When Coca Cola owned Columbia Pictures during the 80s, the beverage giant did research into how to reduce risk in producing and releasing motion pictures. The answer: sequels. Truth is, making movies is more challenging than figuring out how to market products on supermarket shelves. Films involve creative alchemy, huge expense and risk, and can die on their opening weekend. So Hollywood figured out the sequels answer a long time ago, from the days of Andy Hardy, Ma and Pa Kettle and Rin Tin Tin movies.
But even sequels are a risk if you make a movie that doesn’t offer something new. This fall, Disney took the chance on greenlighting a Muppet Movie without the blessing of Frank Oz (who was miffed that his own sequel project, developed under old management, was overlooked). So the studio gave veteran in-house producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman (“The Fighter”), exec producer and co-writer Nick Stoller and Muppet-obsessed writer-actor Jason Segal (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) a modest budget with which to shoot a live-action puppet musical: $45 million.
Well, lo and behold Disney will get a much better return on its investment with the family hit “The Muppets” than Warner Bros., which is reeling from the flop sequel “Happy Feet 2.” First, with so many family films battling for audiences at the same time (“Puss in Boots,””Arthur Christmas,” “Hugo”), something had to give.
You’d think that “Happy Feet 2” would be an obvious candidate for a sequel, as George Miller delivered a winning toe-tapping hit with the first $85 million film, which grossed $198 million domestic ($385 million worldwide). But this sequel was expensive, more than its official pricetag of $135 million. And with only $53 million domestic in the can so far–compared to “The Muppets” $59 million–Warners is looking at a big write-off when you add in marketing costs as well. With DVD sales down and theaters returning less than half of a film’s theatrical gross, this is not good news. It was tough for Warners marketing to promo the film to make it look new and improved. Clearly, a return to Antartica’s peguin population, musically inclined or no, was not enough to pull moviegoers into theaters.
For “The Muppets,” Lieberman and Hoberman and writer-producers Stoller and Segal met with fifteen directors before hiring James Bobin of “Da Ali G Show” and “Flight of the Conchords” fame, who in turn brought in half of the “Conchords” duo, 35-year-old Bret McKenzie, to write three original songs, including “Life’s a Happy Song,” a strong candidate for an Oscar nomination.
“It was not the same old, same old,” says Hoberman. “We were appealing to adults and kids, as Jim Henson would do, with great musical numbers. But we were respectful of Muppet culture and history.” While Miss Piggy was not handled by disgruntled Frank Oz (Eric Jacobson did the honors), the rest of the Muppet puppeteers were thrilled to be back in action; some of the more ambitious set pieces feature as many as fifty.
In the end, even if Oz dissed the film (sight unseen), Brian and Lisa Henson gave the final result their blessing. And more important, so did audiences, who will keep on coming through the Christmas holidays.