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Thursday, April 12, 2012

General Hospital Renewed. Stooges Updated. The Future of Hunger Games. Mel Gibson at center of yet another controversy. Convering DVD's to the cloud. HBO rolls out new way to promote new series. Axl Rose will no be at Hall of Fame Induction for Guns and Roses.

 Photo: Will Sasso, left, Chris Diamantopoulos and Sean Hayes star in "The Three Stooges." 
Credit: 20th Century Fox.

From the LA Times Company Town Blog. Click here for the latest industry news.

There's only one rival that may be able to trip up the seemingly unstoppable "The Hunger Games" at the box office this weekend: a trio of out-of-shape goofballs. While the fantasy epic starring Jennifer Lawrence looks primed to claim the No. 1 spot for the fourth consecutive weekend, it may face some competition from a new spin on "The Three Stooges."

After 21 days in release, the adaptation of Suzanne Collins' bestselling novel has already grossed more than $300 million domestically and could take in $18 million to $20 million more this weekend, according to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys. "Stooges" is likely headed for a debut of between $15 million and $18 million, giving the PG-rated comedy a healthy shot at the top position.

Either way, it should be a good weekend for Lionsgate. In addition to "The Hunger Games," the indepedent studio is also releasing the Joss Whedon-produced horror flick "Cabin in the Woods," which will probably start off with around $15 million. That would give Lionsgate two of the weekend's top three films — a rare feat for the film company.

Meanwhile, the third new film hitting theaters this weekend, the sci-fi action film "Lockout," is expected to open with only a soft sum of under $10 million.

Founded as a vaudeville act in 1925, "The Three Stooges" — Moe, Larry, and Curly — went on to become an American comedy staple, showing up in more than 200 short and feature films. The most recent incarnation is the brainchild of brother directing team Bobby and Peter Farrelly, who have been interested in making a new version of the "Stooges" for over a decade. During that time, the film went through a number of casting changes, with Jim Carrey and Sean Penn at one point attached to star. The filmmakers eventually settled upon a lesser-known triumverate of actors, including Sean Hayes from TV's "Will & Grace."

The Farrelly brothers found the most success at the American box office in the early '90s, when their bawdy comedy "Dumb & Dumber" collected a strong $127 million. In recent years, however, their pictures have failed to resonate with domestic crowds. In the last decade, the brothers have made four films, including "Hall Pass" and "Fever Pitch," but none has exceeded $45 million at the multiplex.
This weekend, "The Three Stooges" is expected to resonate mostly with male audiences — in fact, a number of advertisements for the film even suggest men go see the movie this weekend, while their wives and girlfriends head to the spa. The movie has not earned fantastic reviews: On Thursday morning, it had notched a 44% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Critics, however, love "Cabin in the Woods," an impressive accomplishment for a horror film because movies from that genre typically earn terrible reviews. "Cabin," which follows five friends vacationing in an eerie cabin, was originally an MGM project. (So was "Stooges." Fox bought the rights to make the $37-million production from MGM, where the film was previously in development.) The film was shot years ago and initially slated for a 2009 release but taken off the calendar in the hopes of converting the picture to 3-D the following year. Then MGM entered bankruptcy, and Lionsgate acquired the film in 2011.

After "Cabin" premiered to rave fan response at the South by Southwest festival in March, Lionsgate believes its movie may be able to gain momentum at the box office based on positive word-of-mouth. The studio is hoping it will follow in the footsteps of the low-budget horror film "Insidious," which debuted with $13 million a year ago but eventually grossed a respectable $54 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Another new release this week, "Lockout," is playing in roughly only 2,300 theaters this weekend — about 1,000 fewer than "Stooges." Starring Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace, the film follows a man trying to rescue the president's daughter from a prison in outer space. It was produced by FilmDistrict but is being distributed by Open Road Film, the joint venture between theater chains AMC Entertainment and Regal Entertainment.

