Family feature films get a familiar ring

Desperate to pump up the box office for family-oriented movies, Hollywood is going after brand names – everything from the Discovery Channel and National Geographic to Nickelodeon and Scholastic magazines.

Last week, Daily Variety reported that Discovery is forming Discovery Pictures to produce theatrical nature documentaries in both 35mm and the large-screen Imax format.

National Geographic has a theatrical-movie deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment, Scholastic has two major studio movies in the works for release later this year and Nickelodeon is working with 20th Century Fox to develop one or more family theatricals. Insiders say that when the Fox deal expires later this year, Nickelodeon will shift over to Paramount, its sister company under parent Viacom Inc.

Citing Walt Disney Pictures as a brand that can give theatrical movies a leg up on the competition, Harold Vogel, entertainment analyst with Cowen & Co., says a brand identity is “like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.” Seeing a familiar name like Discovery or National Geographic attached to a movie “would incline moviegoers to perceive that the picture has a certain quality level” that they’d be comfortable taking their kids to.

But brand identity as a concept can be somewhat fuzzy. What the Discovery Channel and Nickelodeon can bring to a theatrical is free advertising on their mass-circulation cable networks that could be worth a king’s ransom to a studio opening a picture in 2,000 theaters.

Amy Pascal, Turner Pictures president of production, says a key reason that industry executives are gravitating toward companies with brands is that “a lot of the family movies that the studios put into theaters last summer tanked, and producers began getting cold feet.”

Pics that tanked

Just about every studio has produced one or more disappointing family pictures in the last year, among them Paramount’s “Lassie” and “Andre,” Warner Bros.’ “The Secret Garden” and “Black Beauty,” 20th Century Fox’s “Baby’s Day Out” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” Columbia’s “Little Big League,” MGM’s “Getting Even with Dad” and Universale “The War.”

The new family movies in development with the branded companies range all over the lot. Nickelodeon wants to make the next “Home Alone,” says Geraldine Laybourne, president of Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite, pointing out how that movie “opened the floodgates and made the major studios realize that there’s a big market for kids’ and family films.”

National Geographic’s model for a theatrical it would like to produce is “Gorillas in the Mist,” with Sigourney Weaver as the naturalist Dian Fossey, who’s “a great real-life character, ” says Tim Kelly, senior VP of National Geographic Television. “We want to do stories that cover the world of archaeology, science, adventure, exploration and wildlife.”

Scholastic Prods, is another brand that’s stamped firmly on two forthcoming theatricals, the big-budget “Indian in the Cupboard,” which Paramount will release domestically and Columbia internationally, and the $6.5 million “Babysitters’ Club,” which Columbia will distribute worldwide.

“We bring years of understanding and expertise in dealing with children from preschool through high school,” says Jane Startz, executive VP for Scholastic Prods. But her mandate in producing theatrical movies is to make pictures that appeal not only to kids but to their parents as well.

The kids connection

While Nickelodeon and the Discovery Channel control natural publicity vehicles through their cable networks, each of which reaches more than 60 million homes, Startz says Scholastic funnels magazines and books to every school kid in the U.S. As she puts it, “We own one of the strongest marketing mechanisms in existence that’s targeted to the kid audience.”

Although Scholastic, Nickelodeon and National Geographic plan to turn even their fact-based material into fiction, Discovery is the one branded company that’s not planning to dramatize its documentaries. “Everybody else, from Disney to Turner, is doing docudramas,” says Greg Moyer, president and chief operating officer of worldwide programming for the Discovery Networks. “We’ve decided to go in the other direction.”

Moyer cites the recent two-hour cablecast of the docu “Carrier: Fortress at Sea” as the highest-rated program in the 10-year history of the Discovery Channel. Other two-hour docu specials that have scored big ratings on Discovery include “Ivory Wars,” “People of the Forest” and “In the Company of Whales.”

Serengeti saga

The first theatrical docu on Discovery’s slate, now in postproduction and targeted for release in the spring of 1996, is “The Leopard Son,” filmed in 35mm on the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania by Hugo van Lawick (“People of the Forest”).

No theatrical distributor is on board yet, and Moyer doesn’t rule out a pay-per-view telecast of “Leopard Son” simultaneous with its release in theaters. That’s because John Malone’s Tele-Communications Inc., which owns 49% of Discovery, has just formed a division to come up with PPV events that go beyond boxing and music concerts. That pay-per-view strategy could make it hard for Discovery to find a theatrical distributor for its movies because theaters would resist sharing their window with PPV.

Because documentaries are unlikely to stir up much box office interest (see story, page 15), Discovery Pictures plans to keep the budgets pegged at a rock-bottom $3 million or so. Six months after their theatrical run, the Discovery movies will go into homevideo as sellthrough cassettes. Six months after homevideo, they’ll appear on the Discovery Channel, thus bypassing pay cable, network TV and TV syndication, the usual domestic stops on the ancillary-market journey of a theatrical movie.

On a separate track from the theatrical plans for “Leopard Son,” Moyer says, is Discovery’s deal with Imax to produce at least one 40-minute large-format documentary a year at an average cost of about $5.5 million apiece. The first one, an untitled docu on elephants, won’t be ready for showing until late 1997, he says.

Whether all of this branding results in bigger grosses for family theatricals is still very much an open question. Nickelodeon and National Geographic still haven’t started production on their first movies, and “Leopard Son” is more than a year away from its debut in theaters.

“Except for Walt Disney, there’s no proof that a brand name has a positive effect on movie attendance,” says National Geo’s Kelly. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the magic solution when it comes to predicting box office.”

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