Before the Memorial Day weekend debut of "Pearl Harbor," an exuberant Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner sent an internal e-mail to "fellow cast members"--117,000 company employees worldwide.
"There are no sure things in the entertainment industry, but this comes close," Eisner wrote. "It better, because I've already predicted this in the annual report letter I wrote in December. And, I've been on CNBC and CNN in the last two weeks proclaiming it a smash. I've been telling anybody who would listen that this will be our biggest live-action film ever."
Eisner went so far as to predict on CNBC that the World War II romance epic would be the "biggest movie of the summer."
The Disney chief was wrong on both counts.
"Pearl Harbor," which has been sinking fast at the box office since its May 25 opening, will not be the summer's highest-grossing movie. Its domestic ticket sales of $153 million through Friday already have been surpassed by DreamWorks' animated hit "Shrek" ($188 million) and Universal's "The Mummy Returns" ($191 million). And other potential hits loom this summer, including Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence."
Nor will the movie rank as Disney's most successful live-action film. That distinction is held by the 1999 supernatural thriller "The Sixth Sense," which earned $660 million worldwide.
"Pearl Harbor" is by no means a box-office bomb, even though it is now widely viewed within the industry as a disappointment. The bottom line, Disney officials say, is that the film, which cost $140 million to produce and nearly that much to market worldwide, will turn a profit.
Some industry experts suggest that is not a foregone conclusion, and at least one Wall Street analyst predicted that the film will make only a "modest profit."
The huge expectations surrounding "Pearl Harbor" demonstrate just how treacherous and tricky the business of promoting movies can be. Studio executives are acutely aware that there is no magic formula for delivering hits that connect with a mass audience.
Indeed, Eisner got it right when he suggested there is no such thing as a sure bet in Hollywood. As has been proved time and again, blockbusters are determined by the moviegoing public, not marketing departments.
After cranking up the hype machine for "Pearl Harbor," Disney officials now are in full spin mode, trying to persuade the industry they are "thrilled" with the results.
"Disney no doubt contributed to the overblown hype of the film, as did analysts and the news media," said Paul Dergarabedian, whose Exhibitor Relations Co. tracks box office. "It puts the studio in the awkward position of having to defend a film that's going to do a couple hundred million dollars. Most would kill to have [such] a film."
Disney clearly was counting on "Pearl Harbor" as a huge moneymaker. After all, it is the cornerstone live-action film of the company's 2001 release schedule and featured the successful producer-director team of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. The same duo was responsible for "Armageddon" and "The Rock," two of Disney's big live-action hits.
Since Eisner cut the number of Disney annual releases from more than 20 to 15 this year, the studio has no other event-style, live-action movies comparable to DreamWorks' "Gladiator" or Warner Bros.' "The Perfect Storm."
Promotion Starts at the Top
Certainly Eisner is not alone in stumping his studio's movies. It is common practice throughout the entertainment industry for media moguls to tout releases the way parents brag about their children.
Eisner declined to be interviewed for this story. When asked about his boss' overzealous predictions for "Pearl Harbor," Disney Motion Picture Group Chairman Dick Cook said, "Ask Sumner Redstone what he thinks '[Lara Croft:] Tomb Raider' is going to do."
Redstone, chairman of Paramount Pictures parent Viacom Inc., boasted last week to KPCC-FM (89.3) radio: "Everyone should go see 'Tomb Raider,' which will be a blockbuster for Paramount!" Friday's opening-night figures indicate that the video-game-based film, starring Angelina Jolie, should be the No. 1 movie this weekend with more than $40 million in ticket sales.
Based on domestic performance and debuts in several key overseas markets, Disney executives and media analysts estimate that "Pearl Harbor" will collect worldwide theatrical revenues of $400 million to $450 million. Cook said he is confident that Disney is "going to meet every benchmark we set out for ourselves in domestic and foreign theatrical revenues." Disney officials predict the movie will gross more than $200 million domestically and at least $250 million internationally.
Given the film's huge production, marketing and distribution costs, it could take years before the movie earns a profit and will do so only if worldwide home video, DVD, TV and other sales reach Disney estimates.