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Barney Dips Toe Into Features

March 31, 1998|JUDITH I. BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He's still big. He's still hot. And he's still really, really purple. In fact, Barney may be the only aging star whom very young audiences don't consider an extinct reptile. At least that's the hope of PolyGram, which is releasing the first Barney feature, "Barney's Great Adventure," on Friday.

It could be the one family film that works this season, exhibitors say--much to the chagrin of Barney adult detractors.

"I don't know of any character in the market today that little children like better than Barney and that's precisely what we're counting on," said one executive with AMC theaters. "It may not be a Disney label but it is the one that could hit. He's a known."

Barney's PBS morning show, "Barney & Friends," has been a staple for tots since it first aired in 1992, and more than 45 million videos and 15 million of his 27 books have been sold.

PolyGram's studio rivals are watching closely to see if this film has discovered an untapped market: It is the first family film specifically targeted to children ages 2 to 5. They wonder whether parents will bring their children to see the movie or will they just wait for the video, and whether such young viewers will be able to pay attention for an 84-minute film.

Of course this film is expected to be the scourge of Barney-bashers and rival studios who insist Barney is way over. (Some of these same studios, of course, had vied to produce the film.)

"Hey, he's only opening in 500 theaters, not 1,000-plus. What does that say about the confidence in this movie?" says one rival studio executive. Adds another: "I think [the relatively small opening] is a smart decision. They're taking a wait-and-see approach . . . see if he really kicks in on the big screen before they spend too much money launching it in too many theaters. Besides, it's a great way to set it up for video."

In fact, say Bill Soady and Peter Graves, PolyGram's presidents of distribution and marketing, respectively, 500 theaters is a lot of venues for a film like "Barney's Great Adventure." It is a measured business decision. The demographics for Barney is about 7 million children. Add parents to that and the number rises to about 12 million potential ticket-holders.

"We do have good expectations but the truth is we are in unchartered waters," Graves concedes.

Pre-summer launch gives a specialty film like this time to grow before it's dumped by theater owners. With the exception of Disney films, recent summers have treated family films brutally at the box office.

"We are dealing with preschoolers so holidays and summer are not an issue," Graves says.

"The enjoyment of Barney is all about watching little kids enjoy Barney, enjoying the character," Graves says. "If you don't have kids, this is not for you."

Shot in Montreal, the film features not only Barney's usual cavalcade of characters but a new pal, Twinken, a fuzzy, silvery starlike alien who plummets to Earth in a colorful egg. The film also takes Barney into new territory: outdoors. And it makes use of cameo appearances from Cirque du Soleil performers, based in that area of Canada.

For Barney's creator, Sheryl Leach, the purpose of Barney--including this movie--is solely to be a positive factor in children's lives. The former teacher from Dallas, who now resides in Greenwich, Conn., concocted the idea of this overstuffed love messenger for toddlers when she couldn't find any preschool videos appropriate for her 3-year-old son. (At first Barney was a teddy bear but after a visit to a dinosaur exhibit with son in tow, Leach was quickly informed that bears were very passe.)

"I have so enjoyed the TV show, but I have to say I loved the intensity of working on a film. It's almost like building a city overnight," she says. With the addition of Twinken, it's a natural setup for a sequel should the film prove a hit.

What hasn't been a hit for Leach and her partners in the Texas-based Lyons Partnership, which licenses the estimated $500-million Barney trademark, is unlicensed use of Barney costumes. The company recently filed lawsuits in the U.S. District Court in Virginia against several costume stores and children's entertainers making money from unlicensed use of Barney costumes.

"This is not just because we don't want someone showing up at a child's birthday party in a Barney suit," Leach says. "There have been some terrible incidents that prompted this. A couple of years ago, in the Midwest, a convicted felon rented a truck, put speakers on top of it and drove around neighborhoods luring children to his truck."

Leach and Lyons will do whatever is necessary to protect the Barney image because of the implied trust the character has with children.

"I will always love Barney and be there to help grow this character," she says. "But for me Barney is in college now. I'm looking to other things," including a children's book she has optioned and hopes to develop as a movie for PolyGram.

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