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‘Tron’ served in byte-sized morsels

Disney pulls out stops to push reboot and related goods

If “Tron” was ahead of its time when Disney released the futuristic fantasy in 1982, the Mouse House is more than ready for this year’s follow-up to be branded a blockbuster.

The company has pulled out all the stops to help launch “Tron: Legacy” as the studio’s third potential billion-dollar hit in 2010 (after “Alice in Wonderland” and “Toy Story 3”), and turn it into a major moneymaker for the rest of Disney’s divisions.

The pic is an embodiment of how Disney chief Bob Iger has tasked studio topper Rich Ross to treat all the company’s upcoming tentpoles: Each high-profile property is aimed to sell everything from toys to T-shirts, games and soundtracks and, eventually, design theme park attractions around.

Toward that end, with “Tron: Legacy,” the Mouse House has rolled out one of the most expensive marketing campaigns for a Hollywood film in recent history.

The effort officially kicked off three years ago when the studio took the stage at Comic-Con in San Diego to unveil test footage as a way to start hyping the $150 million production, which acts as a sort of sequel, part remake, but mostly reboot. Disney has established a presence there for the film ever since.

More recently, a coordinated 10-week countdown to the film’s debut has been under way. The effort began Oct. 28, with Disney execs borrowing a page from Fox’s promotional playbook for “Avatar” to host “Tron Night,” which revolved around a 23-minute sneak peek of the 3D film in Imax theaters in 50 markets around the world. Pic’s release date of Dec. 17 is also the same day “Avatar” bowed.

Over the ensuing weeks, a regular introduction of posters, billboards, trailers and artwork on “Tron Tuesdays” has provided moviegoers with a gradually building reveal of the characters, vehicles, props and settings of the film. The visuals, which stress the futuristic biker chic, motorcycles and glowing discs, were carefully chosen not to reveal too much while still creating an instantly recognizable brand identity for “Tron’s” blue-streaked world — to the point where just the name “Tron” and its title font is a recognizable selling point.

A new wave of ads is rolling out as the film’s release nears. Recent spots have delved a little deeper into the film’s father-son relationship and focused a little more on Olivia Wilde’s disc-flinging heroine.

Not surprisingly, Disney’s theme parks have also been taken over by “Tron,” with Walt Disney World’s monorails transformed into light cycles, and Anaheim’s California Adventure turning a portion of

its park into “ElecTRONica,” a nightime dance party that includes a screening of the sneak peak and houses Flynn’s Arcade, a compendium of ’80s gaming icons like Pac-Man, Centipede, Donkey Kong, and of course, the original “Tron” game. The film’s look and feel will eventually become a permanent fixutre at the parks, in some form.

Meanwhile, a pop-up retail shop has been housed inside the Royal/T gallery-cafe in Culver City, Calif., since Nov. 19, serving as ground zero for most of the 150 different tie-in products that Disney is selling in conjunction with “Tron: Legacy.” Among them: a limited-edition $800 snowboard from Burton, $500 Adidas sneakers that light up, Hurley T-shirts and swimwear, 3D glasses from Oakley, Spin Master action figures and New Era caps. The store will remain open past the pic’s debut and through Christmas.

If all of the efforts seem a bit excessive for one film, remember that Disney isn’t trying to launch just another movie.

“Tron: Legacy” isn’t just a representation of the future, it’s a proving ground for Disney’s ambitions to generate megabucks across all divisions from what’s playing — and what’s played — at the box office.

With “Tron: Legacy,” Disney is certainly tackling all fronts:

n For gamers, there’s the “Tron: Evolution” console game and downloadable digital merchandise like light discs and battle batons to outfit their Xbox Live avatars.

n For music fans, French techno duo Daft Punk has created the soundtrack.

n For gearheads, a line of gadgets includes docking stations for iPods and headphones from Monster.

n And for women, there’s a line of designer jewelry, including $395 earrings and a $2,600 Tron Icon necklace by Rotenier, and a $795 pair of silver platform sandals by Jerome C. Rousseau.

But first Disney needs to get audiences hooked on seeing what’s going to unspool in theaters.

Ironically, the studio is spending heavily to promote a follow-up to a film that was hardly a hit in 1982; the $17 million pic earned just $33 million at the domestic box office that summer.

The visuals may have impressed audiences at the time, but moviegoers obviously wanted their sci-fi to take place in outerspace rather than cyberspace — a vibe that also hurt the B.O. of “Blade Runner” that summer. “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” were far bigger hits that year.

But “Tron” amassed a cult following over the ensuing years. And now that videogames are entrenched among the masses and technology has finally caught up with “Tron’s” central conceit of a hacker transported into a computer to compete in a series of dangerous games, Disney saw good reason to go back to the future.

“?’Tron’ has lived on in the cultural consciousness because it was prophetic in both concept and execution,” says Sean Bailey, who as an independent producer convinced Disney to revive the property. “The film explored fascinating questions about the relationship between the human and digital worlds and created a look that was unprecedented in 1982. In 2010, we think it is an interesting time to re-examine some of those issues and with (director) Joe Kosinski, felt like we again had the chance to put something visually unique on the screen.”

Disney is certainly confident with what’s it’s produced. It’s already given Kosinski the go-ahead to reboot “The Black Hole,” another property from the late ’70s-early ’80s Disney era, as well as a development deal to turn his graphic novel, “Oblivion,” into a high-profile production. At the same time, Bailey has gone from being “Legacy’s” biggest cheerleader, with no major hits under his belt, to Disney’s president of production, a post in which he’s already been shaping Disney’s future film slate with Ross.

In all markets, Disney has had to take a long-lead strategy of selling the film over a span of years — rather than focusing largely on the traditional four-week run-up before a release — because it discovered early on that it was essentially marketing “Tron: Legacy” to a generation that isn’t familiar with, or has even heard of, the original “Tron.”

With that in mind, the studio’s marketers were liberated to start from scratch instead of relying on the previous pic’s iconography. There were no efforts to re-release the original film to provide auds with a chance to see how it all began. In fact, a digitally restored version of the 1982 “Tron” isn’t expected to be released on Blu-ray until next year.

With three-plus years invested in building the new “Tron: Legacy” imprint, Disney’s efforts seem to be paying off so far.

Toys have been selling out at stores like Target and Toys R Us a month before the film’s release. A limited-edition line that included a die-cast lighcycle and statue sold out at Comic-Con in July. That $800 Burton snowboard is also being snatched up, as are orders for an actual $55,000 street-legal lightcycle, built by Florida bike shop Parker Brothers Choppers.

If those early buy-ins by fans are any indication, “Tron” may go down in history as the flop that finally became the hit Disney always wanted. If the new film and its ambitious tie-ins pay off, 30 years won’t seem like a long wait at all.

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