Mike Fleming

Studios brought stars and film clips to Comic-Con, seeking geek love for all of its superhero and fantasy projects. While they’re paying attention, how about some of the more ambitious films these die-hards have waited years to see? After numerous conversations with agents, writers and studio execs who orbit the geek periphery, I’ve culled the 15 that came up most often. Some of these will happen soon, others might never emerge from development hell, a few might be just too tough to crack in a two-hour time frame. Given the glut of Comic-Con superhero projects, there’s a refreshing lack of capes. Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Warcraft.  Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros have been working on the project since last summer with Sam Raimi. When Spider-Man imploded, it looked like his next movie. Until Disney tempted him with a big paycheck as it tries for another Alice in Wonderland bonanza with its Great and Powerful Oz prequel. Raimi’s next slot is  now a race between the two projects to get scripts right and lock in stars (Disney wants Robert Downey Jr., but he doesn’t like the scripts he’s seen so far).  The Blizzard Entertainment Warcraft vidgame revolves around an epic conflict between the Horde and the Alliance. The game’s global following makes it the kind of branded property that compels studios to take big-budget risks. There is also the secret weapon, Thomas Tull. The first real fanboy with funding–Legendary is co-financing several of the following films–makes any challenging project possible.
  2. Foundation.  Isaac Asimov’s groundbreaking scifi trilogy—first published as a short story series way back in 1942—spent an eternity in development at  Fox and then New Line, and then with Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne. The latter two tried to get tricky. Hoping to shed producer Vince Gerardis, and development costs incurred at Fox, they let the option lapse and tried to quietly make a new deal. Well, Fox and Roland Emmerich’s partner Michael Wimer were watching, a bidding war ensued on a nearly 70-year old project, and Sony bought it for a fortune. Robert Rodat is writing for Roland Emmerich to direct and it has tent pole written all over it.  A psycho-historian who can scientifically read the future sees the imminent collapse of the Galactic Empire, and the historian prepares to save the knowledge of mankind.
  3. World War Z. The Max Brooks novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is on the launch pad at Paramount after four years of script work under Monster’s Ball director Marc Forster. While the son of Mel Brooks wrote The Zombie Survival Guide for laughs, World War Z is a tense, gritty and bleak story of survival in a world at war against a legion of humans inflicted with a virus that turned them into flesh eating zombies. You would not believe the places these chompers will go for a good meal. If Brad Pitt really intends to star (he’s producing), look out!
  4. At The Mountains of Madness.  Guillermo del Toro planned to use The Hobbit as a training ground for this, his dream project at Universal. Between his imagination, and the co-writing, designing and doing previsualization for The Hobbit, del Toro is ready to tackle HP Lovecraft’s tale of a gruesome discovery made during a scientific expedition to Antarctica, involving ancient life forms that awaken and do some pretty horrific things.  Does the studio have the courage to let Guillermo’s imagination loose?
  5. Halo.  Some feel the Microsoft game’s moment has passed when Avatar stole its otherworldly thunder. I’m leaving it here because it was a cool project with groundbreaking potential—things like a curved hemisphere brought along all kinds of visual possibilities–but also as a reminder of what studios sacrifice when they blink. Universal and Fox partnered until they stopped making payments to Microsoft and killed the project in 2006 despite investing eight-figures into it. Microsoft was asking a lot of money—a $5 million advance against 10% first dollar gross–and by the time all the producers were factored in, 20% of the picture’s gross was out the door for a film without movie stars. Its $128 million production cost doesn’t seem outrageous in an era where inferior films cost much more. Universal and Fox would have had to gamble on an unknown filmmaker named Neill Blomkamp, backstopped by Peter Jackson and his WETA facilities. Blomkamp and Jackson instead made District 9, with a fraction of the budget. Enough said.
  6. The Dark Tower. Stephen King’s mammoth novel series finally seems poised for the ambitious treatment it deserves. The Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind team of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer are finalizing a deal at Universal to not only make a trilogy but a TV series as well. It’s been compared to The Lord of the Rings, trading Middle Earth for a crumbling Old West setting. A gunslinger is on a quest to find the Dark Tower, the structure that holds the key to the nexus of all universes, and he encounters the good, bad and ugly along the way.
