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Shyamalan targets new audience, redemption with ‘Airbender’

Claudia Eller Los Angeles Times

The ultimate auteur is going for the Happy Meal.

M. Night Shyamalan, the director who became a prodigal Hollywood success with his haunting stories of the supernatural before stumbling badly with his last two pictures, hopes to stage a comeback with a movie involving two consumer giants: Nickelodeon and McDonald’s.

“The Last Airbender,” which opened Thursday, marks a sharp departure for Shyamalan, whose 1999 blockbuster “The Sixth Sense” shot the then-29-year-old director to fame and fortune.

The fantasy adventure story, spun off from a Nickelodeon animated TV series, is the first film he’s made that wasn’t based on his own idea. And it’s aimed squarely at kids and families, a genre and audience that the filmmaker has largely eschewed.

To get back on track after the huge commercial and critical disappointments of “The Happening” and “Lady in the Water,” Shyamalan is seeking the only redemption that Hollywood recognizes: a movie with franchise potential and plenty of brand name recognition.

He even met with the movie’s promotional partner, McDonald’s – which is serving up “Last Airbender” Happy Meals – and shot and appears in TV spots selling “Last Airbender” Flip video cameras.

“For the last 10 years, I’ve been working in a cottage industry of the supernatural,” says Shyamalan. “And I’ve always had my eye on doing a franchise.”

Shyamalan, who envisions “Last Airbender” as a trilogy, says the Nickelodeon series interested him because it lent itself to “long-form storytelling” and encompassed areas of personal interest: martial arts, mysticism and spirituality.

Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which aired from 2005 to 2008, centers around Aang, a young avatar who controls the elements of water, fire, air and earth and holds the power to restore peace to a war-torn world.

The film also represents a big gamble for Paramount Pictures. The Nickelodeon sister company fully financed the movie, increasing the risk should it perform below expectations.

With a production cost of $150 million and a blockbuster-size $130-million marketing budget, “The Last Airbender” is more than twice as expensive as any of Shyamalan’s previous eight films.

And given his recent misses, some have questioned Paramount’s wisdom in handing him such a large-scale project, especially one designed to carry the studio at the height of the popcorn movie season.

Paramount Chief Executive Brad Grey says he’s not worried.

“Like every filmmaker, Night has had his hits and misses, but I believed in his vision and that he could execute it,” Grey says, adding: “It’s a bold step because he had to create a potential new family franchise.”

“The Last Airbender” signals Paramount’s latest push to use Nickelodeon’s TV series as a seedbed for movies, as it has with “Rugrats” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” in a bid to grab more of the family entertainment market dominated by Disney.

It also comes at a time when nearly all the studios are stepping up efforts to target the family market, as G- and PG-rated movies account for the most reliable segment of the box office. Hollywood is preoccupied with owning recognizable brands and franchises that can generate hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket, DVD and licensing and merchandising sales.

Shyamalan says he made the lead character, Aang, older in hopes of broadening the appeal beyond the TV series’ younger viewership.

“The movie is less slapsticky and more epic and darker,” he says, than what viewers are accustomed to watching on Nickelodeon.

After several years of toying with the idea of making a larger-scale movie, Shyamalan said he finally settled on “Last Airbender” after watching the Nickelodeon series on DVD with his then-7-year-old daughter, who was taken with the “empowered” female character, Katara.

He called Grey to pitch him the idea of adapting the show into a movie.

“That began a long odyssey and dance to get the movie of this scale approved,” Shyamalan recalls. “It’s humbling to think of the amount of trust they had in what I was saying. This isn’t a small movie.”

The movie’s extensive visual effects and 3-D shots made it the most technically complicated production he has overseen. And the shooting location in inhospitable Greenland was only the second time Shyamalan had shot a movie outside his longtime home near Philadelphia.

Those challenges led him to team with husband-and-wife producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, with whom he had worked on “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.” They have extensive experience with supersize productions including the “Bourne” and “Indiana Jones” movies.

“Night came to us mainly because he was stepping out of his comfort zone and this was a much bigger movie than he had ever attempted,” says Marshall.

“His movies are very contained and usually set in one location. This was a much bigger challenge having to create this fantastical world with four nations.”

Then there was the harsh reality of the hard sell.

“This is the first time that MTV Networks and Paramount have made a movie a complete priority across the entire Viacom organization’s platforms,” says Pam Kaufman, Nickelodeon’s chief marketing officer, who coordinated a cross-promotional campaign with sister channels MTV, Comedy Central, Spike TV and country-themed CMT.

Shyamalan was enlisted by Paramount and Nickelodeon to actively participate in what it bills as the cable channel’s largest movie promotion, meeting not only with McDonald’s but master toy licensee Spin Master Ltd. and video game licensee THQ Inc.

“I love the sell,” says Shyamalan, adding that he enjoyed the commercials he made for American Express a few years ago when the company featured well-known artists to promote its charge cards.

Paramount’s Grey says he was optimistic about the movie’s commercial prospects based on audience reaction in test screenings and strong prerelease “tracking,” particularly among males.

“Airbender,” however, will face tough competition for female viewers since they will be flocking to “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” which opened Wednesday.

“I’m hoping after they see ‘Eclipse,’ they’ll come see our movie,” Shyamalan says.

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