A Box-Office Franchise to Klingon

Paramount has good reasons for sinking big bucks into the latest Star Trek movie, despite the earlier installments' less-than-stellar record

By Ronald Grover

When it comes to enduring franchises, it's hard to beat Star Trek. The Space Age adventure saga, which had an inauspicious start as a short-lived TV series in the '60s, has become a cultural icon. It has spawned six TV series (including an animated effort in the '70s), scores of book, and 10 movies, the latest of which opens Dec. 13. But, as Chief Engineer Scotty used to say on just about every episode, it gets harder and harder to keep the old ship from coming apart.

Indeed, despite Star Trek's iconic status, the movies haven't exactly been world-beaters. The last film, Star Trek: Insurrection generated a less-than-stellar $70 million at the box office when it was released in 1998. It was only the 27th hottest film of the year, trailing such unforgettable stuff as City of Angels and the Robert Redford tear-jerker The Horse Whisperer. So some folks might wonder why Paramount is releasing Star Trek: Nemesis on Dec. 13 (yes, that's Friday the 13th), when it will have the bad luck to be sandwiched between blockbusters like the latest James Bond and Harry Potter movies and the much-anticipated Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which opens five days later.


  "It's going to be tough for Nemesis to break through the clutter of some really big films," figures Paul Dergaradebian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. And prior history doesn't offer a lot of hope for a giant showing. Indeed, of the nine prior Star Trek flicks (five with Captain Kirk, Spock, and the original crew from the Starship Enterprise, the last four with Patrick Stewart from TV's Star Trek: The Next Generation) only one has crossed the $100 million barrier that usually defines a blockbuster.

So why is Paramount throwing an estimated $70 million into the pot to make the film, not to mention upward of $40 million to market the movie during the crowded Christmas season? Because that's what you do with a franchise film, especially one that has the potential to energize some of the rest of the Star Trek properties owned by Viacom, Paramount's parent company.

Viacom's Christmas wish is that all the hoopla it hopes to generate around the film will spill over into DVD sales of previous Star Trek movies. And don't forget the Star Trek reruns that are aired on Viacom's TNN, the Star Trek books sold by its Simon & Schuster publishing arm, and Enterprise, the new TV show on Viacom's UPN. To a media giant like Viacom, sometimes one plus one really does equal three.


  Getting the latest picture into orbit was the task of Rick Berman, Star Trek's producer and -- since creator Gene Roddenberry's 1991 death -- the keeper of the flame. Berman figures a built-in wanna-see factor will get folks into the theater. Still, he's not taking any chances. With a bigger budget than usual, he was able to go heavy on special effects, courtesy of Digital Domain, the outfit owned by Titantic director James Cameron.

And Berman hopes the four-year hiatus between movies -- the longest in the franchise's history -- will work in Nemesis' favor. "We waited a little extra to get it just right, to make sure we had whetted folks appetites," says Berman, who was taking a break from writing an Enterprise episode. Of course, the wait wasn't all by design.

Berman brought in Gladiator scribe John Logan to write the script and gave him plenty of time. Then there was the wrangling over money for the cast. It took an estimated $14 million to get Stewart to slip into one of those tight-fitting suits yet again. (Stewart won't get a piece of the revenues, as other top stars often do for big flicks.) "It took some time getting the story right and making the deal," Berman acknowledges. "But we wanted to get it right."

Paramount sure seems to be banking on it. In recent weeks, the marketing folks have gone into warp drive. Stewart, co-star Brent Spinner, and a bunch of pro football players appeared in a TV commercial before Thanksgiving's Detroit Lions vs. New England Patriots game, which was broadcast by Viacom's CBS network. Cable channel TNN is having a three-day, round-the-clock Next Generation marathon just before the movie opens.


  So when Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew take on the Romulans and -- as usual -- save the world, they'll have a good sendoff. But that still doesn't ensure a hit. Exhibitor Relations' Dergarabedian says Star Trek has become "a genre within a genre," which limits the movie's appeal. Understandably, Berman figures it differently. By the time the film opens, he says, the heat from Die Another Day and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets will have died down. And while Star Trek is likely to take its lumps when the Lord of the Rings sequel opens on Dec. 18, Berman figures that with kids out of school for two weeks until after New Year's Day, there's a ready audience. "You know that they are going to go see at least two movies over those two weeks," he says. "We figure at lot of them will come to see ours."

That's sure what Paramount hopes. Certainly, they figure the franchise still has life in it. The studio just signed Berman to a new five-year deal. And, while he says he wants to make non-Trek films, the Enterprise is still in the picture -- even though he says that at least one scene in the upcoming film might lead some folks to believe the saga is over.

Don't believe it. Icons, even those with some intergalactic miles on them, don't die easily.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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