Overseas, Universal Pictures is rolling out its sci-fi action film "Battleship" in 26 foreign markets this weekend, a month ahead of its May 18 U.S. debut. Universal decided to unveil the film early internationally in part because the movie is aimed at males and the studio wanted to avoid coinciding with the popular European football season. The movie about a naval fleet battling aliens is performing best in Korea, where on Wednesday it opened with $2.8 million — the third-biggest opening day in that country for an English-langauge film.

It is vital that "Battleship" — which stars "John Carter" star Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson and singer Rihanna — perform well abroad, considering its pricey $211-million production budget. Given the film's emphasis on spectacular special effects, it's expected to perform far better overseas than in the U.S., like previous effects-heavy blockbusters including "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." Universal held premieres in Japan, Australia and China to drum up local interest in the movie, though it won't open in China and key territory Russia until next week.

 Skinny: Thursday's headlines include questions over the future of "The Hunger Games" franchise, an ugly fight between Mel Gibson and Joe Eszterhas, and Axl Rose announcing he's going to be a no-show during Guns N' Roses' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Daily Dose: ABC's decision to keep the daytime soap "General Hospital" around for another year and cancel its new talk show "The Revolution" (see below) means soap fans won't be able to blame Katie Couric for the demise of the long-running daytime drama. Couric, whose new daytime talk show debuts this fall, was at risk of being seen as the bad guy if ABC had canceled the soap. While the low ratings "The Revolution" has been getting probably made the decision easier, it also wouldn't be too smart to risk Couric alienating a daytime audience she'll be counting on to help her show.

VuduPhoto: Movies converted via disc-to-digital on the Vudu website.

Vudu learning curve but all in all DVD conversion is simple. I brought nine DVDs to Wal-Mart, waited maybe 10 minutes for an associate to enter them into a computer, and when I got home they were ready to stream on my TV and PC.

Wal-Mart's new "disc-to-digital" service, which was shown off to the media this week before launching nationwide on Monday, is that easy. But I'll be honest: It helps a lot that I've used the retail giant's digital movie service Vudu before and know how to use it on my Xbox 360 and computer.
At the front of the Wal-Mart in the Los Angeles suburb of Rosemead is a sign promoting "Walmart Entertainment, powered by Vudu" and offering "digital movie conversion" at a price of $2 for "same quality" or $5 to upgrade from a standard DVD to hi-def. Walking to the back of the store where photos are printed, I found another "Vudu" sign and a clerk ready to convert my discs.

The process itself was surprisingly painless -- a rarity in the digital world where format problems and rights restrictions drive so many consumers batty. I simply filled out a form listing my movies and whether I wanted to upgrade the standard DVDs to hi-def, along with the email address associated with my Vudu account. (If I hadn't already had an account, they would have set one up for me.)
Then Wal-Mart employees, as I watched, simply entered the same info into a computer. And they stamped the words "Walmart Entertainment" onto the back of each disc, to ensure I didn't loan the same movies to a friend to put into their Vudu account. (Walmart and the studios should be grateful if the service becomes popular enough that they have that problem.)

I went home, turned on Vudu, and there the movies were. With a few clicks I was watching "Star Trek" on my TV via the Xbox in more-than-adequate hi-def quality. (It looked good, though not as good as a Blu-ray disc.) I did the same thing on my computer, though my tiny laptop doesn't make for much of a cinematic experience.

But let's be honest: I'm a pretty digital-savvy guy. If you haven't used Vudu before, finding the movies when you get home can be trouble. Especially if you're trying to figure out how to activate Vudu on one of the many devices that can put it on your TV. This is for people who are comfortable getting their movies from the Internet.

Luckily for the studios, though, that's more and more of us every day (thanks largely, thus far, to Netflix). Disc-to-digital provides a relatively painless way to at least move the films you already own into the digital environment.

But not all of them, it should be noted. Only certain movies from certain studios can currently be converted to digital. Wal-Mart provided me with a list, the same one that will be posted on the Vudu website, so that I didn't waste my time with unavailable films. But it was a bummer I couldn't bring some of my favorites, like Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" or the Michael Douglas comedy "Wonder Boys."

