Pic is entirely digital sci-fi creation

HOLLYWOOD — With the threat of an actors strike looming, the film “Final Fantasy” would seem a corporate dream: a movie with characters who look and talk like actors, but are merely digital imaginings.

And this is no high-tech short subject, but rather a major summer release with a budget somewhere between $115 million and $140 million.

It’s also one of two vidgame-based battling it out this summer.

Paramount’s “Tomb Raider,” set for release June 15, is a live-action adaptation of the popular PlayStation franchise, with a star — Angelina Jolie — in the lead, an array of glitzy marketing tie-ins and a negative cost of about $80 million.

“Final Fantasy,” on the other hand, is the megabuck high-tech vision of Square Co., a Tokyo-based firm that’s well known in the vidgame trade but completely new to Hollywood. Sony will unleash “Fantasy” on July 13.

Having made $700 million on eight versions of the “Final Fantasy” game, Square surprised some by eschewing live-action — the norm for vidgame adaptations, from “Mortal Kombat” to “Super Mario Bros.” — in favor of a bold, photorealistic approach.

The company professed great admiration for Pixar’s “Toy Story.” It vowed that its film would likewise have no stuntmen, no stars storming off to their trailers.

In other words, “Final Fantasy” would be an entirely digital sci-fi creation, a fact that makes Sony’s distribution and marketing of the pic an intriguing proposition.

“It’s the first time that a videogame’s translation to film will be in the medium of the game,” says Chris Lee, producer of “Final Fantasy” and former head of TriStar Pictures, which acquired the project.

In order to execute its plan, Square invested $45 million in a state-of-the-art digital studio in Hawaii and then at least $115 million (with many saying closer to $140 million) to produce the film.

Unlike “Tomb Raider” — gamemakers Core Design Group and Eidos Interactive handed over that pic’s creative production duties to Par — Square kept the joystick firmly in the hands of the game designer who created the franchise, Hironobu Sakaguchi.

But Square is clearly in uncharted — and expensive –territory, rife with potential pitfalls.

“Final Fantasy’s” budget may not be at “Titanic’s” watermark, but with a philosophical plot that has absolutely no relation to the blockbuster PlayStation vidgame series — and one that feels dangerously akin to last summer’s expensive toon bomb ‘Titan A.E.” — Square’s first foray into filmmaking easily could be its last.

Set in 2065, with Earth’s human population decimated by alien attacks, “Fantasy” follows a female scientist as she embarks on a spiritual quest to try to save the human race. The film features the voices of Ming-Na, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Donald Sutherland, James Woods and Alec Baldwin.

Given such a dark and mysterious sci-fi setting, a major challenge lies in marketing the pic to the uninitiated. Animation is a tough sell these days, even for Disney and DreamWorks, the most committed of all studios in the toon biz.

The B.O. egg laid last summer by “Titan A.E.” facilitated Bill Mechanic’s exit from Fox and crippled the studio’s animation division. It also raised questions about efforts to court teens with toons.

Sony is understood to be committing at least $30 million in P&A for “Final Fantasy” — only slightly above the average for a studio movie — with additional support based on a complex B.O. formula.

Despite the hurdles it faces, Square is betting “Fantasy’s” visuals will draw gamers and mainstream teen auds.

Square has spared no expense in trying to produce the most realistic humans ever created by a computer: It took over some of the most expensive real estate in Honolulu for its HQand hired an army of high-priced animators from various f/x houses, led by former Digital Domain veteran Andy Jones (“Titanic,” “Godzilla”), who served as animation supervisor.

To help produce the pic, Square hired Jun Aida, the exec producer on vidgame-to-film “Street Fighter,” also distribbed by Sony.

“Final Fantasy’s” chief advantage is that it boasts breathtakingly real animation.

Lee describes the pic as having “an almost painterly quality,” and he’s right: Some scenes used the equivalent of 60,000 “strands” to make animated human hair look like, well, human hair.

Those touches might work on DVD — “There’s a lot of ‘wow’ factor operating here,” asserts Ben Feingold, Sony’s head of homevideo, who helped bring the project to Sony — but will they be enough to spark the interest of America’s popcorn-crunching masses at the megaplex?

Even Square’s topper Hisashi Suzuki admits that if “Final Fantasy” should fail at the box office, “it could do major damage” to the company. But Square won’t likely be squashed. All the company has to do is release a ninth version of the game and it is likely to recoup the money it poured into the pic.

Still, expenses already are taking a toll, with Square recently posting its first profitless quarter due to spending on the movie. It also has dropped plans to create an $8 million online gaming venture.

While Lee is an experienced production exec, Columbia had little influence on the pic. Early footage, while visually arresting, offers dialogue that is often cliched and a complex plotline informed by Eastern spiritualism. Those ingredients may leave the teen audience scratching its collective head — if the notoriously fickle demo can be persuaded to make a rare visit to an animated pic.

Should “Final Fantasy” succeed, other Square pics are being planned.

The company recently pacted with Japanese vidgame makers Namco and Enix to produce features using computer graphics.

As the film novices at Square sweat out the final weeks before “Final Fantasy” bows, their “Tomb Raider” counterparts are displaying considerable sangfroid.

“They (Paramount) make movies,” says Sutton Trout, director of creative affairs at Eidos, explaining the vidgame maker’s respectful distance from the day-to-day process. “We recognize that we are not in a position to tell them how to make a movie. We make games. We didn’t have any interest in creating in a movie what we’ve already done.”

Veteran producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin already are beaming about “Tomb Raider,” which opens June 15.

The pic stars Jolie as the game’s buxom, Indiana Jones-like adventurer Lara Croft. She packs 9mm pistols, a keen intellect — and very little clothing.

Par’s “Raider” thus far seems to have the upper hand with fans, generating strong buzz on the Internet.

Stylized to the hilt by “Con Air” helmer Simon West, the pic has sex appeal, and Paramount already is savoring the possibility of a franchise.

Whatever the outcome this summer, Lee points out that the two vidgame-based movies aren’t just competing with each other.

“People like to compare us, which is fine,” Lee says. “But I think of everybody as the real competition: ‘Jurassic Park III,’ ‘A.I.,’ ‘Planet of the Apes.’ That’s who we’re up against.”

(John Gaudiosi contributed to this report.)

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