/ 18 November 2005

Holy Disney

Disney is out to prove that you can serve God and Mammon after all. Next month, the company will release the first instalment of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a film based on the much-loved book by CS Lewis. It hopes the work, a thinly veiled Christian allegory, will be the beginning of the biggest franchise in the history of its film business.

If it is a success, and the early buzz has been positive, there are another six books for the company to mine for sequels. Disney is mounting one of the most high profile campaigns ever to ensure it scores big at the box office. The film is reported to have cost about $150-million to make.

It has tie-ins with companies including McDonald’s, General Mills, Virgin Atlantic, Kodak and Oral-B; more than 60 licences have been handed out to manufacture board games, dolls, trading cards and replica swords; HarperCollins is shipping out 170 related books including box sets and audio versions to more than 60 countries and a video game is in development.

”Narnia is a big bet for them,” says David Cohen at Hollywood trade paper, Variety. ”It’s a huge project for a studio that doesn’t usually do this kind of visual effects-packed film. They are determined to use all of their marketing muscle to turn this into their own Lord of the Rings, which they turned down, by the way. It’s going to be quite a blitz.” The launch of the film could not have arrived at a more critical juncture for Disney. The company’s box office has been sliding for three years and it has suffered a string of flops, including The Brothers Grimm, The Great Raid and Valiant. Disney recently projected that its film unit would lose $300-million in its fiscal fourth quarter.

Key partnerships have fallen apart too. Its profit-sharing venture with Pixar, the hit-making computer-animation studio is coming to an end after an acrimonious falling out between former Disney chief Michael Eisner and Pixar chairman Steve Jobs. By some estimates the Pixar relationship generated $1-billion in profits, more than half the Disney film studio earnings during the life of the agreement. It produced hits such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. The Weinstein brothers, the Oscar-friendly filmmakers behind the Disney-owned Miramax studio, have also walked out.

The stakes are equally high on two other projects. Disney has just released its first fully originated computer animation feature, Chicken Little, and has invested upwards of $400-million to make two sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean at once.

Chicken Little will help determine whether Disney can recapture the animation crown that slipped with hand-drawn duds of recent years including Treasure Island and Brother Bear.Despite poor reviews, Chicken Little opened strongly, taking $40-million in the US in its first weekend.

Some doubt it will help. Peter Sealy, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive and now professor at the University of California at Berkeley, remains sceptical. ”Can Disney’s magic transfer into the 21st century? It’s a big leap,” he says. ”The dominance that Disney had even 10 years ago is something they won’t enjoy again. The question is can they even compete in the new world?”

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe follows four children who discover a magical pathway to another world, where they meet the Christ-like lion Aslan. Paramount had earlier tried and failed to get the project off the ground.

Disney has looked on enviously at the blockbusting franchises developed by its rivals. Time Warner had The Lord of the Rings and still has the Harry Potter series; Sony has Spider-Man and News Corp has reaped enormous profits from the Star Wars series and X-Men; all provide a regular box-office fillip as well as the merchandising and DVDs that wring profits out of popular series.

”It’s a major failure that Disney has not developed a franchise,” Sealy says. ”It’s a classic element of movie marketing — a big opening followed by three or four more films. But the big Disney films were self-contained and they missed the boat.”

The signs for Narnia are good. British authors and the fantasy genre have proved a winning combination for The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies. The Narnia books have sold a combined 90-million copies since they were first published in the 1950s.

With the unexpected $600-million box-office success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ still ringing in Hollywood’s ears, Disney hopes to appeal to the evangelical Christian market as well as secular audiences. It has hired specialist marketing firms and provided sneak previews in churches as well as promotional and resource materials aimed at ministers, teachers and scout troops. It is even releasing separate soundtracks, one featuring Christian artists.

Cohen concedes the approach could backfire and secular audiences could be turned off. But he thinks Disney is smart enough to keep the two markets sufficiently apart. ”It depends on how much they push the religion in the national campaign, and I doubt they will,” he says. ”Hollywood as a whole is now aware there is money to be made in [the Christian] market and people will pursue cash where they see it. But I don’t think they will jeopardise the main audience.”

A hit would be a welcome Christmas present for Disney. — Â