"Around the World in 80 Days," a remake of the 1956 movie that won the best picture Oscar, was a risky project in a risk-averse town even before it landed in theaters Wednesday. Budgeted at $115 million and weak in star power, it was vying against the PG13-rated "DodgeBall," a new Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn comedy, and holdovers such as "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Shrek 2" and "Garfield" for the family crowd.
But risk morphed into disappointment, if not outright disaster, over the weekend. Despite good critical notices, the film, which the Walt Disney Co. is distributing, took in just $6.8 million ($9.6 million in its first five days), placing No. 9 on the box office charts. Meanwhile "DodgeBall," which cost about $20 million to make, outpaced all comers to take the top spot and $30 million. Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal," starring Tom Hanks, was a distant second with $18.7 million, while three family-oriented films beat "Around the World" -- "Harry Potter" landing at No. 3 with $17.4 million, "Shrek 2" at No. 4 with $13.6 million and "Garfield," coming in fifth with $11 million.
Skewing younger than anticipated, "Around the World" is turning out to be a matinee picture for young kids and moms, with poor attendance at night. Disney distribution chief Chuck Viane did not dispute that. The film was attracting the "traditional Disney family audience through the 7 o'clock shows," Viane said. "The 9 and 10 o'clock shows are soft."
"The numbers are not where we would like them to be, obviously," Viane conceded, "but we'll continue to see if we can find a way to improve them."
Disney paid in the low $20-million range to acquire the film -- plus roughly $25 million for the cost of prints and advertising. It's a much bigger gamble for Walden Media, a company owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, which financed the picture -- the costliest in its four-year history. Past releases include the $30-million "Holes," an adaptation of the Newbery Medal-winning book that took in about $67 million domestically, and "Ghosts of the Abyss," James Cameron's 3D big-format film about the wreck of the Titanic that earned about $16 million.
A crusader for family fare, the conservative Anschutz placed his chips on the tale of Phileas Fogg, an eccentric London inventor (British comedian Steve Coogan) attempting to circumnavigate the planet in 80 days in order to win a bet. Traveling through exotic climes, encountering the Wright brothers (cameos by Luke and Owen Wilson), he's joined by his faithful valet (Jackie Chan) and a thrill-seeking artist (Cecile De France) in a picture that fulfills Walden's mission of combining education and entertainment. Frank Coraci ("The Wedding Singer," "The Water Boy") was given the directorial reins.
Walden Chief Executive Cary Granat decried the notion that an old-fashioned action picture is at a disadvantage in an era when kids, fed edgier, tongue-in-cheek fare such as "Finding Nemo" and "Shrek 2," are more sophisticated in their taste.
"I'm proud of the fact that we have a non-cynical family movie," said Granat, a former president of Dimension Films. "A lot of movies today imbue kids with adult issues and narcissistic characters. This one is clear in its sense of innocence."
Paramount Pictures was initially lined up to distribute the film, but the studio wanted a higher-profile cast. Overtures were made to Hugh Grant to play Fogg and to Adam Sandler and Sylvester Stallone to take on cameo roles. But none of that came to pass. With only Jackie Chan on board, Paramount pulled the plug before production began but -- in part because Chan was guaranteed $18.5 million whether the movie was made or not -- the shoot went ahead as planned.
In October, Walden screened the movie for Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner and Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook. Disney had distributed "Holes" and "Abyss" for Walden and is co-producing with the company "Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe." Without an animated feature for the summer and with the big-budget action film "King Arthur" not opening until July, there was an available slot in Disney's summer lineup.
Hal Lieberman, a former president of production at Universal Studios and a producer of the film, was relieved to find a home. When Disney gave the go-ahead, "Cary and I put our arms around each other and started dancing," he recalls. "With the sensibility of the picture and the genre, obviously, we felt we had the right fit. It was an intense and scary time because our work was being judged in a rough, unfinished form -- without any special effects."
Disney had already worked with Jackie Chan on "Shanghai Noon" and "Shanghai Knights." Cast in an atypical role, minus a high-powered sidekick, industry observers say the actor is a tougher sell.