‘Real Steel’ pulls for Disney, DreamWorks

More combo projects from the studios in the pipeline

Strip away the studio logos and “Real Steel” certainly looks like a Disney production.

With its father-son relationship, colorful robot boxers and an underdog tale that resembles inspirational sports films like “Miracle” and “Invincible” — along with merchandise tie-ins and high-profile promotional partnerships — the Hugh Jackman-starrer was always going to fit in well with the other releases on Disney’s slate.

But it’s DreamWorks that produced the film, releasing it through Disney’s Touchstone banner as part of a distribution deal brokered back in 2009.

At the time, the Mouse House had a strong distribution pipeline that was underutilized as the studio embraced a mandate to make fewer films but ones that focus on the Disney brand.

Through DreamWorks, Disney saw the opportunity to fill out its release schedule, feed its all-but-abandoned Touchstone label and give its distribution and marketing staffers more pics to work on. The deal also was seen as a way to collaborate more closely with Steven Spielberg, who has long produced the kind of family fare Disney prizes.

“This is an opportunity to improve our profitability by wisely using some extra capacity in our system,” said Disney chief Bob Iger when the long-term deal was announced.

Shawn Levy’s “Real Steel,” based on Richard Matheson’s short story, “Steel,” became one of the first films to get the greenlight, one of 17 projects DreamWorks took with it after splitting off from Paramount. Angry Films’ Don Murphy produced the pic with ImageMovers’ Jack Rapke, Robert Zemeckis and Steve Starkey.

Disney leapt at the opportunity to treat the film as a tentpole release, helping DreamWorks lock down merchandise deals like action figures with Jakks Pacific, a soundtrack with new songs by Eminem, a fast-food partnership with Del Taco and high-profile promo partnerships with Hewlett-Packard, Bing, Royal Purple motor oil and Virgin America — the airline named a plane after the pic and painted the robot hero on the fuselage. In his promo rounds, Jackman landed a memorable guest role on WWE’s “Monday Night Raw,” in which he knocked out a wrestler.

Iger has essentially spurred Disney to go into world-building mode on its films, which means developing properties that each of the company’s divisions can monetize through TV shows, merchandise and theme park rides beyond the megaplex.

Disney took a similar approach with “Real Steel,” encouraging DreamWorks to work with marketing shop Five 33 to develop detailed origins, statistics, fight histories and branding for each of the 17 robots in the film. It also documented a 10-year history of robot boxing, authored the faux sports’ rules and created other elements of the mythology of the World Robot Boxing league, with many of the elements feeding the official World Robot Boxing Facebook page, mobile app and videogame, as well as appearing on toy packaging.

Disney has repeatedly turned to Five 33 to flesh out the worlds of “Alice in Wonderland” and the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean,” especially to make the films appeal to foreign auds.

“Real Steel” opened in the top spot at the domestic B.O. with $27.3 million, and is headed into its second weekend with a $55 million worldwide haul. A sequel is in the planning stages, playing off much of mythology Five 33 and scribe John Gatins helped develop.

As part of its deal with Disney, DreamWorks will deliver up to 30 movies to the Mouse House, with up to six films a year unspooling through Touchstone (Disney collects a 10% fee for its efforts).

But if Disney is looking for an immediate influx of such fare from DreamWorks, it likely will have to wait.

While Stacey Snider and her DreamWorks team have family fare like “The 39 Clues” and an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book “The BFG” in development, Paramount is releasing “The Adventures of Tintin” and its sequels, which Spielberg helmed and produced with Peter Jackson.

However, while Fox is the co-producer with Spielberg on “Robopocalypse,” DreamWorks is releasing the film domestically through Disney; Fox has foreign rights. But that won’t come out untiil 2013.

Other upcoming DreamWorks-Disney combos include Touchstone’s prestige pic “War Horse” this December and “Lincoln” next year, both of which are helmed by Spielberg.

Disney is likely to release the drama “Welcome to People” and film versions of TV series “The Fall Guy,” young adult book series “Darkfever,” the Reese Witherspoon bachelor party comedy “Who Invited Her,” and Jason Segal laffer “Undercover Cop,” although no release dates have been set.

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