Columbia Pictures' upcoming release "Ali," directed by Michael Mann and starring Will Smith as the legendary boxer, is contending with some heavyweight challenges as it enters the competitive holiday box-office ring.
Though the high-profile movie, debuting Christmas Day, was made by one of Hollywood's most respected directors and is headlined by one of its biggest stars, it's also considered one of the biggest financial gambles for a "biopic"--industry jargon for a film biography.
The production cost of more than $115 million is twice what Muhammad Ali earned in prize money during his boxing career.
Mann and Smith also have a lot on the line, both creatively and financially. As they had promised last year when the studio threatened to pull the plug on the project, the two ponied up close to $10 million out of their usual fees to pay for all budget overages on the film--an extremely rare gesture by Hollywood standards.
Sony Corp.'s Columbia, which sold off the film's foreign rights for $60 million to help cover part of its financial risk, is still on the hook for nearly $100 million after theatrical marketing and Oscar campaign expenses are counted.
Columbia Chairwoman Amy Pascal thinks the film will be profitable, based on Smith's drawing power and the worldwide popularity of Ali, who at 59 still has one of the most recognized faces on the planet.
"I wouldn't have gone into this if I didn't think it had commercial potential," Pascal said, acknowledging that the studio has a lot of money at risk and could use a big hit after an unspectacular, albeit profitable, year with no blockbusters.
Biopics are risky at best, most getting knocked out cold at the box office after falling short of audience perceptions and expectations about the famous people they portray. "Nixon," "Chaplin," "Malcolm X" and "Hoffa" were costly flops. Oscar-winners such as "Gandhi" and "Amadeus" are among the exceptions.
"Ali" faces other potential obstacles. It's 21/2 hours long and rated R, which prohibits packs of young boys--who might otherwise flock to see Smith at their local multiplex--from seeing the film without a grown-up tagging along.
Executives also are concerned about how interested young women will be in a male-centric film whose backdrop is boxing.
Another possible turnoff to some moviegoers--particularly in smaller markets outside the big cities--is the controversial nature of Ali's story. Given the renewed patriotism in America after the Sept.11 terrorist attacks, Ali's refusal to fight in the Vietnam War and his conversion to Islam may cause some to flinch, though studio officials said these issues were not raised by test audiences.
Pascal and Mann said they hope audiences will embrace "Ali" as a patriotic film about tolerance and diversity in America.
"I'm really proud of this movie in every way," said Pascal, for whom "Ali" has been a passion project since she joined the studio in 1996.
"I think it's about something that is at the core of what matters in the world--which is standing up for what you believe in, no matter how unpopular it is," Pascal said.
Ali, who said he has seen the film twice and plans to see it again, also is confident that the movie will beat the competition.
"I predict this movie will be big. Bigger than 'The Godfather,' bigger than the "Ten Commandments,'" Ali said in a phone interview with all the charm and playful boastfulness that is his trademark.
Ali, whose speech is severely impaired by Parkinson's disease, said he was pleased with Smith's portrayal--"It was just like me!"--and the way Mann captured his life and times, even though it showed his blemishes and struggles as well as his strengths and courage.
Ali, naturally, is biased; movie critics have been divided in their opinions.
As for its box-office prospects, tracking studies indicate there is high awareness (93%) and strong "definite interest" in seeing the film (56%) overall, particularly among males ages 17 to 24--the film's target audience.
"The tracking indicates it looks strong," said Jeff Blake, the studio's head of worldwide marketing and distribution.
Nonetheless, the studio's marketing team faces some daunting challenges as it tries to grab the attention and dollars of consumers who have dozens of movie choices this holiday season, including "The Lord of the Rings."
Attracting women is potentially a problem.
According to the tracking, definite interest among young females ages 17 to 24 was 56%, compared with 70% among males in that age group.
Geoffrey Ammer, Columbia's marketing president, said the company is selling "Ali" as "a movie for everybody" and is positioning it in its campaign as an entertainment film rather than a history lesson or a straight-ahead biopic that spans a subject's entire life.