01.11.10

Can Spider-Man Survive Without Tobey?

Paging Zac Efron. Sony is scrapping the next installment of the Spider-Man franchise in favor of rebooting the brand with a prequel and a younger star. Kim Masters on the billion-dollar bet.

It appears that Tobey Maguire has slung his last web. But not willingly.

Sony Pictures says it is scrapping Spider-Man 4. Instead, it says, it will “reboot” the franchise, focusing on a teenage wall crawler. It is unknown who will star in the film (Zac Efron, call your agent), which will be based on a script that Sony had already commissioned. The studio had been planning to make a prequel after the fourth film’s planned release next year.

A source close to Maguire called Sony’s decision to cancel Spider-Man 4 “crazy,” adding, “Why, when this one’s still working? I never heard of such a thing in my life.”

The question now is, does Sony really mean to risk a franchise that grossed more than $890 million worldwide in its last outing? Despite a press release to that effect from the studio, some old Hollywood hands are doubtful.

“Something doesn’t sound right,” said the chairman of a rival studio.

If Sony does walk away from the team that made the last three Spider-Men into its most important franchise—the combo that includes director Sam Raimi, Kirsten Dunst, and Maguire—there can be no greater proof that life has changed for the studios and the stars. But Sony, which has long had a reputation for spending freely, has already demonstrated that it is moving far more cautiously these days. (Last June, the studio decided not to proceed with Steven Soderbergh at the helm of the baseball movie Moneyball, citing dissatisfaction with his rewrite of that script.)

It had become apparent in recent days that Raimi and Sony were at odds over the script for Spider-Man 4, which has been through several expensive rewrites.

And that seemed to do it for Sony. A source close to Maguire says the star would have been willing to adjust his deal but never got the opportunity. (The actor said in a statement: “I am so proud of what we accomplished with the Spider-Man franchise over the last decade. Beyond the films themselves I have formed some deep and lasting friendships. I am excited to see the next chapter unfold in this incredible story.”)

But the source close to Maguire called Sony’s decision to scrap Spider-Man 4 “crazy,” adding, “Why, when this one’s still working? I never heard of such a thing in my life.”

The last Spider-Man, released in 2007, was not well received by fans, and at the time it was perhaps the costliest film ever made—or certainly one of them. (Sony pegged the budget at $270 million, but sources in Hollywood set the price tag far higher.) Other studio chiefs complained then about the precedent set by Sony’s free-spending ways. “Where is the corporate oversight?” the head of one studio asked. “Who’s demanding accountability?”

These days, accountability is the watchword. And with Avatar on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time, blazing past Titanic, it seems obvious that Sony will have to shell out to make the next Spider-Man in 3-D—with lots of effects, of course. It’s easy to understand why the studio might hesitate to move forward with gross-profit players like Raimi and Maguire, even with a revised deal. (And with Maguire in his mid-30s, aren’t those tights starting to sag a bit? It happens to boys, too.)

Unsurprisingly, some of those fans who reviled Spider-Man 3 have already rushed to their keyboards to rail against Sony for moving forward without Raimi. (They blame Sony, not Raimi, for the problems with the last installment.)

Sony can emerge triumphant if it can find good-looking kids and a director who can manage a big 3-D effects film and—oh, the tricky part—who has a take that feels fresh.

After all, consider the Bond franchise, which has changed directors and stars to its benefit time and again. Consider Batman. When Christopher Nolan did Batman Begins with Christian Bale, did anyone stay home because the old franchise had a new director and a new star?

Or maybe the skeptics are right. For many studios, $890 million would be a very convincing argument against starting from scratch.

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program 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.