Bing writes big check for ‘Polar’

Exec to cover half of prod'n budget

In one of the boldest moves ever taken by an independent producer, Steve Bing has invested close to $80 million in Warner Bros. Christmas tentpole, “Polar Express.”

Bing will cover half the production budget of the animated pic about a boy who travels to the North Pole on Christmas. Bing will not take a personal producing credit on it.

Tom Hanks has multiple voice roles in the pic, which was directed by Robert Zemeckis and shot using a portfolio of inventive motion-capture effects.

There are several production entities behind the pic, including Castle Rock, Zemeckis’ ImageMovers, Hanks’ Playtone and now Bing’s Shangri-La Entertainment. It is expected to be credited as a Castle Rock presentation of a Shangri-La production.

Bing’s investment provides a unique measure of downside protection for a pic with enormous front- and backend costs. Bing isn’t providing gap financing. He’s shouldering the same financial burden another studio would. But Warner Bros., which greenlit the production without a financing partner, retains distribution rights, and will release it around the world.

The final production budget of the pic is estimated to be $165 million. Pic already has a full regiment of backend players, including Hanks and Zemeckis, neither of whom deferred their usual fees for the project.

“Polar Express” is adapted by William Broyles from Chirs Van Allsburg’s acclaimed children’s book, about a boy who embarks on fantasy trip to the North Pole aboard a magical train.

All scenes for “Polar Express” were shot with digital cameras in front of a blank screen, with sets and environments filled in later by computers. There were hundreds of cameras and no conventional lighting. Actors were filmed and later transformed into digital characters, similar to the technique used to create the character of Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.

Production began on the pic in February 2003. It’s now in postproduction and slated for release Nov. 19.

A year ago, Bing inked an overall production deal at WB. It’s long been said he is interested in becoming a bigger player in high-end movies at the studio. But he has put only one project into production — the modestly-budgeted comedy “The Big Bounce,” an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel directed by George Armitage that starred Owen Wilson, and which Bing fully financed.

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