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Disney Throws a Box Office Curve with ‘Million Dollar Arm’

From “The Avengers” to the upcoming “Star Wars” sequels, Walt Disney Studios has positioned itself as Hollywood’s most formidable home run hitter. On Friday, when the studio trots out “Million Dollar Arm,” it will see if it can still play small ball.

The true story of an unlikely pair of Indian baseball pitchers represents an anomaly for the Mouse House. After all, Disney has embraced the new strategy of fewer, bigger bets more avidly than any other major studio. Thanks to its full deck of mega-brands such as Pixar, Marvel and now Lucasfilm, Disney’s goal is to make between seven to eight tentpole films annually.

The studio, however, believes that there is still value in what it has christened “brand deposits” — smaller scale films such as “Million Dollar Arm” and last year’s “Saving Mr. Banks” — that engender goodwill among audiences.

“These films are less expensive to make, but they still have the powerful stories and strong characters that live up to and exceed the high standards that we have for the Disney brand,” said Dave Hollis, Walt Disney Studios’ executive vice president of theatrical distribution. “People who see this movie will walk away feeling even better about that brand.”

Hollis said the studio will be happy if the film debuts to north of $10 million this weekend, a figure that pre-release tracking suggests it will hit.

“Million Dollar Arm,” with its $25 million budget, is a throwback to the kind of inspirational sports movies that the studio once routinely put on the field, a legacy of athletic uplift that included such successes as “Miracle” (2004), “Remember the Titans” (2000) and “Invincible” (2006), but one that has been left untended of late.

As Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn admitted at a Bloomberg Business of Entertainment event last month, the new emphasis on gargantuan global products that will play as well in Mumbai as they do in Memphis has hobbled the sports drama genre. The collapse of the DVD market, which has been essentially cut in half over the last half-decade, has made studios more dependent on the box office in countries such as China and Russia that offer massive populations and are frenetically building new theaters.

“The challenge is to have pictures that can travel and we’ve learned that these tentpole movies are most desired all around the world, but I like the fact that we also make ‘Million Dollar Arm’ even though it’s very daunting to look at those home video numbers,” Horn said.

Foreign audiences have given the cold shoulder to many recent sports movies. Even with Brad Pitt’s name above the title, “Moneyball” could only drum up 31 percent of its $110 million worldwide total from overseas, and an Oscar-winner like “The Fighter” attracted a mere 27.5 percent of its $129.2 million global haul from abroad.

The answer is to do things economically, Horn maintained. “Million Dollar Arm” got made because the filmmakers were willing to lower the budget.

“It’s about baseball really, it won’t travel very well internationally, so we have to make it for a lot less money or we can’t make it,” Horn explained at the Bloomberg talk.

The film has earned decent reviews, and is buoyed by some of the highest test scores the studio has seen in recent years, but it needs word-of-mouth if it’s going to compete against “Godzilla” this weekend and next week’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Some analysts question the wisdom of releasing the movie in the height of summer, when it can be dwarfed by superhero films and special effects extravaganzas.

“A film like this works better in September or October,” said Jeff Bock, box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “The problem with the summer is even good movies don’t have a chance to spread their wings and grow.”

However, Hollis said the May date was designed to capitalize on the start of baseball season.

“It’s a time of year when every baseball fan still believes their team’s chances are high,” he noted.

It has also allowed the studio to engage in a bit of synergy with its corporate sibling, ESPN, with the hosts of programs such as “Baseball Tonight” talking up the picture on the air. To that end, Bill Simmons, the editor-in-chief of Grantland and an ESPN star, was tapped as executive producer on the film, making him an important advocate for “Million Dollar Arm.”

“It’s allowed us to reach an audience in a way that a traditional marketing campaign wouldn’t,” Hollis said.

Though Wall Street is more bullish on Disney’s Marvel, Pixar and “Star Wars” ventures, the company has engendered enough goodwill to allow it to back to the odd “brand deposit.”

Matthew Harrigan, an analyst with Wunderlich Securities, describes the film as a “freebie” for Disney, one that represents a “better risk/reward than Jerry Bruckheimer.” The “Pirates of Caribbean” producer decamped from Disney for Paramount Pictures following a series of hugely expensive duds such as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “The Lone Ranger.”

Even with a leaner production slate, there’s still an advantage to finding the rare small film to back, Tony Wible, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott, argued.

“It does make sense to leverage your overhead across one or two extra films,” Wible said. “There’s a lot of costs attributed to having a studio and you don’t want people sitting idle as you make fewer films. Having a decent level of output cuts back on your negative costs.”

A film like “Million Dollar Arm” is pitching heart, not costumed heroics to audiences, and regardless of how emotionally effective it is, that smaller scale attraction may be possible to resist until it debuts on home entertainment.

“I believe the audience out there asks themselves collectively two questions,” Horn said during the Bloomberg confab. “Do I have to see it now and do I have to see it on the big screen and if the answer to both questions is no, we have a problem.”

Batter up.

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