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'The Lion, the Witch,' the faithful

October 05, 2005|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Walt Disney Studios is hoping that the same kind of church-based campaign that helped turn "The Passion of the Christ" into a blockbuster will convert C.S. Lewis' children's classic "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" into a big-screen franchise -- with "Lion King"-sized profits.

Directed by Andrew Adamson ("Shrek"), the $150-million mix of computer-generated imagery and live action is due out Dec. 9 from Disney and Walden Media. Based on the first installment in a book series that has sold a combined 90 million copies over 55 years, the project seems tailor-made for the faith and family market.

Still, says Dennis Rice, Disney's senior vice president of publicity, the initiative is "only one arrow in a large quiver of arrows" as the studio prepares to unveil one of the largest marketing campaigns it has ever mounted. Among the companies with tie-ins: McDonald's, General Mills, Virgin Atlantic, Oral-B, Kodak and Taubman Centers, at whose shopping malls this season's holiday festivities will be "Narnia"-themed. More than 50 licensees are manufacturing items such as board games, porcelain dolls, trading cards and photo albums; HarperCollins is publishing more than 140 editions of "Narnia," including six box sets and 31 audio versions, and a video game is due in November.

The push comes at a critical time for Disney. The studio is desperately seeking a blockbuster hit, and one that could deliver any number of sequels, along the lines of Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter" and New Line Cinema's "Lord of the Rings." Not only is Disney lacking in the franchise department, but its onetime stranglehold on family animation has also been weakened by a flood of competitors.

"This is a huge roll of the dice for Disney and Walden," said "Narnia" producer Mark Johnson. "But the payoff could be enormous."

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" tells the story of four children who are evacuated to the countryside during the World War II bombing of London, only to find a magical wardrobe that leads to an eternal world. Themes such as good versus evil, betrayal and, ultimately, forgiveness are woven into the tale. Some regard a central character -- Aslan, the lion -- as a Christ figure tortured in place of a young human sinner. Others contend that Lewis' books should be seen as myth rather than biblical allegory.

"Everyone has his own take on the book, to which the movie is faithful," said Disney's Rice. "Rather than embracing any interpretation, we're remaining neutral, adopting the Switzerland approach."

A movie doesn't have to be overtly religious, though, to connect with the church-based audience. The promotional campaigns for New Line's "Secondhand Lions," Universal's "Cinderella Man" and Screen Gems' "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" -- just for starters -- were directed at a grass-roots evangelical component. And Disney courted this demographic when releasing family-oriented fare such as "Miracle," "The Rookie" and the recent "The Greatest Game Ever Played," albeit nothing on the scale of "Narnia," company executives say.

"Many people put churchgoers and Hollywood on the opposite sides of the equation," said Paul Lauer, whose Motive Entertainment orchestrated the "Passion" campaign and has been working on doing the same for "Narnia" since early this year. "But churchgoers are hungry for movies reflecting strong values -- like 'Narnia.' "

The 5-year-old Grace Hill Media, in which Jonathan Bock and Ted Gartner are partners, has also signed on to the "Narnia" campaign. The industry leader in church-based promotion, it has worked on 80 films, including "Lord of the Rings," "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Bruce Almighty." Outreach, Inc., one of Motive's partners and a "Passion" veteran, is producing resource materials such as a DVD aimed at ministers, educators and scout troops to help them integrate the movie into their respective curricula . Disney is also reaching out to 40,000 youth ministers nationwide and has marshaled the support of leading clergymen such as Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. Group sales -- many organized by churches -- are in the works.

When it comes to connecting with young people, some clergy believe, storytelling is far more effective than an academic approach. While "The Passion" was "powerful and specific," "Narnia" provides some "very real answers to problems in the universe," said Ric Olsen, senior associate pastor at Harbor Trinity Church in Costa Mesa.

Olsen was contacted by Outreach to record a segment for Disney's promotional DVD on "Narnia," one of his favorite pieces of literature. He's also conducting a series of pre-sermon talks about the movie and trying to rent the Irvine Spectrum for a night, just as he did with "The Passion."

A fragile bond

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