Calling ’em wrong

How B.O. pundits, crix misread tea leaves on two of the season's key releases

Even in this age of corporate congloms, the movie biz is hardly a science.

A little more than a month ago, Warner Bros.’ “The Polar Express” was widely pilloried, and if anyone was paying attention to Walt Disney’s “National Treasure,” it was critics readying their brickbats.

Fast forward five weeks and “National Treasure” has become only the third movie of the year to claim the No. 1 spot on the box office charts three weeks in a row, and “Polar Express” has shown remarkable resiliency, defying the doom-and-gloom pronouncements following its Nov. 10 opening.

The paths of the two pics couldn’t be more different — one appearing nearly out of nowhere (to the press at least) and defying all expectations, the other initially failing to live up to its over-sized hype but nevertheless legging its way to success.

But they both prove that conventional wisdom in Hollywood can be flat-out wrong.

While “Treasure” was the hit no one saw coming, “Polar Express” headed into theaters like, well, a speeding locomotive.

The toon’s profile was raised by having some of the biggest names in Hollywood attached — Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis — as well as a pricetag that Warners sources peg at $170 million for production and $110 million for P&A (though they previously put the P&A budget at $125 million). In April, Steve Bing joined the show, investing $85 million of his own money to own half the film.

With “Polar” opening just five days after “Incredibles,” the press couldn’t resist a Battle of the Titan Toons storyline.

Some reviews (including Variety‘s) were extemely negative. Comparing it to “Incredibles,” the New York Times skewered the film as “creepy” and “listless,” comparing Santa’s sack of toys to an “airborne scrotum” and concluding that the whole thing was “a grave and disappointing failure.”

And when the pic opened to just a hair above $30 million over its first five days, the Los Angeles Times labeled it a financial disaster, quoting an unnamed agent who said, “Warners must have black crepe in all the windows.”

“It has stuck in people’s minds that this is a big disappointment,” says Martin Shafer, CEO of Castle Rock, which produced the pic along with Bing’s Shangri-La, Hanks’ Playtone and Zemeckis’ Imagemovers. “But the movie didn’t turn out the way that people who wrote negative things said it would.”

Conventional wisdom “is that films released today have a 2 or 2.5 multiple,” Shafer says, referring to the formula to determine final cume from a film’s opening gross.

The average multiple this year has been a little over 3. Going into its fifth week, “Polar’s” multiple is already well past 4.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the three-day number improved 24% from the previous weekend, a virtually unheard-of gain. By its fifth week, “Polar” had cumed $100 million, with two more weeks until Christmas.

Many of the early criticisms, such as that Nov. 10 was too early to release a Christmas movie, turned out to be misguided.

A department store doesn’t put out its Christmas decorations in October because it’s expecting hordes of holiday shoppers. It does it because Christmas is its most profitable season and it is trying to do anything to extend its peak business period. Likewise with “Polar,” the film has played better as the holiday gets closer.

Whether “Polar” ever turns a profit is still up in the air, but those close to the film think their chances are more than solid.

According to Shafer, during “Polar’s” opening weekend, Bing called Warners prexy Alan Horn with an offer to buy the other half of the film.

“Steve said, ‘I’m happy to buy the whole movie if you have any concerns.’ Alan immediately said no because he didn’t want to give up half of what he thought was going to be a successful movie.”

He adds, “We’re looking at a movie that will be for Warner Bros. and Steve Bing a very profitable movie.”

Here is the picture that some close to the film see for “Polar” over the next few years:

First, assume the total negative cost came to $280 million between production and P&A.

On the revenue front, a final domestic gross of $150 million is within reach for the film. If the film does a similar number overseas (as of Dec. 9, “Polar” has cumed $29 million overseas, and it just opened on Dec. 10 in the U.K. and Latin America), the worldwide distributor’s rental share (50% of box office) would be $150 million.

Animated films and Christmas titles have proven to be bonanzas on homevideo, with films like “Treasure Planet” and “Brother Bear” nearly doubling their domestic box office in video revenue. If Warners sells 18 million units when it releases the DVD next Christmas — an optimistic projection — it could take in another $180 million.

