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ON DVDS

Talk about a dogged pursuit

Its direct-to-video road was riddled with mishaps, but '12 Dogs of Christmas' will finally reach store shelves today.

November 01, 2005|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

For all its luster, the entertainment business is fraught with peril, and industry veteran Ken Kragen takes solace in a line from Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth": "I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for."

That was certainly true of charitable milestones such as "We Are the World" and "Hands Across America," which he organized in the mid-1980s, said Kragen, former manager of the Bee Gees, Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers. Each teetered on the brink of disaster. More recently, Wilders' words helped Kragen endure a rash of mishaps that plagued "The 12 Dogs of Christmas," a new film based on a 1998 bestselling book written by his daughter Emma, now 15.

However bumpy the path, the direct-to-video release survived. Distributed domestically by Universal Studios Home Entertainment, it hits shelves today.

"Every single thing that could go wrong did," recalls Kragen who -- after talent disputes, union threats, on-set accidents and shipping problems, just for starters -- took out a second mortgage on his Mulholland Estates home. "And making a period piece with 100 dogs and 70 kids for $1 million was a challenge to begin with."

Selling Hollywood on an old-fashioned, live-action children's piece in the era of "Harry Potter" and "Shrek" wasn't easy. This story, devoid of computer graphics and double-entendre, speaks primarily to 4- to 12-year-olds, Kragen said, and the industry is focused on the 18-to-24 crowd. Even though his movie will be competing with more than 1,000 other direct-to-video features released this year, he's convinced it's the way to go. The genre is no longer the industry stepchild, an avenue of last resort for films that couldn't make it to theaters.

The hurdles Kragen encountered making the film stand in sharp contrast to the charmed evolution of the project, truly a Hollywood tale. After 7-year-old Emma scribbled a canine-based parody of "The 12 Days of Christmas" on the back of a placemat during a holiday lunch, her father sent the song to Thomas Nelson, a Nashville publisher with whom he'd worked before. An illustrated version of the song came out the following year, and revenues from the nearly 500,000 copies sold have paid for Emma's private-school tuition. A Sony executive Kragen ran into at a party suggested it would make a good movie.

And then the trouble began.

Kragen commissioned a "treatment" of the film, which he pitched to Sony's family entertainment division. The story revolved around a 12-year-old Depression-era girl sent to live with her aunt in a town that has banned dogs. Intent on striking down the law, she and the townspeople embark on a battle with the mayor and the dogcatcher.

The response was very positive, Kragen recalls -- seemingly a go from the start. Days later, Sony disbanded its family unit and the project came to a halt.

A couple of years later, Kragen lined up Oscar-winning documentarian Kieth Merrill ("The American Cowboy") to write and direct the film. Sean Covel, who graduated from USC Film School with Merrill's son Dagen, was brought aboard as a producer, a position he also held on the low-budget 2004 hit "Napoleon Dynamite."

Kragen approached Texas-based Anderson Merchandisers, a leading supplier of DVDs for Wal-Mart. Rather than giving him an advance order, as Kragen hoped, they went one better -- offering to finance a good part of the film, then budgeted at $1.3 million. Wal-Mart is expected to account for 40% to 50% of all sales, Kragen said.

A week and a half before the March 2004 shoot, the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America contacted Kragen saying that the necessary paperwork hadn't been filed. (Authorization came through only after Kragen forked over a total of $30,000 in security bonds to the two unions.) Concerned about the union situation and working with so many untrained dogs, the parents of the 12-year-old lead pulled her out of the movie two days before she was due to leave for Bethel, Maine, where it was being shot.

Topping things off: The night before filming began, the professional dog trainers told Kragen that the stunts were too difficult for their brood to perform. Pack your bags and go home, they advised.

"I was on the set during spring break, and things were pretty stressful," said Emma, an aspiring filmmaker who shot and edited a seven-minute behind-the-scenes documentary of the shoot that's posted on the website 12dogsofchristmas.com. "Still, I figured that the movie would come through -- my dad can be pretty persuasive."

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