Will Columbus’ latest kick off franchise?

By Milan Paurich

Hollywood adage goes, “You’re only as good as your last movie.”

Forget loyalty or how much money you may have earned for corporate suits in the past: a director is only judged by how much his last film banked.

Despite making Twentieth Century Fox shareholders rich off past blockbusters such as “Home Alone I and II,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and, as a producer, the “Night at the Museum” series, Champion native Chris Columbus was treated like an underloved stepchild last summer when the studio dumped the director’s “I Love You, Beth Cooper.” Fox probably spent less money marketing the teen comedy than it did on craft services for “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.”

Not surprisingly, “Beth Cooper” tanked at the box-office.

Columbus’ latest, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” might turn out to be the kickoff for a brand-new kid-friendly franchise for Fox (that’s surely why it was greenlighted). But the studio’s lack of support has been deafening, to say the least. It cancelled two Cleveland-area press screenings for the movie in a matter of hours, implicitly suggesting that it had something to hide.

Rather than the full-throttle, bells-and-whistles type marketing that even the lowliest Fox product (“Squeakquel” anyone?) routinely gets, the Friday release of “Percy Jackson” almost feels like an afterthought: an inconvenience that the studio would prefer not to be bothered with.

I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen the film’s trailer in theaters or on television. Compare that with the blitzkrieg of prime time spots for “Valentine’s Day” or “The Wolfman,” both of which are opening the same day.

Not having screened the film in advance (for reasons cited above), I can’t say whether “Percy Jackson” is deserving of its ignominious send-off or not.

It just seems like a really bad way to do business with one of the most successful directors in the post-Spielberg (and post-Cameron) era.

Lest anyone forget, Columbus was the man who launched the billion-dollar ‘Harry Potter” series for Warner Brothers with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” If he’d wanted to, Columbus could have continued turning out “Potter” flicks ad infinitum.

Instead, he opted to be more adventurous, directing the 2005 screen version of the Broadway musical smash “Rent,” and recharging his creative batteries by rekindling the spirit of his 1987 directorial debut, “Adventures in Babysitting,” with the terrific, if little-seen high school romp “Beth Cooper.”

“Percy Jackson” was Columbus’ attempt to prove that he could make a “Harry Potter”-type event movie without J.K. Rowlings (or Daniel Radcliffe). Based on a series of young adult novels by Rick Riordan, the project would seem to play to all of Columbus’ strengths as a filmmaker: a youthful protagonist, fantastical story elements, etc.

Why then is the studio so desperate to hide it from view?

At a time when every studio in town is chasing after the next big thing — in this case, anything in 3-D — perhaps it’s time for Columbus to take a step back and decide which path he really wants to pursue during the next phase of his career.

In an interview with The Vindicator last summer, Columbus said that he’d love to finally tackle a bonafide “adult” movie — his own “Schindler’s List,” “Godfather” or “Raging Bull.” The lack of a script that he was truly passionate about appeared to be the stumbling block.

Now would seem to be as good a time as any for Columbus to sit behind his computer screen and start writing again. After all, he first made his mark in Hollywood by penning screenplays for classics-to-be like “Gremlins” and “The Goonies.” If anyone could write themselves out of a corner, it’s Columbus.

And maybe working on an indie scale (and budget) would eliminate the need for dealing with mega-corporations who seem more interested in commerce than art, and wouldn’t know loyalty if it bit them.

That approach paid off handsomely for Francis Ford Coppola — one of Columbus’ favorite directors — last year with “Tetro.” Fed up with studios’ bottom-line mentality and a dearth of interesting material, Coppola penned his first original script since 1974’s “The Conversation,” and financed the production entirely out of his own pocket. The result was his best movie in nearly two decades.

Game on, Chris.

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