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Cape Fear

''Superman Lives'' struggles -- Why the super-expensive film can't seem to get off the ground.

Two months ago, Tim Burton cruised over Pittsburgh's Fort Pitt bridge and took a final glance at the steely downtown skyline. The director planned to spend his summer here directing Nicolas Cage in Superman Lives, and on this trip, Burton, accompanied by his producer and his production designer, was choosing final locations. By the time the trio boarded the plane back to L.A., a glass-exterior, Philip Johnson-designed office building had been rechristened Lex Luthor's lair, and the classical City-County Building had been chosen to headquarter the Daily Planet.

Meanwhile, at the New York offices of DC Comics, Superman's birthplace and home for the last 60 years, an artist was imposing a picture of the limpid-eyed Cage onto a sketch of Superman. Perhaps Cage as Superman was no more odd a prospect than Michael Keaton as Batman. Perhaps, thought the cartoonist, doodling an S curl onto Cage's forehead, this could work after all.

But on May 1, Warner Bros. quietly shut down the production office of Superman Lives, where, for the last year, designers had churned out sketches and producers had watched the film's budget soar above $100 million. At the same time, Warner cochair Terry Semel announced that on the heels of such expensive disasters as The Postman and Sphere, it would be scaling back on ''big event movies'' and focusing more on mid-priced films. (The decision, following a brutal year for the studio at the nation's cineplexes, ironically comes at a time when Warner's TV division has helped boost Time Warner to record overall earnings.) The studio is also likely to reduce the overall number of films it releases every year, a strategy Disney is pursuing as well.

While the studio made no mention of the closed production office and offered assurances that the Burton-Cage project was still in active development, Superman Lives became, in that moment, a painfully ironic title. While countless movies have taken a tour of duty in development hell, the sudden derailing of a film on which a studio has already committed upward of $30 million in talent deals and preproduction costs is almost without precedent.

Yet just this March, Fox and Universal scotched plans much earlier in the game for their own expensive live-action comic-book films, Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk, when projected costs started to spin out of control, and Warner itself decided to put the brakes on a $100 million-plus Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle called I Am Legend. Has Hollywood, which has seen its domestic profits dwindle in an overstuffed movie marketplace, suddenly decided that, Titanic notwithstanding, bigger isn't better? Possibly. Five years in the non-making, Superman is the story not only of a troubled project, but of an industry suddenly — if sloppily — changing its ways.

In the late '80s and early '90s, Warner Bros. had a reputation for big spending — and for big profits. Conservative in its formulaic approach to films (big, expensive stars in high-concept, action-heavy, Oscar-challenged enterprises) and freewheeling in its funding, the studio's coffers had recently been filled with more than $750 million, thanks to two Batmans and three Lethal Weapons. Uniting, reuniting, and re-reuniting larger-than-life characters with larger-than-life effects, it seemed, could keep the corporate Gulfstream jets aloft for years.

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