TV Goes for Big Bucks on Big Screen

Producer Andrew Lazar is feeling the pressure.

His latest project, an $80 million update of the 1960s Mel Brooks TV comedy "Get Smart," opened in theaters last Friday.

It was expected to open big, what with the films all-star cast — Steve Carrell plays bumbling agent Maxwell Smart, while Anne Hathaway is sleek and chic as Agent 99 — and a built-in audience. And open big it did -- "Get Smart" got the bulk of movie goers in its debut weekend, bringing in $39.2M.

"The pressure is definitely there with any big budget film," Lazar said. "But with something as recognizable as 'Get Smart,' it goes above and beyond that. There are a lot of expectations for its success. I'm feeling it."

"Get Smart" is the latest in a line of big-budget blockbusters based on TV shows.

Considering the failure of recent big-budget adaptations like "Speed Racer" — and the success of others like "Sex and the City" and "The Incredible Hulk," the trend could go either way.

And there's more to come. Hollywood has a whole slate of TV movies lined up. Nostalgic for an '80s action hero? Check out the soon-to-be-in-theaters "A-Team." Still mourning the loss of "Arrested Development?" No worries — the whole cast is signing on for Ron Howard's 2009 adaptation of the sketch comedy show.

Just this year, we've seen "Speed Racer," "Sex and the City" and "The Incredible Hulk." And there's still the "X-Files" and "High School Musical" movies coming. So why are we seeing so much TV at the movies? Is it nostalgia? The built-in audience? Easily adaptable characters?

Movie money expert Gitesh Pandya notes that there's a sort of emotional shorthand involved in adapting a TV show — or any existing material, really — to the big screen.

"Hollywood studios have always been trying to minimize risk by making films with a built-in audience whether they be sequels, remakes, or adaptations of TV shows, books, comics, video games, musicals and even Disney theme park rides," said Pandya, who runs the Web site BoxOfficeGuru.com. "Most TV-related motion pictures are based on older shows that are trying to reach a new generation — take 'Mission: Impossible' or 'Bewitched' — or on current or recent programs that tap into an existing fan base, like the 'X-Files' or 'Sex and the City.'"

These days, said "Get Smart's" Lazar, the marketing comes before the script.

"The obvious answer is branding," said Lazar, whose production house, Mad Chance, is also working on a "Welcome Back, Kotter" remake for 2009. "With big budget movies, you just can't take the risk anymore. And one way to minimize the risk is to start with something recognizable. But you have to be strategic. I don't think every TV title can transition seamlessly to film."

Case in point — last month's "Speed Racer." The highly anticipated Wachowski brothers remake of the 1960s anime series cost $120 million, but bombed at the box office with a meager $96 million worldwide.

But with "Get Smart," Lazar hopes the timing is right.

"'Get Smart' was a satire on the Cold War, and it's just as relevant and satirical today, in light of Iraq," he said. "But we can't just transfer a '60s comedy to the big screen. You have to hit all the bases. There's a currency, a cultural relevance. There's the built-in audience, so you have to walk a fine line of being reverential to the show, but not at the expense of the movie."

Plus, he added, there's the segment of the movie-going audience that's never heard of the TV show.

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