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Company Town : 'Swan' Sticks Its Neck Out but Still Gets the Ax : Film: Poor box office opening resurrects age-old question: Can an animated movie be a hit if it isn't made by Disney?

November 22, 1994|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite favorable reviews from many critics, New Line Cinema's "The Swan Princess" was being viewed by Hollywood on Monday as something of a swan dive.

The film's lethargic domestic box office opening of $2.4 million has again raised an age-old question in Hollywood: Can a full-length animated movie be a hit if it isn't made by Walt Disney Co.?

The experience of "The Swan Princess," made by former Disney animators, is especially relevant these days with Hollywood sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into what may soon look like an animation binge to the moviegoing public.

"There's no question Disney has taken animation to a whole new level. If you argue that, you come from another planet. But there's definitely room for animation from other places than Disney," said Tom Sherak, senior executive vice president at 20th Century Fox.

Fox, which Wednesday enters the fray with its own live action-animated "The Pagemaster," starring Macaulay Culkin, is investing $100 million in a new animation division--including a new studio in Arizona--that will release an animated film every 18 months in a direct challenge to Disney's dominance.

Universal has long been active through its association with Steven Spielberg. Warner Bros. has a feature animation department. The new studio planned by former Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, music mogul David Geffen and Spielberg expects animation to be a cornerstone of the business.

The attraction stems partly from favorable economics. Animated films usually cost less to make than big star-driven movies, and they can attract corporate sponsors that boost exposure at marketing time. "The Swan Princess," for example, marked steakhouse Sizzler's first tie-in to an animated film.

In addition, animated films often sell well on videocassette, which are highly profitable in per-unit terms.

All this means that the threshold for making a profit is usually lower than in live action and studios can retain more of that profit.

"The Swan Princess," which had a $35-million production and marketing budget, is based on the German fairy tale that is the basis of the "Swan Lake" ballet. Producing the film and picking up the costs was Nest Entertainment, working with former Disney animator Richard Rich. Turner Broadcasting's New Line unit released the film on a straight distribution deal.

Hollywood executives say the case of "The Swan Princess" shows that such efforts aren't without risk and that it is difficult to replicate Disney's success without the label, even when a film tries to get some of the look and feel of a Disney film.

"It looked like a Disney movie, but it wasn't," one rival executive said. "And the public is mindful of that."

New Line isn't giving up. Mitch Goldman, head of marketing and distribution, said the company, while disappointed at the box office results, believes the film will play through the holidays on strong word of mouth. "This isn't a three-day movie," he said.

Still, the fact remains that no other studio has come up with anything approaching the blockbuster success of Disney's "The Lion King," "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Little Mermaid." Only Universal--with its Fievel movies and "The Land Before Time" with Spielberg--has enjoyed some success.

Hollywood executives cited a number of reasons why they think "Swan Princess" didn't open well, starting with the re-release by Disney of the animated blockbuster "The Lion King."

Also working against the film is the crowded market of family movies, including Disney's "The Santa Clause" and Fox's "Miracle on 34th Street," along with such long-awaited films as Paramount's "Star Trek: Generations."

The executives said another strike against the movie is the fact that it is not targeted to adults as well as children. Indeed, Disney said a good chunk of the $5.5 million that "The Lion King" did at the box office last weekend in re-release came from single people who had not seen the movie over the summer.

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