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'Scooby-Doo' Solves the Case of the Cartoon as Live-Action Film

June 18, 2002|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe they should call the sequel "Scooby-Dough."

Fueled by a widespread affinity among TV viewers young and old for that chicken-hearted cartoon canine Scooby-Doo, the movie of the same name overcame an avalanche of negative reviews over the weekend to become one of the year's biggest hits--so big, in fact, that Burbank-based Warner Bros. hurriedly disclosed plans to make a sequel, scheduled to hit theaters in 2004.

Final figures show that "Scooby-Doo" premiered with $54.2 million, the second-biggest June opening of any film behind only "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," which took in $54.9 million in 1999.

Turning a cartoon favorite into a live-action hit on the big screen is one of the trickiest endeavors in Hollywood, whose landscape is littered with failures like "Josie and the Pussycats," "Mr. Magoo" and "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," which all tanked at the box office.

But when they hit, they can be among the more profitable films--witness "The Flintstones," which grossed $130.5 million in 1994; "George of the Jungle" (1997), with $105.3 million; and "Casper" (1995), with $100.3 million.

Warner Bros., which released "Scooby-Doo," has known for some time that it had a popular show on its hands. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon had been a fan favorite since it premiered on CBS in the fall of 1969. Since then, Scooby and the Mystery Inc. gang--Fred, Daphne, Shaggy and Velma--have appeared in 310 episodes on numerous networks.

On Monday, Warner executives were exulting in their marketing efforts, noting that this was one instance in which synergy did, in fact, work.

"First, there was tremendous affinity for the character of Scooby-Doo," said Dawn Taubin, president of domestic marketing at Warner Bros. Pictures, who noted that 60% of moviegoers interviewed said they had watched the TV cartoon, either as kids or currently.

Casting helped bring kids into the theaters, Taubin said. (The studio is hoping to sign the same cast for the sequel.) Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays Daphne, is the star of the hit TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," while Freddie Prinze Jr., who plays Fred, has appeared in popular teen films such as "She's All That" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer." Also starring are Matthew Lillard as Shaggy and Linda Cardellini as Velma.

"Kids know who this cast is," Taubin said, adding that the cast members did numerous TV spots for the film aimed at younger audiences, including the recent MTV Movie Awards. The soundtrack also featured hot young acts like the Grammy-nominated Atlanta rap group OutKast and the Bahamian pop group Baha Men.

At the same time, AOL Time Warner capitalized on its top-to-bottom synergy to market the film, from running reruns of the original "Scooby-Doo" on its Cartoon Network to hosting chat rooms and games on America Online's "Scooby-Doo" Web site.

The studio also tried to get the word out early that the film was coming. It had been running a teaser trailer as far back as last Christmas. In addition, when the movie came out this weekend, Warner Bros. had attached the trailer of its next big sequel, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" to the "Scooby-Doo" print.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co., said the film was helped by the fact that moviegoers are in the mood for fun fare.

"Family films are doing quite well right now. There aren't many of them, and they really fill a void in the marketplace. The world is not the most pleasant place right now, and the moviegoing public is looking to have a good time."

Dan Fellman, who heads distribution at Warner Bros., said "Scooby-Doo" had the biggest June opening of any Warner Bros. film ever.

" 'Scooby-Doo' is older than he looks," Fellman said. "He is such a lovable character, he has been able to span these generations."

Reviewers largely panned the film. Critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, said the computer-animated Scooby-Doo himself was "an island of amusement in a wasteland of fecklessness." The Los Angeles Times' Robin Rauzi, meanwhile, said the film's director, Raja Gosnell, "drains all the potential out of the Scooby premise to carve out this hollow kids' movie."

But as the first weekend figures attest, these kinds of movies are usually review-proof.

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