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LOS ANGELES, Nov 18, (RTRS): Universal is the house that “Dracula,” “The Wolf Man” and “Frankenstein” built. At a time when other studios are furiously raiding the vaults of comic books and graphic novels, trying to find the next Marvel and DC Comics, Universal is deviating from the superhero movie playbook — at the same time it mimics some of its strategies.
The studio has tapped Alex Kurtzman (“Transformers”) and Chris Morgan (“Furious 7”) to revive the monsters that were the studio’s stock in trade during the golden age of Hollywood. Together, they’re overseeing a team that’s busy mixing in elements of those classic films, such as the bolts in Frankenstein’s neck, with a modern setting tied to contemporary themes.
“This is not a heightened world,” Morgan says. “We’re exploring issues of family identity and questions of, ‘Where do I belong in the world?’ “
The films are taking a page from Marvel in certain ways, however. Just as the comic book label launched its onscreen group of heroes in interconnected films before teaming them in one big superstream adventure with “The Avengers,” Universal is planning to create a shared universe for its creatures. “The characters will interact with each other across movies,” says Donna Langley, chair of Universal Pictures. “We’re incubating it at the moment, and we’re taking the time to get it right.”
The plan is for a new monster movie to come out every year. The first of these, based on the character of the Mummy, will begin shooting in early 2016, with other pictures centered on Dracula, Van Helsing, Bride of Frankenstein and the Wolfman following in short order. To prepare, Kurtzman and Morgan obsessively watched Universal monster films made with the likes of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and to broaden the sense of genre, augmented that with a diet of Hammer Horror pictures and other creepy works.
“We’re creating a mythology, so we’re looking at this canon and thinking, ‘What are the rules?’ “ Kurtzman says. “What can we break and what are the ones that are untouchable?”
Storyboard artists and designers are creating the look and feel of the various productions, and each of the 10 writers working on the project has been assigned a monster to oversee.
“The idea is that we have a deep bench of brains to consult with about how their monster fits into our world as we go forward,” Kurtzman explains.
To head its team, Universal brass has found two self-confessed horror geeks who credit pictures like “Dracula” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” with inspiring their love of film.
“I was raised on monster movies,” Morgan says. “I used to make my own fake puke, so I wouldn’t have to go to school and could stay home and watch things like ‘Cat People’ on TV. I can still tell you what I used — orange juice, Saltines, Pepsi and milk.”
Both men think that after more than a decade of seeing Captain America, Batman and other heroes routinely save civilization, moviegoers are ready for a change of pace.
“Heroes tend to be perfect, but most people in an audience aren’t ever going to know what it’s like to be the smartest, strongest or fastest person alive,” Morgan says. “But there’s a darkness inside everybody. And everyone wants to be able to turn a curse into empowerment. The monsters have been in the shadows, and now it’s time to bring them out into the light.”
Disney has Mickey Mouse, Warners has Bugs Bunny, but until just eight years ago, Universal Studios hadn’t put much stock in cartoon characters. Now, one can hardly reference the studio or its recent success without invoking the Minions — those goggle-eyed, overall-wearing yellow whatzits that have helped buoy the studio to its current pole position — or Chris Meledandri, the exec responsible for their existence.
The Minions — which are featured in three of the studio’s top-grossing features, “Despicable Me” ($251.5 million domestic), “Despicable Me 2” ($368.1 million domestic) and “Minions” ($335 million domestic) — are the direct result of a gamble between Universal and the former Fox Animation prexy. NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer invited Meledandri to create a company, Illumination Entertainment, that would operate in partnership with Universal to produce a series of pics geared toward the broadest family audience possible (which needn’t necessarily be animated, as 2011’s “Hop” demonstrated).
“At that time, I was excited by the idea of the building phase,” says Meledandri, who had effectively assembled Fox’s toon empire from the ground up, partnering with Blue Sky to produce such hits as “Ice Age” and “Robots.” “I was drawn to Universal’s offer of a level of absolute unconditional support by a group of highly intelligent people who just happened to be in a slump at that moment.”
For relative peanuts (at least compared to the price of acquiring a fully fledged toon studio), Universal underwrote the launch of Illumination, which started with just two employees — Meledandri and Kristin Wong-Ward, who had been his executive assistant at Fox — and has since grown to more than 700, thanks to a successful partnership with Paris-based animation outfit Mac Guff.
The slump Meledandri remembers didn’t last long either. Mere months after the release of “Despicable Me,” Comcast bought NBC Universal. Incoming CEO Steve Burke immediately recognized Illumination’s value, including the company’s toons in his new cross-divisional Project Symphony initiative, whereby the movies received exposure via all the avenues Universal has to reach potential audiences.