Whether it's worth $2, or $5, for a movie you already paid for is, of course, up for debate. I figure there's certainly some value to being able to access your films outside the house without carrying around all those discs. And to not having to worry that your investment is ruined if your DVD gets scratched or lost or drooled on by the dog.

A final note: Wal-Mart's disc-to-digital service is part of a larger initiative by the company to make Vudu part of the Ultraviolet consortium of studios, retailers and tech companies backing a single way to buy and store movies online. But Vudu doesn't seem to be integrated with Ultraviolet yet.
While my "disc-to-digital" films are on Vudu, movies I previously bought for my Ultraviolet "digital locker" aren't there. And the films I converted at Wal-Mart aren't in my Ultraviolet locker when I access it via partner site Flixster.    -Ben Fritz, LA times

HBO's "Girls"
 Photo: HBO's "Girls." Credit: Mark Seliver / MCT

HBO will offer the premiere episodes of its new comedies "Girls" and "Veep" for free after the shows make their debut on the pay cable channel. The episodes will be made available for a month, not only on HBO's own website, but also on YouTube, DailyMotion and other online platforms.

"Girls," which is about four college graduates struggling to get by in New York City, has its HBO debut Sunday and then will go online for free Monday through May 14. "Veep," a political satire starring Julia Louis Dreyfus, launches on HBO on Sunday, April 22, and then will be online from April 23 through May 21.

HBO's decision to offer free episodes of "Girls" and "Veep" demonstrates how competitive the television landscape has become. Once seen as the premier source of cutting-edge programming, HBO is facing greater competition from pay-TV rivals Showtime and Starz and, increasingly, basic cable channels such as AMC and FX.

Photo: Mel Gibson. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times.

The Mel and Joe show. Warner Bros. has put on hold a movie about Judah Maccabee, the hero of Hanukkah, after writer Joe Eszterhas and producer Mel Gibson started exchanging nasty letters that -- duh -- wound up on various Hollywood blogs. To me, the stunning thing isn't that Eszterhas and Gibson's partnership has gone up flames, but that Warner Bros. would get into bed with these two in the first place. Coverage from the Wrap and Deadline Hollywood.

   Ross loss. The news that Gary Ross won't direct the sequel to "The Hunger Games" is still the talk of the town. Ross has said the production schedule Lionsgate has set for "Catching Fire" is unworkable. While franchises such as "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" have worked with multiple directors, investors are a little worried that what seemed like a sure thing is now in doubt. Analysis from the Los Angeles Times.

Coming soon to a court near you. According to the Daily Beast, attorney Mark Lewis -- who has represented some of the victims of phone hacking by News Corp.'s British tabloids -- is promising to bring suits on behalf of people who say their phones were hacked in America. So far, the scandal has remained overseas but if it hits our shores, it could open up a whole new can of worms for Rupert Murdoch's media giant.

Not dead yet. ABC said its long-running soap "General Hospital" will be back next season. The show had been in jeopardy because a lot of ABC stations need to make room on their afternoon schedule for Katie Couric's talk show that debuts this September. Instead, the network pulled the plug on its struggling talk show "The Revolution." "General Hospital" dodged a bullet, but ABC will certainly reload the gun and shoot again. More from the Hollywood Reporter.

Mole caught. Earlier this week, the gossip and snark site Gawker started running posts from an anonymous Fox News staffer. Of course, it took all of about one day for Fox News to figure out who it was and another to suspend him. "I am a weasel, a traitor, a sell-out and every bad word you can throw at me," Joe Moto, who works for Bill O'Reilly's show, wrote on Gawker on Wednesday. Moto, who Fox fired Wednesday night, probably shouldn't have used a work computer to send material to Gawker. What will be interesting is whether Fox News digs in to try to determine whether Moto has been leaking to Gawker for years. Additional coverage from Mediaite.

Inside the Los Angeles Times: John Horn on the upcoming busy weekend at the box office. Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose says he'll skip the induction of the original band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

-- Joe Flint

Follow me on Twitter. One day I'll be famous.

For the record: This post was updated to reflect that Fox News said it has fired Joe Moto.

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