechanic, chief executive officer of Pandemonium Films and a former CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment.
“It is potentially a very big movie,” Mechanic said. “If it does business, I am sure they will want to do more.”