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Is Paramount Right? Has Star Trek Hit Its Financial Ceiling as a Film Franchise?

Posted on the 11 August 2018 by Weminoredinfilm.com @WeMinoredInFilm

Star Trek, in the Shatner years, was a hit franchise in the States. The Motion Picture, The Voyage Home, Wrath of Khan, and Search for Spock easily solid tickets on par with, in some cases superior to the J.J. Abrams movies. However, you need to be huge everywhere these days to make it, and after three separate attempts, Paramount is now waving the white flag on attempting to turn Star Trek into a blockbuster franchise that can hang with Marvel, Star Wars or Transformers worldwide. If there is to be a Star Trek 4, it has to have a smaller budget. Are they rig ht?

Here's a summary of the latest behind the scenes drama with the Star Trek film franchise:

Chris Pine and Chris Hemsworth: how dare you ask us to take a pay cut to do Star Trek 4!

Paramount: look, you're lucky we're even making a Star Trek 4!

They want more money.

This comes from The Hollywood Reporter, which hears Hemsworth and Pine, who were to star as father and son in a time travel storyline, have both walked away from Star Trek 4 and accused Paramount of reneging on their existing deals. Hemsworth's deal presumably goes back to when he cameoed as Kirk's dead at the start of the 2009 Star Trek. Whether they'll come back to the negotiating table or be recast remains to be seen. The rest of the cast, incidentally, also needs to renegotiate their deals but have been waiting for Pine and Hemsworth to set the rates.

This doesn't mean the project is dead. "Paramount and Skydance insiders say the movie, also produced by J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot, remains a priority development and is not being put on hold."

However, while the film is a priority the marching orders are to slash the budget this time.

Why the studio wants to spend less money, not more.

The studio and the producers have tried spending blockbuster dollars to turn Star Trek into a blockbuster-grossing film franchise three different times. It hasn't worked. This version of Star Trek is still a bigger player at the global box office than its Stewart and Shatner-led predecessors, but it still hasn't turned the corner into Marvel-Star Wars territory where each movie grosses, at minimum, $700m. After three different tries, maybe it's just not going to happen.

Into Darkness, the highest-grossing Star Trek movie ever, only netted $29m in profit, according to Deadline. The studio now contends it actually lost money on Beyond, which is certainly believable, even without having to use tricky Hollywood accounting. Beyond fails the simple box office rule, which is did it double its budget at the global box office? If not, it probably lost money.

With Jim Gianopulos entering his second year as Paramount CEO and currently increasing film profits by lowering operating expenses, there's just no chance a Star Trek 4 is going to be made at the same budget level as the last two films. Truthfully, with that track record and a cast which now includes actors better recognized as Steve Trevor and Gamora, I'm surprised this movie is happening at all. Quentin Tarantino's still-undefined involvement seems to have sweetened the pot for Paramount, but not so much so that another Marvel-sized budget is on the way.

I see why Pine and Hemsworth might feel wronged, especially if they did indeed already have deals in place with Paramount's former leadership, the since-departed Brad Grey, who announced Star Trek 4 before Beyond even came out. Maybe those two have reached a point where they don't really need Star Trek, although it's funny to even say that since Hemsworth's only ever been in it for that one scene.

Lower budgets might mean better movies.

But this is the only logical path forward for Star Trek as a film franchise.

As Forbes argued after Beyond's disappointing box office debut in 2016:

The Star Trek franchise cannot carry the weight of top-tier blockbuster budgets. If it hasn't broken out at this point, it's probably not going to. That's okay. There is plenty of money to be made from a mid-level franchise that still pulls in big bucks, think the Sherlock Holmes films for example. If Paramount and Skydance Productions [and Chinese investors] can manage to make a $120 million Star Trek film, one that has a bit less action and spectacle while losing little of the character development or sense of topical optimism, that would be a "yes win" scenario. Fans will be happier with a Star Trek franchise that doesn't feel required to be a hard action movie, general audiences will get more of a series they seem to enjoy, and Paramount will be (presumably) thrilled at the idea of a theoretical $120 million Star Trek 4 coasting to $350m worldwide.

Now, in 2018 the TV arm is up and running again with Discovery and a Picard show on CBS All Access. The last Star Trek movie came out long ago enough - it's only been 2 years, sure, but anything longer than that is a lifetime for most ongoing franchise these days - that general audiences have probably already assumed there's not going to be another one.

It all could have gone differently. The films followed their one moment of maximum momentum - the post '09 high of so many new fans joining because of J.J. Abrams' movie - into a 4-year wait before finally delivering the high-grossing, but deeply divisive Into Darkness. Not surprisingly, three years later the rather ho-hum Beyond played to significantly lower numbers, as new-to-the-franchise director Justin Lin failed to transfer some of his Fast & Furious box office cred to Star Trek. Beyond even took on several Chinese investors to boost its appeal to the Middle Kingdom, and the result was a meager $65m gross, barely better than Into Darkness' s $57m Chinese haul.

A tough sell for the cast.

The most fiscally prudent course of action is to slash the budget, cut back on all the action set-pieces and get back to more of a focus on character. Lower the cost, lower the profit hurdles. Simple. It's all so obvious when looking at a spreadsheet or BoxOfficeMojo, but this also means asking actors who've been playing these characters for nearly a decade to take pay cuts. That's a harder pill to swallow, especially when several of them now belong to one or two other franchises.

So, at the moment, Captain Kirk might be out (or recast, but let's stick with "out"). You know what that means, right?

Is Paramount Right? Has Star Trek Hit Its Financial Ceiling as a Film Franchise?

Captain Sulu!

What do you think they - "they" being either Paramount or the cast or both - should do? And does this mean we'll never see that dang Klingon-Federation war teased in Into Darkness?


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