Which historical epics are being made?
Hollywood’s future may be ancient history. We don’t mean December’s 19th-century-set ”Gangs of New York” — or even June’s ”Master and Commander,” with Russell Crowe fighting the Napoleonic Wars. We’re talking Leonardo DiCaprio in a toga (in planned ”Alexander the Great” biopic) and a slew of other movies unfolding two millennia ago. Mel Gibson is in Rome directing Jim Caviezel as Jesus Christ in the indie ”The Passion.” This spring, Wolfgang Petersen will begin shooting Warner Bros.’ ”Troy,” a Trojan War epic starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. Keanu Reeves is circling a Warner film about Roman emperor Constantine. And once he wraps the ”Pitch Black” sequel next year, Vin Diesel will shoot Revolution’s biopic of ”Hannibal” — not the cannibal, but the Carthaginian who crossed the Alps on an elephant. (Twentieth Century Fox also has a Hannibal film in the works, with Denzel Washington in mind.)
Two years after ”Gladiator” grossed $457 million worldwide and won five Oscars, studios are going to the mat for Greco-Roman pics. ”People’s appetite for history seems to be unlimited,” notes industry analyst Jack Myers. ”Look at the History Channel, one of the most successful new-network launches over the last 10 years.”
Why load the pipeline with movies of such a grand scale? ”Epic films are generally about epic ideas,” explains screenwriter Erik Jendresen (”Band of Brothers”), who just penned Fox’s update of 1962’s ”300 Spartans,” which focuses on the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae — as does Michael Mann’s in-the-works ”Gates of Fire” at Universal. ”They’re about men and women of unusual vision, individuals who stand for something greater than themselves. Right now Hollywood might have detected a need for stories [like that].”
Big narratives carry enormous risks. Epics typically require costly location shoots, lavish effects, and a marquee star to sell material that may be unfamiliar to moviegoers. The upshot: empire-busting budgets. ”Troy” will reportedly go to battle for at least $100 million; ”Alexander” could cost $150 million. What’s worse, these films have little chance of spawning franchises — despite talk of a ”Gladiator” prequel — and don’t lend themselves well to merchandising deals.