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'Polar Express' opening less than incredible

The pricey film takes the high road and sputters while the cheaper 'Chucky' is on the low road to success.

November 15, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

This is a tale of two movies.

Arriving on the high end is the $170-million "Polar Express," the technologically groundbreaking holiday tale brimming with star power -- director Bob Zemeckis and actor Tom Hanks. On the opposite side of this box-office equation is "Seed of Chucky," the fifth in the low-budget horror franchise about a demonic red-headed doll that springs to life. One landed in theaters on Wednesday with extraordinary expectations and Oscar hopes; the other hit on Friday and was virtually dismissed sight unseen.

How they fare long-term in the profit-loss equation of Hollywood will say much about the increasingly schizophrenic world of expensive films aiming for substance and critical acclaim, and inexpensive lowbrow movies looking for a quick payoff.

After a sluggish start on Wednesday, "The Polar Express" picked up a little speed, landing at No. 2. With an estimated weekend take of $23.5 million, it was not nearly enough to shake the hold of the animation juggernaut that is "The Incredibles," which more than doubled "Polar." "Incredibles" made another $51 million, pushing its current domestic gross to $144.1 million. "Polar" had a $125-million worldwide budget for marketing and distribution, yet its five-day ticket sales -- it opened Wednesday, prior to the Veterans Day holiday -- will at best hit $30.8 million.

"We love our movie and we believe in our movie," said Warner Bros. President Alan Horn, who has hopes that it will become a holiday classic even if the march toward the break-even point is a slow one. As to the harsh reviews that greeted the film, Horn said, "I'm thinking they are looking at a different movie than I am.... I just feel that someone has gone in and decided [in] the first five minutes of the movie, 'I don't like, this is weird,' and then every frame of the movie after that is filtered through that angle of the prism."

"Chucky" received its own round of slasher reviews, though they came late because Focus Features decided not to screen the fifth installment of the franchise for reviewers. But then fans of "Chucky," no doubt, don't care what critics think.

Directed by Don Mancini and starring Jennifer Tilly, the wide-eyed killer doll turned up at No. 5 with an estimated $8.8 million. It finished behind "After the Sunset," at No. 3 with $11.6 million, and a very strong "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," which landed at No. 4, making an estimated $8.9 million on just 530 screens with a per-screen average of $16,792. Meanwhile, "Kinsey," about famed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, took in $175,026 on five screens for an average of $35,005.

While a theatrical release is only one step in a long-term revenue stream, industry analysts note, escalating production and marketing budgets increase the risk of moviemaking. "The Polar Express," with its cost and hybrid technology, was a high risk. "We really have a new animal here," said Horn. "We actually have a zebra." One which must take in $500 million from worldwide box office, DVD and TV sales and other sources just to break even.

Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures, dug back into history to 1997 and "Titanic" to put a different spin on "Polar's" numbers. "Titanic" opened at $39 million, he notes, and went on to make $600 million on the domestic front. Among holiday movies, "Santa Clause 2" opened to $29 million and grossed $140 million, while "Elf" debuted at $31 million on its way to a $175-million take. And then the Imax version of "Polar Express" was the biggest opening in Imax history, with many of those venues sold out through mid-January.

"A lot of big action event films open to enormous numbers, but this film will play a long time," Fellman said. "Many people have already seen 'The Incredibles,' so a lot of the [ticket-buying] dollars will shift to 'Polar Express.' Sure, it's easier to make money on lower-budget pictures, but we're not in the business of 'Chuckys.' The tentpole strategy -- releasing big pictures such as 'Harry Potter,' 'Superman,' 'Batman' -- has been our bread and butter. I think this movie will exceed $100 million."

The studio had high hopes for the movie, particularly since Zemeckis and Hanks have a history of success with "Forrest Gump" and "Cast Away." Somewhat mitigating the downside is the co-financing kicked in by producer Steve Bing ("Get Carter"), who put up $85 million -- half the negative cost. And there's the hope that the movie will be embraced overseas as well as on the home-video front.

Meanwhile, "Seed of Chucky" was a moneymaker before it ever hit theaters. For starters, sales of the foreign rights covered the cost of production, according to Focus distribution chief Jack Foley.

"While any movie is a high-wire act, the voltage on this one is considerably less," Foley said. "If the business model works again

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