  7. Bioshock. Still on everybody’s list, even though Universal put on the brakes when its budget hit $160 million. Gore Verbinski thought enough of the John Logan script to jump ship from his fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. Sure it’s a high-stakes gamble, including a payday for rights holder Take -Two that’s nearly as rich as the one Microsoft got and which helped implode Halo.  I hope Verbinski returns. If you consider Pirates and the recent release of visuals for his upcoming Johnny Depp animated film Rango, Verbinski’s capable of irresistibly commercial creations. Bioshock takes place in the underwater city of Rapture, where a pilot crash-lands near a secret entrance and becomes involved in a power struggle.
  8. Gears of War. New Line bought the property from the Microsoft/Epic Games vidgame and hired Collateral scribe Stuart Beattie to write for Twilight Saga producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey. In the multiplayer game, the world of Sera is overrun by an invasion of aliens called the Locust. A band of elite soldiers fight to retake the planet, led by the warrior Marcus Fennix.
  9. The Forge of God. Warner Bros paid seven-figures for the Greg Bear novel in 2002 on the basis of a 70-page scripment by Black Hawk Down scribe Ken Nolan. In the novel, the effort to communicate and welcome aliens with signal probes backfires, when the messages are received by hostile extraterrestrials that bring the heavy hardware to destroy the planet. This one’s languishing.
  10. Y: The Last Man. The comic book series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra focuses on the only man to be immune to a virus that felled everything else with a Y chromosome and leaves the planet facing extinction. He’s an escape artist who is assigned a mysterious bodyguard with orders to bring the survivor to D.C. The lad wants to find his girlfriend, who was in Australia when the plague struck. While I Am Legend seems to have stolen some of the thunder here, I’m told New Line considers Y:The Last Man very viable. DJ Caruso flirted with directing and David Goyer has guided drafts as a producer with a trilogy in mind. New Line is now looking for a director.
  11. Sandman. Neil Gaiman’s comic book creation is revered, and he has said he’d rather see no movie version than risk a bad one. The series shifts between horror and fantasy, and involves Morpheus, the personification of dreams. After being held captive 70 years, Morpheus escapes, gains revenge and rebuilds his crumbling kingdom while trying to adapt to the times. Warner Bros tried forever to get a script right to no avail.
  12. Snow Crash. The 1992 Neal Stephenson novel about the downside of privatization as government cedes power to corporations and entrepreneurs. One of the first novels to tackle the future and the use of avatars. Despite being optioned again and again by Kennedy-Marshall, they waited too long and now that term forever belongs James Cameron.
  13. Mass Effect. The BioWare-developed role playing game takes place in 2183, revolving around an elite human soldier named Commander Shepard, who explores the galaxy on the starship SSV Normandy. Legendary and Warner Bros have I Am Legend’s Mark Protosevich writing, and the project has a chance.
  14. Gates of Fire. Though it was once bought by Universal, Steven Pressfield’s historical novel about the Battle of Thermopylae will probably never get made because of Zack Snyder’s 300 and the prospect of the sequel Xerxes based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. 300 had startling visuals but an obvious plot—was anyone surprised when that rejected hunchback wannabe Spartan gave up the secret passage that spelled doom to King Leonidas’ warriors? Gate of Fire has so much more depth. And believe it or not, it had a David Self script, and Martin Scorsese attached to direct Leonardo DiCaprio. That went by the wayside after 300. Oh, well.
  15. Akira. Anime artist Katsuhiro Otomo’s six-volume graphic novel mixes WWIII, Japanese motorcycle gangs and a struggle to control (or killl) the title character, a being with spectacular psychic powers capable of mass destruction. Warner Bros and Legendary paid a fortune for the rights with the intention of making two films produced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way and Andrew Lazar. It has taken longer than expected. The studio hired Albert Hughes (directing for the first time without brother Allen), who in The Book of Eli showed style in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Honorable Mention: Ender’s Game, Fantastic Voyage (producer James Cameron focusing his Avatar 3d cameras inside the human body), Altered Carbon, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Neruomancer, The Martian Chronicles, The Black Hole (Tron Legacy‘s Joseph Kosinski orbiting this Disney remake), Rendezvous With Rama, Elric of Melnibone, Perdido Street Station, Deus Ex, Diablo, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Fables, the Bill Willingham-created DC Comics saga.