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Friday, March 1, 2024

Hugh Jackman’s Odyssey Franchise That Never Set Sail

The Big Picture

  • Showrunner Al Jean isn’t impressed with the original Odyssey, criticizing its slow pace and lack of engaging characters.
  • Lionsgate saw potential in turning The Odyssey into a film franchise anchored by Hugh Jackman, but the project ultimately failed to materialize.
  • The failure of Gods of Egypt and the unavailability of director Francis Lawrence contributed to the demise of The Odyssey project.

In the audio commentary track for the Simpsons episode “Tales from the Public Domain,” showrunner Al Jean drops a scalding hot take in talking about the program’s parody of The Odyssey by saying he isn’t that impressed with the original Greek epic poem. Jean’s primary point of criticism centers around how long it takes for anything to happen in the story and how this makes the characters uninvolving. While the enduring tale of Homer’s Odyssey wasn’t Jean’s cup of tea, this story was certainly seen as viable by executives at the movie studio Lionsgate. At one point, this company was planning on turning to this ancient yarn as the basis for a new film franchise that would be anchored by Hugh Jackman. There was a lot of ambition here, none of which would end up realized.

The Earliest Days of Lionsgate’s ‘The Odyssey’

The Drover (Hugh Jackman) in Faraway Downs
Image via Hulu

Lionsgate has always been a strange beast in the American film landscape.Starting up in 1997 (thanks largely to absorbing Cinepix, another studio that had existed since the 1960s), Lionsgate has stuck around long enough and purchased enough rival companies to amass a significant library of movies. With this library, plus major box office hits like La La Land, John Wick, and The Hunger Games movies, Lionsgate has easily avoided becoming the next Weinstein Company or Relativity Media. However, it’s often struggled to develop enough new movies to have a steady annual output of fresh releases, as bigger studios such as Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures have. Plus, its love of cheapie direct-to-video titles has diluted the Lionsgate brand more than a bit.

With the underlying violable financials of Lionsgate, it’s no surprise that the imminent demise of The Hunger Games in 2015 was weighing heavily on the studio’s mind. Whereas Warner Bros. had several other major franchises and mid-budget original films to turn to for box office hits once Harry Potter wound down in 2011, TheHunger Games ending deprived Lionsgate of its sole major franchise at the time. It was time for the studio to start committing to other movies that could launch new exciting franchises spawning long-term revenue streams. Gods of Egypt was on the horizon for 2016 while a new take on Power Rangers was brewing for 2017.

Then there was The Odyssey, which Lionsgate was really striving to make a successor to The Hunger Games. This was apparent in the creative time assembled for the feature, with director Francis Lawrence, the man responsible for helming the Hunger Games sequels, directing The Odyssey while producer Nina Jacobson and writer Peter Craig, both Hunger Games veterans, reprising those roles on this new fantasy epic. Lionsgate was now turning to the people responsible for so much of Katniss Everdeen’s big-screen exploits to help figure out its franchise future beyond Panem.

Why ‘The Odyssey’?

It’s not surprising that Lionsgate turned to The Odyssey as ripe material for a new long-term franchise. For starters, the property is in the public domain, you don’t have to pay anyone to use it. Even more importantly, it’s a fantasy story, but not quite the kind that dominates other major Hollywood franchises. It’s not a fantasy tale associated with classic animated Disney movies, for one thing, while it’s also devoid of wizards and dragons like the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movies. The Odyssey is more in line with Clash of the Titans among notable fantasy feature films. With no royalties to pay and an easy chance to stand out in the marketplace of blockbuster fantasy features, Lionsgate pushed full steam ahead on The Odyssey.

By the end of May 2015, the head of Lionsgate publicly announced that The Odyssey was being conceived as more than one movie while a few months later, Hugh Jackman began to enter talks to headline this movie. With his then-final Wolverine movie Logan on the near horizon, Jackman was about to have a way more open schedule on his hands. This could’ve opened him up to opportunities to headline multiple Odyssey features, which Lionsgate would’ve loved to see anchored by a familiar Oscar-nominated face like Hugh Jackman. All things seemed to be moving in just the right direction for The Odyssey, with these developments even occurring before the last Hunger Games dropped in theaters. The franchise’s successor at Lionsgate was getting its rear in gear just in time.

However, there would be no further updates on this project. Original plans to get this thing filming at the start of 2016 never panned out. The Odyssey quietly perished before ever setting out to sea.

Why Didn’t ‘The Odyssey’ Ever Go Forward?

Gerard Butler as Egyptian God Set in the film Gods of Egypt
Image via Lionsgate

The Odyssey was being made in response to The Hunger Games, but it was likely Gods of Egypt that spelled doom for this project. This Lionsgate blockbuster debuted in theaters just six months after word broke that Jackman was in talks to star in The Odyssey. Gods of Egypt didn’t just struggle at the box office, it cratered financially, killing off one of Lionsgate’s biggest hopes for a post-Hunger Games cash cow. It also almost certainly made the studio much more hesitant about sinking in an exorbitant budget into another pricey fantasy blockbuster.

It didn’t help that director Francis Lawrence, fresh off his work directing a trio of lucrative Hunger Games movies, was incredibly in demand in Hollywood. Being pulled between several potential projects, The Odyssey grew to be less and less of a priority, with Lawrence settling on Red Sparrow as his next directorial effort. Without this experienced filmmaker around to shepherd The Odyssey, Lionsgate was way less passionate about seeing this feature realized. Plus, there was never any further word on Hugh Jackman’s participation in the movie, presumably because talks between him and Lionsgate broke down. The lack of an A-list lead was another terrible strike against The Odyssey getting to exist.

While some blockbusters never being realized inspire sorrow in countless people, The Odyssey never getting off the ground doesn’t seem like an especially massive tragedy. While the movie was never destined to be absolutely terrible, the fact that it clearly largely existed to fill a new hole in Lionsgate’s release slate didn’t bode well for its artistic value. The lack of any leaked concept art packed for the project has also assured that there haven’t been any tantalizing peeks at promising visuals that inspire people to wonder what could’ve been. This attempt at making a modern take on The Odyssey has faded from memory and largely functions now as a testament to how much Lionsgate has struggled to produce frequent hits as impactful as those Hunger Games movies. If there’s any victor in this scenario, though, it must be Al Jean with his long-standing aversion to The Odyssey in any form.

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