This past Monday afternoon, word came down from Paramount Pictures that the latest installment of “Friday the 13th,” which had been part of the studio’s development slate for nearly four years, had been pulled from its schedule. Only a couple of hours later, speculation engendered by that announcement was confirmed: The new “Friday the 13th” was dead, at least for the time being, and certainly at Paramount.
No official explanation was forthcoming, though the obvious one seemed to be the disappointing box-office returns for the just-concluded first weekend of “Rings,” another Paramount franchise reboot that had bounced around its slate a few times; it finished below the third weekend of Universal’s “Split.” The news was met with disappointment by die-hard “Friday” fans, who were looking forward to Jason Voorhees’ return to the studio that had nurtured him through eight movies between 1980-89. The feeling was especially acute for those who’d been following the project’s long and tortured development, which encompassed multiple announcements of “Friday the 13th” release dates and occasions for crossed fingers.
Of course, “Friday the 13th” was already remade in 2009 by New Line Cinema, which had backed the ninth and tenth series entries and pitted Jason Voorhees against their homegrown bogeyman in 2003’s “Freddy Vs. Jason.” The 2009 “Friday” was a hit, with a $65-million gross, though it made nearly two-thirds of that in its first three days; nevertheless, a sequel was announced for 2010 release, but then dropped from the schedule within a couple of months.
Paramount, for legal reasons, had been equal partners on the 2009 film, and in 2013, New Line parent company Warner Bros. allowed Jason’s original home to take back full rights to “Friday,” in exchange for involvement in Paramount’s Christopher Nolan film “Interstellar.” By November of that year, a March 13, 2015 release date for a new “Friday” had been announced. And the development hell commenced…
Working with Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes company and producers Brad Fuller and Andrew Form, who had been part of the 2009 “Friday” team, Paramount initially aimed to make the latest reboot in the found-footage style, no doubt inspired by the huge success of its “Paranormal Activity” franchise.
The studio began meeting with horror-friendly directors about the project; one of them was Mike Mendez, who helmed the cult favorite “Big Ass Spider!” and sent up slasher franchises with the “Friday the 31st” segment in “Tales of Halloween.” Mendez went so far as to prepare a short film made in the found-footage mold to match the studio’s plans for the material.
“Like many filmmakers, I was dying to get a crack at landing the ‘Friday the 13th’ directing gig,” Mendez told IndieWire. “Obviously I didn’t get the gig, but it was during that meeting that I realized how unlikely a new film was to be.” According to Mendez, the studio was planning a $20-million budget, and needed to recoup $90 million theatrically for it to be considered a success. “That kind of said a lot about the fate of our beloved hockey-masked killer,” he said. “Having to recoup that kind of money, it seemed more than likely that the studio would want to play it safe by giving us the same old formula, and not something new and different.”
The handheld incarnation of “Friday the 13th” did last long enough to secure a director in April 2014: David Bruckner, who had helmed well-received segments of the anthology chillers “The Signal” and “V/H/S.” Working with scripters Richard Naing and Ian Goldberg (who wrote last year’s superb “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”), he decided to simplify down from the multi-source approach of recent vérité horrors, and tell a single-camera story set in the ’80s. “I didn’t think you could bring a whole bunch of media into the room,” he told this writer early last year, “and I felt we had to do a kind of classic found-footage movie.”
Paramount eventually cooled on that gambit, but kept Bruckner on while hiring Nick Antosca, whose credits include the “Hannibal” TV series, to pen a new screenplay in March 2015. (By that point, the release date had moved to May 13, 2016.) Freed from the pseudodocumentary mandate, they developed what Bruckner called “a proper ’80s remake” that he described as “’Dazed and Confused’ meets Jason Voorhees, a genuine last-day-of-school coming-of-age story.” By the end of 2015, however, both Bruckner and Antosca were off the project, the debut date had switched again to January 13, 2017, and a new scribe was on: Aaron Guzikowski, a hot talent due to his script for Denis Villeneuve’s acclaimed “Prisoners.”
This time, the scenario was reportedly a new origin story for Jason, with his maniacal mother also a key part of the plot. When director Breck Eisner — who had previously gone the horror-remake route with 2010’s “The Crazies” (and whose father Michael had been president and CEO of Paramount when the first four “Friday” movies were made there) — joined the project last August, development of a new look for Jason began. The following month, the opening was pushed one more time to October 13, 2017. The cameras never got rolling, though, and then the final hammer fell this week.
In the midst of all this, the fate of the latest “Friday the 13th” TV series, first announced in 2014, is also unclear. To be produced by original “Friday” creator Sean S. Cunningham’s Crystal Lake Entertainment and Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films, it was developed for The CW, with a pilot script written, but the network pulled the plug on it last summer. No word has come down about whether Cunningham and his collaborators will take the show elsewhere, though the success of “Stranger Things” on Netflix suggests that a non-broadcast network might be a more receptive home.
Like the franchise’s own “Final Chapter,” there’s still a chance that this latest screeching halt to the feature films will be followed by a new beginning: When the Paramount/Warner Bros. deal came to light in 2013, it was reported that the rights-reversion deal had a five-year limit, which means Warners/New Line will reclaim the property in 2018. But Paramount’s inability to get a new entry in a perpetually profitable franchise off the ground makes it clear that continuing the Jason saga isn’t quite the no-brainer it seems to many of its fans.
Part of the issue may be the limitations of the “Friday”/slasher-film formula itself. It may be no coincidence that the continuation of “Halloween” has seen a parallel number of false starts since 2011. Paramount’s initial “Friday” run followed a proscribed m.o.: Introduce a group of young people in an isolated location, then have Jason kill ’em off one by one, with only the faces and settings changing. While the impulse behind a reboot is generally to expand on the source and take the material in new directions, doing so with “Friday” risks upsetting the die-hard fans who want to see a new film get back to its simple roots.
Yet as Mendez pointed out, a wide-release film now costs a lot more to bring to the screen than it did back when Jason was first stalking Crystal Lake and environs, and the money men will want to keep an eye on giving it mass appeal. Recent hits like “Don’t Breathe” and “Split” have brought fresh wrinkles to the psycho-killer field; in this day and age, can a big guy in a hockey mask doing the same old thing still carry the same appeal?
Mendez, for one, remains hopeful. “I think there’s still a lot of fun to be had with Jason Voorhees,” he said. “I wish they would do a direct-to-VOD series of films. As fans, we don’t want one movie, we want a bunch of movies. Give different filmmakers a crack at the Voorhees legend, and see what they come up with. But for now, Jason and the franchise must wait patiently at the bottom of Crystal Lake.”