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."