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August 17, 2011

New ‘Conan’ movie aims to bring back the barbarian

Posted in: Movies

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Jason Momoa as the title character in "Conan the Barbarian." (Simon Varsano / Lionsgate)

Conan the Barbarian doesn’t ask for much. “I live, I love, I slay, I am content,” he’s fond of saying. But the people behind Friday’s sword-and-sandals remake have more complicated ambitions for the big bruiser: putting some barbarity back into the barbarian.

Created in the 1930s by pulp author Robert E. Howard and immortalized by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1982’s camp-movie classic, Conan the Barbarian evolved from a menacing killer into an amiable superhero. Featured in Marvel comic books, a Saturday morning cartoon and a Universal Studios Hollywood stage show, the conqueror slowly but unquestionably went soft.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger in a scene from the 1982 film "Conan the Barbarian." (Reuters)

Lionsgate, Nu Image and Paradox Entertainment hope their new “Conan the Barbarian” movie restores some of the swordsman’s edge. In reinventing Conan, the filmmakers have jammed the movie with scenes reminiscent of an array of recent films, including “Lord of the Rings,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “300.” But “Conan” may still struggle reaching far beyond the fanboy crowd.

The $90-million, 3-D movie culminates a long campaign by Paradox to return Conan to the screen. Starting in 2002, the Sweden-based company began acquiring Conan’s copyrights and Howard’s library.

“When we started negotiations, it was prior to ‘Lord of the Rings,’ prior to Marvel movies [such as ‘Iron Man’], prior to ‘Harry Potter.’ People would see what we were doing and scratch their heads,” said Fredrik Malmberg, Paradox’s president and chief executive. “The brand was quite well-known — the awareness was high — but the way people approached it was all about the 1980s movie.”

In other words, when they thought of Conan they thought of a waxed-chest, thickly muscled Schwarzenegger, not some maniac who would rip your beating heart out of your chest.

In short order, Paradox collaborated with Dark Horse Comics on a new, darker Conan series, launched the violent Funcom/Eidos online video game Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and entered into a Howard publishing deal with Random House. But the “Conan” movie remake, in development at Warner Bros., proved a trickier endeavor.

“We languished within the big studio system for several years,” Malmberg said. “It was never close to getting made.”

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Jason Momoa as the title character in "Conan the Barbarian." (Simon Varsano / Lionsgate)

In 2007, Avi Lerner’s Nu Image won the remake rights after Warner Bros. abandoned the project, and Nu Image sold the film’s U.S., Canadian and British rights to Lionsgate for $25 million. Lerner was talked out of casting Vin Diesel in the lead — newcomer Jason Momoa from HBO’s epic fantasy series “Game of Thrones” plays Conan.

After Brett Ratner flirted with the movie, the studio hired Marcus Nispel (who had remade “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th”) to direct.

The very thing that makes “Conan” an attractive movie idea — a strong following among men — is also its liability. “It’s confined to comic book fans and video gamers,” Malmberg said. The general public, he said, “probably doesn’t know” the Conan mythology well.

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Rose McGowan in "Conan the Barbarian." (Simon Varsano / Lionsgate)

Yet before Lionsgate could sell the movie to that broader audience, it first had to placate Conan’s most militant followers. “Conan is beloved by the hard-core geeks,” said Tim Palen, Lionsgate’s marketing chief. “And for a lot of geeks, Arnold Schwarzenegger is Conan — and no one can fill his sandals. That’s one of the first things we had to overcome.”

While that audience is a sliver of all potential ticket buyers, “if they turn on you, there’s no redemption,” Palen said.

In its earliest positioning for the film in “Conan” posters, Lionsgate drew on artwork by Frank Frazetta, a respected science fiction and fantasy illustrator who did Conan paperback covers in the 1960s. “That’s good shorthand for the rabid, opinionated fan base — that we’re going back to the roots of who Conan is,” Palen said.

Momoa helped his cause by tearing an enemy’s throat out bare-handed several months ago on “Game of Thrones.” When Lionsgate had a rough version of the film ready to screen, it invited Conan disciples to its Santa Monica offices for an early look — to see that the remake (rated R for “strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity”) had copious decapitations and eviscerations. The studio also posted several blood-splattered sequences in an R-rated trailer.

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Jason Momoa and Rachel Nichols in "Conan the Barbarian." (Simon Varsano / Lionsgate)

Audience tracking surveys show that while older men are “Conan’s” biggest potential audience, followed closely by younger men, younger women are far more interested in the horror thriller “Fright Night” and the romantic drama “One Day,” both of which premiere in wide release this weekend. (The other new film is Robert Rodriguez’s family film “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D,” which has broad but unspectacular early interest.)

Early reviews for “Conan” have been mixed to poor, which could limit its playability.

Conan might be a killing machine once again, but making a killing at the box office looks to be a bit more challenging.

– John Horn

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