Philip Anschutz uses clout to test format

“Journey to the Center of the Earth” is considered a pioneering movie. But it’s really more of a throwback to the styles, hopes and business plans of eras past.

Philip Anschutz, a Denver tycoon with tentacles throughout showbiz, is using his unparalleled might to try and reshape the face of exhibition with this movie. His Walden Media subsidiary retooled its “Journey” script as a live-action 3-D project to goose that biz, a major priority for his Regal Entertainment theater chain, and fulfill his mandate for wholesome family entertainment at the same time.

Studios haven’t had that level of control over their theatrical destiny since they were forced to give up their exhib chains under the consent decree of 1948.

The pic, co-financed by New Line and distributed by Warner Bros., is a throwback in other ways: Creatures pop off the screen in similar fashion to gimmicky 3-D movies from 1950s and amusement park attractions. The tone and pacing evoke family adventure yarns from decades past.

It’s not clear how this particular “Journey” will fare against hyper-caffeinated box office competish, or how strong an enticement 3-D will be for moviegoers. Live-action 3-D pics are considered risky to start with, and producing them carries extra cost. Although they can still be unspooled on 2D screens, 3-D is more problematic for homevid.

“It’s sort of a tricky proposition right now to make live action 3-D movies because you have to make sure it works on both formats,” acknowledges New Line topper Toby Emmerich. “We think it does.”

New Line already delayed the film a year to wait for more 3-D screens to be built and is still releasing it on fewer 3-D screens than Walden had apparently hoped; for all his might, Anschutz could not control that. Only about 800 are ready for this, the first big live-action test of the new digital 3-D technology. They will use RealD 3-D, a company that provides stereoscopic technology for theaters.

If the movie is a hit, Anschutz could mint coin in ways studio bosses could only dream of, all while furthering the 3-D cause. A boffo bow would surely warm the cockles of studio execs who are preparing a number of other 3-D projects, including James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

The studios and exhibs are enticed by the idea of 3-D and its potential to draw moviegoers into theaters, not to mention the ability to charge higher ticket prices.”Beowulf,” for example, got a big boost from 3-D admissions. “Hannah Montana” 3-D concert film rang up $65.3 million in its limited release earlier this year, playing on 683 screens.

Inevitably, 3-D proponents seized upon “Montana’s” boffo bow as further proof of the technology’s potential. But even Disney cautioned observers not to get carried away: “Hannah Montana” is an exceedingly popular property, and it was released under a very narrow window by design.

“Journey to the Center of the Earth,” by comparison, is based on an 1864 tome by Jules Verne that isn’t exactly at the top of youngsters’ reading list — even a 13-year-old character in the movie admits he hasn’t read it. The movie lacks Hannah Montana’s star power — exec producer and star Brendan Fraser is no Miley Cyrus for the younger crowd — and isn’t particularly hip either: At one point Fraser’s character, a scientist, marvels at all the “schist” while they are rappelling down a hole, only to have his nephew predictably mistake him for saying a four-letter word, until he realizes his uncle is referring to metamorphic rock.

Emmerich maintains that the pic plays to Fraser’s proven appeal in “The Mummy” franchise and “George of the Jungle.” But above all, he says the studio really sparked to the notion of 3-D. “We thought it was a pretty good 2D movie that would make a great 3-D movie,” he says.

However, he acknowledges that the 3-D techniques will likely look primitive a few years down the road. Whenever you have a new movie technology, be it color or CinemaScope, “the first thing you do is take a spectacle and use it on that,” he says, citing old Westerns and “The Wizard of Oz” as past examples. “Then it becomes more sophisticated and you won’t even notice it is being used.”

There are plenty more 3-D pics in the offering, including three from Disney alone: a “Bolt” toon, Robert Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol” redo with Jim Carrey and Tim Burton’s live-action adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.”

DreamWorks Animations has “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Shrek Goes Fourth” in 3-D and Focus is readying “Coraline.” New Line, meanwhile, is already at work on its next 3-D movie, “Final Destination 4.”

Emmerich says the real proof of “Journey’s” success will come down to the box office split. “For the movie to really work, you have to see 3-D screens overperform,” he says. “That would be an indication it was worth it, and a certain audience wanted to come out and see it.”

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