Mouse counts on year-end bait

After quiet year, Disney banks on high-profile pix

Employee orientation at the Walt Disney Co. starts with some word association.

“What comes to mind when you think of Disney?” asks the trainer.

“Wholesome” and “family,” the new Mouseketeers typically say. It’s unlikely, though, that many of them blurt out “blockbuster.”

On the Walt Disney Studios side, the Mouse has tended to keep its head down. In recent years, it’s mostly gotten out of the big-star tentpole business. Its execs avoid the limelight and its marketers like to keep expectations “realistic,” which is often a euphemism for “low.”

All that is about to change.

Coming off a quarter when the studio lost more than $250 million and a fiscal year when Disney’s entertainment revenues plummeted, the company is getting ready to unspool a succession of highly visible titles that could put Disney back on top of the box office charts.

Starting next month and continuing through the summer at least four Disney releases will arrive with tentpole-style expectations:

  • “Chicken Little,” the studio’s CG bid to re-ignite in the animated feature market that it dominated for decades;

  • “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” a bid to launch a “Lord of the Rings”-like franchise;

  • “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” the first of twin sequels that are costing upward of $400 million; and

  • Pixar’s “Cars,” the seventh release from Steve”Midas” Jobs’ toon studio.

Even Disney’s “little” releases for the next few months have high visibility.

Touchstone’s “Shopgirl” is getting awards buzz and its Christmas release “Casanova,” from helmer Lasse Hallstrom, may have kudos potential as well.

The timing of these releases, as Bob Iger takes the CEO reins of Disney from 20-year Chief Mouseketeer Michael Eisner, raises the stakes still further.

If they’re hits, revenues soar and Iger gets a honeymoon, further enhanced by the stellar performance of the ABC network.

It’s not yet clear how hands-on Iger will be on the movie side of things, and there hasn’t been time for him to put his stamp on the studio’s slate.

He started at Capital Cities/ABC, not in the movie biz. But then, Eisner started as a TV guy, too.

Disney hadn’t originally planned to load up its year-end slate this way.

“Chicken Little,” the studio’s $100-million-plus entry into the CG animation market, was originally skedded for summer. But when Pixar moved “Cars” from holiday 2005 to summer 2006, Disney decided to shift its own toon to a less competitive — if potentially less lucrative — November date. That left the studio with a skimpy summer slate.

Meanwhile, with Jerry Bruckheimer Films focusing on the two “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, Disney was left with no releases from Bruckheimer, Pixar or its own animation unit for the first nine months of 2005.

That led to a precipitous drop in box office for the Buena Vista Motion Picture Group, which comprises Touchstone and Walt Disney Pictures.

After taking in $1.5 billion in domestic grosses in 2003, BV took in $1.16 billion in 2004, and that figure was bolstered by the socko grosses for “The Incredibles” and the surprise success of “National Treasure” late in the year.

To date, 2005 has seen BV garner only $463 million.

At some studios, that kind of performance would have the executive team polishing their resumes.

Disney’s team, however, is remarkably stable.

Studio chairman Dick Cook, for example, has been with the company since before Eisner took the reins.

That longevity, says Buena Vista Motion Picture Group marketing prexy Oren Aviv, lets the studio team take the long-term view.

“Long term thinking is really an undervalued commodity at studios today,” says Aviv. “At Disney, we’re thinking about how our next movie in with our overall strategy, not what will get us the best job at another studio.”

That brand and the studio’s mission are even more stable.

Other studios may lurch from trend to trend. Not Disney. The Mouse may tweak its plans for teen-girl movies after the failure of “Ice Princess,” but it is never going to make raunchy R-rated comedies, no matter how many “Wedding Crashers” nab $200 million.

Nor is the company diving into deals for superhero movies — with the exception of “Underdog,” a kid-friendly property built around an adorable dog.

Disney bet heavily on tentpoles like “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” when Joe Roth ran the studio, but under Cook, the studio’s slate has been more modest.

That puts the burden on Aviv to manage expectations, both internally, and to the degree he can, outside the company.

He says that while nobody predicted the $250-300 million loss, no one at Disney expected to take the box office crown for the year, either.

“We were in the low expenditure, low-profile summer movie business. We expected a great fall and a great end of year. And I still think that’s in the cards.”

Disney has actually played its hand shrewdly as it aims for the end of 2005 and beyond.

Rather than the expensive, one-off projects like “Hidalgo” and “The Alamo” that hurt its 2004 slate, these are pictures with some kind of presold element.

“Chicken Little” starts with the classic tale of the bird who cries “the sky is falling” but gives it a sharp “War of the Worlds” twist.

“Narnia” is adapted from the beloved C.S. Lewis novel, and with Walden Media co-financing, Disney’s financial exposure is limited. Walden is also courting the faith-based community that helped make “The Passion of the Christ” a B.O. phenomenon.

“Pirates” is a sequel, with returning stars Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

And “Cars,” after all, is a Pixar film. ‘Nuff said.

But if Murphy’s Law should strike, the studio would face some harsh repercussions.

Disney’s once-golden toon brand was tarnished by the failure of its previous traditional 2-D releases. If “Chicken Little,” its first theatrical entry in the CG animation sweepstakes, doesn’t fly, the brand is in big trouble. In negotiations with Pixar, Disney would find Jobs holding all the cards.

The “Pirates” sequels are so expensive that they’ll need to gross hundreds of millions of dollars globally just to be considered successes.

And “Cars” may prove to be a big challenge to Aviv and his crew. Pic’s mediocre teaser trailers and the murky concept haven’t drummed up much excitement among potential moviegoers.

Last week brought a good omen for Disney, though. “Flightplan” confounded prognosticators by winning its opening weekend and grossing $25 million in its first three days.

It’s the kind of overachieving sleeper hit that Disney loves. Low expectations, big results.

Disney’s below-the-radar days are over for a while. Instead of being happy with singles and doubles, it is going to have to swing for the fences, and going to have to do it Mighty Casey style, with everyone watching.

“It’s easier to surpass low expectations than high expectations,” says Aviv. “When you exceed high expectations, like in ‘Pirates,’ then you’re launching yourself into the stratosphere.”

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