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By Ron Grover Daredevil isn't your typical action hero. Created in 1964 by Stan Lee -- father of such Marvel Comic's heros as Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk -- he's the world's first blind comic-book crusader. He also has a streak of vigilantism in him, like Batman. So it figures that Daredevil's big-screen debut would be just as atypical. The muscle-bound guy in the skin-tight red suit will leap into multiplexes on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14. A romantic date, perhaps, but not exactly prime time for an action flick aimed at teens.
You see, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter sequels may captivate kids at Christmas, and Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-em-ups may mow 'em down in summer, but no action film has ever done much business in February -- the dead of winter.
Actually, February isn't much of a month for blockbusters of any kind. According to Exhibitor Relations Co., which follows all things box office, only five films released in February have ever passed the magic $100 million milestone. The last one was the flesh-eating Hannibal, which chomped its way to $165.1 million in ticket sales in 2001. The closest thing that Exhibitor Relations President Paul Dergarabedian could find to a February-opening action blockbuster was the $70.7 million generated by the John Travolta film Broken Arrow, which was released in 1996. Why now for Daredevil?
REVENGE OF THE CLONES. Chalk it up to Hollywood's preoccupation with creating franchises -- movies that take on a life of their own, spewing out sequels, TV shows, and tchotchkes ad infinitum. There's proven silver-screen gold in comic-book heroes. Sony created magic last summer with Spider-Man -- like Daredevil, a Marvel Comic property -- grossing $403 million at the box office. Now Spidey is bringing in big bucks with DVD sales, and Sony already has a sequel in the works. Fox had its own hit with musclebound mutants the X-Men in 2000. Small wonder the studio wants another superhero to market.
The problem is, everyone's jostling to get into the franchise game these days, so it isn't easy to get a good opening weekend. Moviegoers are still crowding the theaters to see the second Lord of the Rings flick, which opened on Dec. 22, as well as the second Harry Potter. And starting in May, the studios will be rolling out franchise flicks every two weeks -- Fox has a second X-Men movie coming out, Warner its second Matrix, Universal has The Hulk, Warner the third Terminator, and Paramount its followup to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. What to do with a potential new entry in the franchise pool?
Fox executives insist it has been their plan all along to zig when everybody else zags and release Daredevil on Valentine's Day. "Some people may see it as a risk. We see it as opportunity," says Pam Levine, Fox's president of domestic theatrical marketing. "You can make this a good date if you have the goods."
SELLING THE DEVIL. Besides, Fox thinks the film will sizzle, not fizzle. It's filled with whiz-bang special effects. And the cast is clearly designed to appeal to teens and young adults. To lure the gals, Ben Affleck has the title role -- lawyer by day, red-suited crusader by night. And Jennifer Garner, star of ABC's Alias, is certain to appeal to just about any hetero guy with a heartbeat. Garner plays Elektra Natchios, a karate-kicking action star who appears mostly in black leather pants and a skimpy skin-tight leather halter. We all know what they're selling here.
Indeed, it was the love story that helped convince Fox to make the film in the first place. The script lay moribund at Sony, recalls Sanford Panitch, president of production at New Regency Pictures, which is producing the film. Panitch, a fan of the comic books, says he bid for the rights as Spider-Man was being produced. He signed on Affleck, another Daredevil fan, shortly afterward. "We thought it was a cool idea about what it's really like to be a superhero," says Panitch. He got Garner just after she made a splash as the sultry spy on ABC. "She's ultrasexy, and that certainly helps," Panitch says in classic understatement.
Fox has $75 million riding on its mid-winter gamble. That may pale in comparison to the $140 million that Sony spent on Spider-Man, but it's still a significant amount of movie money. Fox has also bought prime real estate for TV commercials, including one in the second quarter of the Super Bowl as well as during such TV hits as Friends and Law and Order. There's a tie-in with Kraft, an in-store promotion at Wal-Mart, and a weeklong Daredevil segment coming on Entertainment Tonight.
FEW OTHER CONTENDERS. Fox has been around this track before with X-Men, another Marvel property. If Daredevil hits big, look for not just a sequel but a spin-off for Elektra. Moreover, Fox has a history of beating the odds by scheduling films in places you'd least expect. Last year, it had a big success with the animated film Ice Age, which was released in March, three months before kiddie flicks usually hit the theater.
The best thing Daredevil has going for it may be the a lack of competition. The weekend that Matt and Jennifer open, they go up against Disney's The Jungle Book 2. The next weekend it's the Will Ferrell comedy Old School, and the weekend after, the Civil War drama Gods and Generals. And Fox may also be banking on folks being ready by February for a little escapism after all the heavy stuff that was released in a pre-Oscar rush in December.
"Nothing else like [Daredevil] is out there, that's for certain," says Exhibitor Relations' Dergaradebian. "And they're doing all the right things to guarantee a large box office." Maybe Fox is correct in hoping that people fall in love on Feb. 14 -- even if it is with a guy in a skin-tight red suit. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online