Is Star Trek Now Cool?

Studio insiders tell Kim Masters that the much-hyped Star Trek won't have a huge opening this weekend. But director J.J. Abrams may have done the impossible: sex up the ultimate nerd franchise.

05.07.09 5:48 AM ET

Star Trek might not have a blockbuster opening this weekend, but that doesn’t mean that director J.J. Abrams won’t have a blockbuster in the end.

Industry research shows that Star Trek is not tracking with moviegoers nearly as well as Paramount Pictures might like. As you’d expect, given the name, awareness of the film is high. But research shows that the idea of actually going to see it appeals most strongly to older men—not the young ones who drive big openings. Women, too, are not dying to rush out and see it. “Overall the ‘definite interest’ is well behind where it should be,” says an executive at a rival studio. “The same hurdle that they’ve always had to overcome is still there: The movie’s called Star Trek.”

“Overall the ‘definite interest’ is well behind where it should be,” says an executive at a rival studio. “The same hurdle that they’ve always had to overcome is still there: The movie’s called Star Trek.”

Yes, the series has a dedicated fanbase, but the original Star Trek movies didn’t generate huge box office. Studio box-office trackers expect this $150 million-plus, effects-driven reinvention to pull in around $60 million this weekend, which would fall far short of, say, the $100 million opening weekend for Iron Man a year ago.

But the film—only the second that Abrams has directed (following Mission: Impossible 3)—has a stunning 94 percent positive rating on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site. Word-of-mouth should be strong and this movie is likely to have what the industry calls “legs.”

At 42 years old, Abrams has already lived long and prospered in a very tough industry. He has written films from the 1990 James Belushi comedy Taking Care of Business to the 1998 Jerry Bruckheimer hit Armageddon. He is a creator of television shows including Felicity, Alias, and Lost. And Abrams has become a brand. The new Star Trek stars a group of unknowns but the studio is selling Abrams, who’s been circling the globe to support it.

“They’re trying to make him into Jim Cameron,” says one prominent producer, prompting a Fox executive to muse: “He’s almost more of a consumer product than Cameron.”

Paramount Chief Executive Brad Grey wouldn’t blush if Abrams is compared with anyone. “I think he really is going to be one of the greats of our industry,” he says. “He’s become an extraordinary director very quickly.”

Abrams seems to have gotten to this level without making lots of enemies, which may be an even bigger achievement than sustained success in Hollywood. He did this by being “a stand-up guy,” as one top agent who doesn’t even represent him puts it.

Abrams was a Hollywood kid—his father produced television movies. His first writing partner, while he was still a senior at Sarah Lawrence, was Jill Mazursky (whose father Paul directed Down and Out in Beverly Hills, among other movies). “He definitely worked harder than anybody I’ve been exposed to in my life,” Mazursky says. “He would work until four in the morning while our friends were out partying.”

Abrams insisted that Mazursky take Robert McKee’s screenwriting class even though she’d already sold some scripts. Even at that tender age, she adds, “He really knew how to put material together.” When he was just 21, Abrams’ script for Regarding Henry was red-hot, attracting producer Scott Rudin and director Mike Nichols, with Harrison Ford in the starring role. (The film was a disappointment.)

Abrams was prolific: Mazursky said he never liked to pitch an idea—he’d just write it and try to sell it. He also worked fast. Once, she says, he proposed attempting to write a script over a weekend. They had an outline on Friday and were finished by Monday. It was sold by Tuesday (though it never got made).

Though that combination of talent and drive has served Abrams well, some in Hollywood are qualified in their praise. A producer says the Regarding Henry script was typical: “It was high concept and you couldn’t turn the pages fast enough,” he says. “But at the end of the day, it was a little thin.” This observer sees the same flaw running all the way through M:I 3. “It was a really good movie but it was only in service of Tom Cruise,” he says. “It was never in addition to Tom Cruise.”

Abrams doesn’t try to position himself as an auteur even though as a successful writer-director-producer, he obviously could. But he deliberately conveys the idea that he’s not worthy. “All that stuff about being the new Spielberg, it's all just so silly and embarrassing,” he told the British paper The Telegraph in an interview published this week.

But in his dealings in Hollywood, Abrams hasn’t exactly behaved as though he thinks the idea is all that silly or embarrassing. In 2006—with Mission: Impossible 3 still unfinished—Abrams went for a combined television and film deal so rich that a number of studios wouldn’t even consider it. He couldn’t get the whole thing under one roof, but wound up with a pair of deals said to be worth more than $55 million over five years. That included a lavish movie component at Paramount, which has already been renewed early. " M:I 3 was not an easy shoot," Grey says. "[Abrams] was being tested with a very large budget and a very big star. As I was watching the dailies, he was delivering on every level. With what he had done in television, I thought he would be the best bet we could make."

And Abrams wasn't satisfied with a lavish movie deal. He cut a separate deal for television at Warner so rich that industry executives in spontaneous accord described it as “insane.” At the time, there was considerable speculation about Abrams being spread too thin. So far, that television deal produced has just one series: the moderately successful Fringe on Fox.

When it comes to films, Paramount's Brad Grey looks smart to have sewn Abrams up. A former studio insider adds, “I believe this movie will do the job they want it to do: introduce a whole new generation of filmgoers to Star Trek. They’ve managed to take the old brand and reconfigure it to get the thing they want most in the world: a franchise.”

Star Trek is a relentless amalgamation of action and effects; the mantra here appears to be, “Never use a little if a lot will do.” It is deft in the homage it pays to the original series but in an interview this week with an Australian wire service, Abrams advised Star Trek “purists” to stay home. "For them I say, 'Don't see the movie. You'll just get angry. It is not [William] Shatner playing Kirk, so I do apologize,” he said. Abrams understands a thing or two about branding and he wants the world to know: This is not your father’s Star Trek.

Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.