Studio chiefs try a toybox of tentpoles

Disney/Marvel acquisition spotlights recent trend

Disney’s acquisition of Marvel’s stable of characters last week marks another step in the Mouse’s strategy to extend its reach to wider sectors of the entertainment marketplace.

Bob Iger, the Mouse House CEO, was criticized three and a half years ago for “overpaying” in his buyout of Pixar, but the $7.4 billion deal, most analysts agree, has richly paid off. Now, the Marvel acquisition puts Disney in a new place in terms of reaching a young male audience, and also extending the company’s aggressive push into tentpole pictures — an initiative that has been quietly accelerating over the last couple of years.

On one level, the Disney initiatives are aimed at overcoming what was once known as the Tartikoff Syndrome. The late Brandon Tartikoff had a nimble hand at television, but his brief stint as chief of film production at Paramount in 1991 left him thoroughly frustrated. “Every time you start a movie, you’re basically inventing a whole new product line,” he once told me. “You’re always starting from scratch.”

Tartikoff had a point, of course, which is why, when I look at studio slates and their corresponding costs, I often ask myself, “How do they sleep at night?”

With this in mind, I was perusing Disney’s movie slate even before the Marvel deal and concluded that the Mouse House seems well on its way to challenging the Tartikoff Syndrome.

Disney’s slate is tilted heavily toward titles that are instantly recognizable: sequels and 3-D reimaginings of familiar story brands. It’s an aggressive corporate effort to deliver films that are at once marketable and risk-averse.

Now, I’m not willing to champion the risk-averse school of filmmaking because I believe that the best movies are almost always the riskiest. At the same time, I get the Disney reasoning: The economy is tight, costs are soaring, DVDs are sinking, so why not give sanity a try?

Disney’s forthcoming program includes a new “Alice in Wonderland,” a new “Christmas Carol” and a new “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” all in 3-D, naturally. There are also familiar animation titles like “Rapunzel” and a 3-D re-release of “Beauty and the Beast.”

And finally come the inevitable sequels — “Pirates of the Caribbean IV,” “Cars 2,” and “Toy Story 3” (two old “Toy Stories” also will be re-released in 3-D). And, like every studio, there’s at least one movie based on a videogame. In this case, it’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” from Jerry Bruckheimer’s factory.

None of this is to suggest that Disney is devoid of surprises. When Alice takes her new trip to Wonderland, she will be accompanied by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. The new Pirates (also with Depp) will be directed by Rob Marshall, the former choreographer who gave us “Nine” and “Chicago” (we all want to see Depp dance). Disney also is planning a remake of “Yellow Submarine” and even doing a “re-envisioning” of the sci-fi movie “Tron,” which failed at the box office in its first iteration.

“You can’t make movies by the numbers,” says Oren Aviv. Disney’s president of production, who came out of marketing. “But I believe that it’s possible to take creative chances while still delivering brands that elicit recognition, if not familiarity.”

When Bob Iger succeeded Michael Eisner as Disney CEO, there was some speculation as to whether the TV-trained executive would scale back his movie commitment. Disney’s current slate would suggest the contrary, especially since the corporate mantle now encompasses movies from Pixar, DreamWorks and Miramax. That’s a lot of diverse product from a number of distinct labels.

Iger, his chairman Dick Cook and Aviv are all too battle-hardened and sophisticated to go on the record with forecasts of box office success. At the same time, a savvy corporate strategy seems at work at the Mouse House — one that’s playing an aggressive hand but with very good cards.

The Tartikoff Syndrome may go up in smoke after all.

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