Add to that domestic and foreign TV rights for cable and broadcast, which could also optimistically generate as much as $100 million.

All told, the studio and Bing would be looking at total revenues of $430 million from the film. To be sure, both Hanks and Zemeckis are first-dollar gross participants, and a big chunk of that money will go to them.

Warner sources say the profit participation on the pic is between 30% and 35%. Assume it’s 35% first-dollar gross against $35 million, and the talent would be owed an additional $85 million on top of their advances.

Crunch the numbers, and the final profit between Warners and Bing is around $65 million.

There are a lot of what-if’s in this rosy scenario and skeptics abound at rival studios. There are plenty of execs who think the widely reported $170 million budget figure is low and that the true cost is heading north of $200 million.

They are skeptical too about whether the film could ever generate some of those revenues.

For instance, Christmas-themed films are notorious for their poor grosses outside the U.S., generally taking in between a quarter and a third of their domestic runs. (After “Elf” amassed $173 million domestic last year, it grossed just $47 million overseas.)

The main reason that Warners and Bing remain bullish on “Polar,” however, is its potential to become a perennial money-maker.

The Chris van Allsburg children’s book is a big seller every holiday season (it recently went back on the bestseller list) and Imax already has a re-release of the 3-D version of the pic on the drawing boards for next Christmas.

But the biggest cash cow could come from DVD.

“A Christmas Story,” which was originally released more than 20 years ago, and 15-year-old “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” each sell around 500,000 copies in homevid every holiday season.

One senior Warners exec speculates that if “Polar” follows these films, it could generate $20 million in additional profits from homevid and TV rights sales year after year for the studio and Bing.

While box office analysts may have blown it on “Polar,” it was the critics who had egg on their face on “National Treasure.”

The Mouse House has made a practice of defying the low expectations crix sometimes have for their films. (“Pirates of the Caribbean” became a $654 million worldwide hit, despite widespread forehead-smacking at the notion of adapting a theme-park ride into a film.)

” ‘Pirates’ was not only underestimated,” says Disney marketing prexy Oren Aviv; “there was no one in the press who thought it would succeed.”

Disney likewise was confident that it had a winner with “Treasure,” also from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, when test screenings began late this summer.

“We felt similarly about this film: that it would be something that the press would never recognize as a success, that it would be a sleeper,” Aviv says.

Aviv has more than a usual interest in “Treasure’s” success. He’s an exec producer on the film, which started out as a pitch he sold to Jon Turteltaub in the mid-1990s.

From the first test screening in Long Beach, Calif., Aviv says reaction was strong: “You could tell from the comments that we had a movie people like.”

Critics were another question.

Disney began to anticipate a slew of negative reviews. While the Mouse House didn’t do a so-called cold opening, media screenings were pushed back as late as possible. Outlets with longer lead times, like the weekly magazines, weren’t able to publish reviews until after the film opened.

Aviv says, “The urban centers looked down their noses at the movie, as they do with all Bruckheimer films. The red states embraced it.”

Disney also had a secret marketing weapon: “The Incredibles.”

Studio released the Pixar toon two weeks prior to “Treasure.” And while many tsked-tsked about a studio competing with itself, it gave Disney the opportunity to run a trailer for “Treasure” with “Incredibles,” which had sold more than $150 million worth of tickets before “Treasure” opened on Nov. 19.

Disney attached a trailer for “Cars,” also from Pixar, on “Incredibles” prints, but enclosed a shorter-than-usual 60-second trailer for “Treasure.”

The shorter version helped encourage exhibs to play the “Treasure” spot, and Disney says it got placement in about 85% of the “Incredibles” shows.

While the world may have been surprised when “Treasure” opened to $35 million, Disney was not. Good word-of-mouth and the support of younger moviegoers, who’d been hooked by the trailers attached to “Incredibles,” helped expand its audience, so that over the Thanksgiving weekend, receipts for “Treasure” were down just 8.5%.

All of which leads a satisfied Aviv to ask, “How often are the critics right?”

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