Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2009 #11:
Star Trek Blasts Off
By David Mumpower and Kim Hollis
December 29, 2009

Lord Palmerston!!!

Star Trek is one of the most storied franchises in entertainment history. Through 2002, it had spawned ten movies and 30 seasons of television from six series. The problem was that the past few years had been unkind to the House That Shatner Built. In the period from 1998-2002, two television series were put out to pasture and a third, Enterprise, made a relatively shrug-inducing debut. Its ratings were such that neither of its last two seasons of renewal were guaranteed and the show's final episode was more of a love sonnet to Star Trek: The Next Generation than it was a celebration of four seasons of Enterprise.

Even worse, the movie franchise hemorrhaged market share. After the tremendous critical and financial success of Star Trek: First Contact, a $92.1 million performer in 1996, Star Trek: Insurrection took a step back with only $70.2 million domestically in 1998. It was also considered a mediocre title, which Trekkies shrugged off as part of the "every other film is good" mystique of the franchise. Those delusions ended with the 2002 debut of Star Trek: Nemesis, the biggest bomb in the history of a film series that also includes Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Even if we don't adjust for inflation, that 1989 disappointment earned $52.2 million, placing it easily ahead of Nemesis' $43.3 million franchise. The combination of Enterprise bombing as a television series and Nemesis bombing out of theaters left the Star Trek legacy in tatters. The period from Enterprise's departure in 2005 until the start of 2009 is the biggest gap there has been between Star Trek products since the period after the animated series went off the air in 1974.

Paramount Pictures was at a crossroads. It's hardly a secret that the Trek franchise is one of their most important assets, a consistent annual revenue source. No Trek meant much less money for the studio. Open to new ideas, the decision makers at Paramount decided to cut ties with the reigning Star Trek braintrust, handing the keys to J.J. Abrams. You know the rest of the story, but let's consider for a moment what a bold gambit this was.

After beginning his career as a screenwriter on such projects as Regarding Henry and Armageddon, he began to garner attention for his headline-grabbing creation, Felicity. In the first season, much of this was positive. The second season, Keri Russell got a haircut and the media turned on the whole thing. He followed this up with another celebration of female empowerment called Alias, which started wonderfully before gaining a reputation for constant reboots in the plot. Toward the end of Alias' run, he agreed to work on a pilot for a relatively nebulous idea that turned into Lost. If Lost were a slot machine, all of the slots would say 7.

Lost was such a jackpot for Abrams that Tom Cruise pursued him to direct Mission: Impossible III, one of the best action films of the 2000s. The problem is that the world was angry at Mr. Cruise at the time for getting footprints all over Oprah's couch. This untenable situation prevented a great film from breaking out. Mission: Impossible III is the least successful film of the trilogy in terms of domestic as well as international box office. What Paramount took from the project, however, is that it earned almost $400 million worldwide despite a strongly antagonistic attitude toward the film's star. They were impressed by Abrams' output and decided he was the man to inject life into the Star Trek franchise. Fittingly enough to fans of Alias and Lost, he elected to reboot Star Trek by starting over again from scratch.

Abrams took a page out of the Batman Begins playbook and chose to tell a story of how Captain Kirk came to be the leader of the Starship Enterprise. In the process, he made the bold gambit to ask audiences to accept the alternate universe premise that permeates throughout science fiction, thereby liberating the story from any pre-existing notions about the character. Instead of being raised by the best of fathers, Kirk was slightly modified into a rebelling teen with stepdaddy issues and a penchant for loose aliens and barfights. Okay, that last part isn't any different from the original Kirk, but you get the point. In starting from scratch, Abrams set himself up to be ridiculed and possibly even burned at the stake by the obsessive fan-base that comprises the Star Trek audience. Even the best case scenario prior to release appeared to be another performance on the level of Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact.

Then, early reviews came in. Action films aren't supposed to be well reviewed. It's the nature of the beast in this industry for popcorn flicks to be fluffy and instantly forgettable. This is particularly true of science fiction releases. So, when Star Trek's first reviews were glowing bordering on orgasmic, everyone was caught a bit off-guard. By the time all was said and done, the film was 94% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the best reviewed movies of 2009. And again, we're not talking about a smallish indie film that is hoping to be an Oscars contender. No, we're talking about a $140 million production that is the 11th film in its franchise. It's hard to stand out in a situation such as this yet that's exactly what happened with Star Trek.

The film debuted to a spectacular $79.2 million, which is impressive enough on its own. What boggles the mind is realizing that this three-day tally surpasses the entire domestic run of six of the prior ten Star Trek films. By the end of day five, it has beaten three more. The only thing left to do was become the most successful film in the franchise by surpassing Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (my personal favorite) and its domestic total of $109.7 million. This happened on Star Trek 2009's eighth day in theaters. In barely over a week, it was already the biggest Trek film of all-time. And as I pointed out at the time, even if we adjusted for inflation, it torched the competition on its way to $257.7 million domestically, a whopping $50 million ahead of any prior inflation-adjusted Trek release. It has become Abrams' second consecutive $390+ million worldwide performer and has even wound up getting a surprising amount of end-of-year awards mentions.

Simply put, this project is a success in every possible conceptualization of the word. Better yet, Abrams is poised to once again follow the Batman trajectory with his next film, which promises the introduction of the Star Trek franchise's answer to The Joker, Khan Noonien Singh. Don't be surprised if that one opens north of $100 million. After four decades in existence, Star Trek is somehow once again a franchise on the rise.