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‘Mars’ enters salvage mode

Expensive kidpic had a tough road, and has a tougher road ahead

The meager $6.9 million weekend take for Disney’s “Mars Needs Moms” may not have been a huge surprise given the competition from a pair of higher-profile newcomers and a hefty holdover in “Rango,” but by most box office standards, the expensive kidpic has a tough road ahead — even if the Mouse’s only goal is salvaging what it can.

With its budget at a reported $150 million, “Mars” seemed to have the deck stacked against it almost from the start. The pic, from Zemeckis’ ImageMovers, was an orphaned project, grandfathered into the Disney pipeline after the Dick Cook regime ended.

It’s the last film at the Mouse House from ImageMovers Digital, the CGI performance-capture shingle that fell under the ax of Rich Ross around this time last year. Some 450 staffers were phased out through the completion of “Mars.” (Parent company ImageMovers is still open and has live-action robot pic “Real Steel” slated for an October bow through the Mouse House.)

Disney previously teamed with the toon shop on “A Christmas Carol,” while “The Polar Express” was distribbed by Warner Bros. Both of those titles faced skepticism, but holiday-timed releases helped make them into solid, if not spectacular, successes. “Polar Express” bowed in 2004 with what was considered a soft $23.3 million but wound up grossing $270 million worldwide. “A Christmas Carol’s” $30 million opening translated into more than $320 million worldwide.

It’s highly unlikely “Mars” will end up anywhere near that, though the pic hasn’t opened yet in most of the world.

While “Express” and “Carol” built up steam between Thanksgiving and Christmas, “Mars Needs Moms” — based on the 2007 children’s book by “Bloom County” creator Berkeley Breathed — lacks the seasonal tie-in to keep it rolling.

So chalk up “Mars” as the latest big-budget project that, without broad appeal, brand recognition or an audience beyond young boys, execs will use as an example of the type of film Hollywood can’t afford to make.

Disney ran into the same problem in 2002 with “Treasure Planet,” which cost an estimated $140 million and opened to $12.1 million — nearly twice the take of “Mars” in its debut frame. Similarly, Sony’s $167 million CGI toon “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” bowed to $11.4 million in 2001. Neither pic came close to making back its money at the box office.

But like “Mars,” those were exceptions to the rule. Most toons, though costly to make, are good investments, thanks to long runs at theaters and stronger-than-average homevid sales.

Pre-weekend tracking indicated auds were aware of “Mars” — Disney spent around $60 million in marketing costs, sources say — but most filmgoers opted instead for well-performing holdovers like “Gnomeo & Juliet” ($89 million domestic cume) and “Rango” ($68 million).

Handling a project greenlit by a previous team, Disney’s new regime had limited personal investment in the film’s success. But while “Mars” doesn’t fit Ross’ franchise-driven mandate, the studio had spent too much cash to back out by the time Cook exited.

“Mars Needs Moms” is the final motion-capture CGI pic in partnership between Disney and ImageMovers Digital, the performance-capture studio that the Mouse House agreed to help Zemeckis expand in San Rafael, Calif., in 2007, after “Polar Express” and “Beowulf” impressed.

At the time, Zemeckis and his team excited Cook with the idea of reinventing “A Christmas Carol” as a 3D toon, and the studio chair had been eager to get Zemeckis back on the lot after having worked with the filmmaker on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” ImageMovers Digital had also started developing several other titles, including a reboot of the Beatles’ animated “Yellow Submarine” and an adaptation of Charlie Fletcher’s young-adult tomes “The Stoneheart Trilogy.”

While no failure, “A Christmas Carol” didn’t turn into the major moneymaker that Disney had hoped for. And with the studio now focused on franchise fare, ImageMovers Digital films in development no longer fit with the studio’s strategy.

Disney reportedly sank “Yellow Submarine” weeks before “Mars” disappointed, and “Stoneheart” will likely be made as a live-action pic or go through Disney’s toon divisions, now run by John Lasseter. Meanwhile, Zemeckis has kicked the tires on a potential “Roger Rabbit” sequel.

Zemeckis was such a cheerleader for his performance-capture technology that he touted it as the reason he gave up making live-action films; he hasn’t helmed one since 2000’s “Castaway.”

But Zemeckis is now considering several live-action projects, including “Timeless,” a time travel pitch by Mike Thompson that Warner Bros. picked up. There’s also “Dark Life” at Disney based on Kat Falls’ young adult novel.

ImageMovers will produce the adaptation.

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