Aug. 13--Matthew Vaughn was shocked to learn early last year that Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., the domestic distributor of his 2010 superhero movie "Kick-Ass," wasn't interested in a sequel.
The quirky, R-rated "Kick-Ass" had grossed $101 million worldwide and developed a cult following that led to a strong performance in the home entertainment market.
Vaughn, who independently financed the $28-million project, expected that the Santa Monica studio, which had a first right of refusal on the domestic rights, would be on board for a chance to build a franchise. He planned to make the second movie for the same price as the first -- penny-pinching that is rare in Hollywood these days, especially after a success.
"They [Lions Gate] were so brave when they bought it, and really, they worked hard," said Vaughn, who wrote, directed and produced the original "Kick-Ass."
"I thought, 'Guys, you did the heavy lifting, you spent the money, this is gravy time.'"
Spurned by Lions Gate, Vaughn, who after "Kick-Ass" went on to direct the hit "X-Men: First Class," turned to Universal Pictures.
The studio had handled international distribution for "Kick-Ass," which took in $52.9 million abroad, so Vaughn was familiar with the company. Universal quickly made a deal to acquire worldwide rights to the sequel for about $29 million before production began in London in September.
Like its predecessor, "Kick-Ass 2" is based on the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. comic book of the same name that centers on the adventures of teenagers who dress up as superheroes and become vigilantes. It will be released Friday in about 2,800 theaters in the U.S. and Canada.
Observers say that it is rare that a studio with a first right of refusal on distribution rights would allow what is perceived to be a successful project to fall into the hands of a rival.
"It was a surprise that it switched studios," said Jonah Weiland, owner of comic book news website Comic Book Resources, which also covers the film business. "Certainly the sequel has some momentum. It has a great cast, and they added some great new characters."
According to a person familiar with the studio's thinking but who was not authorized to comment, Lions Gate passed on "Kick-Ass 2" in part because at the time of discussions it had only recently acquired Summit Entertainment and was in the process of integrating that company's projects into its own film slate, which made for a crowded pipeline.
Lions Gate declined to comment.
"Kick-Ass 2," which again stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the titular crime fighter, and Chloe Grace Moretz as his invective-spewing partner, could gross about $20 million over its opening weekend, according to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys.
That would be in line with the $19.8-million bow for "Kick-Ass" in April 2010. It could also be enough to win the weekend and put the film, which was written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, on the path to profitability.
"From a pure business standpoint, this movie can do exactly what the first movie did and be a very successful business proposition for us," said Adam Fogelson, chairman of Universal.
Still, "Kick-Ass 2" is also facing some controversy. In June, Jim Carrey, who appears in the sequel as costumed vigilante Col. Stars and Stripes, disavowed the picture in a message he posted on Twitter.
Carrey, whose grizzled "Kick-Ass 2" character takes down foes with an ax handle, said that in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school massacre in December, he couldn't promote a movie with a high "level of violence."
But "Kick-Ass" comic book co-creator Millar, who has been a producer on both films, said Carrey's comments gave the sequel a boost in visibility that a film of its size was unlikely to have received otherwise.
"We probably got $30 million of advertising value," he said. "Saying something like a movie called 'Kick-Ass' is too violent is like saying, 'This porno has too much sex.' The curiosity factor [with audiences] is just gigantic."
But Vaughn, who wrote and directed the first movie and is a producer on "Kick-Ass 2," said Carrey's actions left him "deeply disappointed."
"You do not get paid to make a film and then publicly say you are not supporting it without at least having the manners to approach the filmmakers and say, 'This is what I am going to do,'" Vaughn said.
"Kick-Ass 2" went into production after the July 2012 shooting rampage at a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater -- an incident that Vaughn said Carrey must have been aware of yet still moved forward with the project.
"I can't believe he just woke up one day and felt this strongly about gun violence," Vaughn said.
Carrey declined to comment.
Though the incident may have given "Kick-Ass 2" a publicity boost, a challenge for the film will be to convert people who watched "Kick-Ass" at home -- either on a legitimate platform or by illegally downloading it -- into theater-going customers.
According to a list published by TorrentFreak, a website that covers file-sharing news, as of fall 2011 "Kick-Ass" was the No. 7 most-pirated film of all time on the BitTorrent file-sharing protocol, behind blockbusters such as "Avatar" and "The Dark Knight."
Research by the film business analytics firm Nash Information Services showed that "Kick-Ass" also sold about 1.19 million DVDs in the United States and 827,753 million Blu-ray discs, and accounted for $31.9 million in rental revenue in the U.S. That helped make Universal's decision to release the second film simpler.
"A lot of people really warmed to this in its ancillary life in ways that are measurable," Fogelson said. "Our instinct was that on top of that there were many more people who had seen it in ways that couldn't necessarily be measured, whether it was pay TV or things like Netflix and Redbox."
Should the movie succeed, Fogelson believes that the narrative of "Kick-Ass 2" lays the groundwork for future films.
And there is more source material -- though not an unlimited supply. In June, Icon Comics, an imprint of Marvel Comics, released the premiere issue of "Kick-Ass 3," which will be the final story arc in the series.
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