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What on 'Earth'? Nature, science are good earners

April 23, 2009|John Horn
  • Some of the characters in Disneynature?s ?Earth.? The nature film has emerged as one of the movie business? most profitable genres.
Some of the characters in Disneynature?s ?Earth.? The nature film has emerged… (BBC Worldwide )

Pop quiz: Which film has grossed more money? The hit Paul Rudd comedy "I Love You, Man" or the 47-minute-long documentary "Space Station 3D"?

Julia Roberts' star vehicle "Duplicity" or the Humboldt squid's big turn in "Deep Sea 3D"?

There are many reasons why the Walt Disney Co. is launching its new documentary label Disneynature with "Earth," and not all of them revolve around Earth Day.

While movie studios struggle to create, produce and launch expensive movie franchises, humble nature and science films have emerged as profitable genres. ("Space Station" stands at $78.5 million in domestic theaters, compared with "I Love You, Man's" $65.3 million; "Deep Sea 3D" has grossed $41 million, with "Duplicity" at $39.3 million.)

Against stiff competition from three new features -- "Obsessed," "Fighting" and "The Soloist" -- Disney's "Earth" could gross as much as $10 million in its first five days of release, based on its projected ticket sales for "Earth's" first day in theaters on Wednesday. In international markets, a slightly different version of "Earth," a cinematic adaptation of the BBC/Discovery miniseries "Planet Earth," already has grossed more than $80 million.

This week, the Warner Bros.-Imax collaboration "Deep Sea 3D" surpassed that same worldwide box-office milestone, a stunning return for an $8-million movie that was released more than three years ago with just $2.5 million in domestic advertising.

"The public has developed a real warm and fuzzy attraction toward these films," says Warner Bros. distribution head Dan Fellman. "The quality is just superb, and not only do parents feel that they are entertaining for the whole family, but they are also educational."

Warner Bros. and Imax are currently collaborating on a 2010 documentary about NASA's repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope.


Higher grosses

The theatrical market has grown increasingly tough for high-minded, often political documentaries.

It can cost almost as much to release films like "Waltz With Bashir" as they can ever earn at movie theaters, and such highbrow nonfiction films sell few DVDs and don't generate material ancillary income. Of the top 10 highest-grossing documentaries, only one -- Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- is not a nature or science documentary.

Given their much higher grosses, nature movies, especially large-format films shown in 3-D, don't cost that much to make and market (around $10 million combined). Because they play at museums and institutions, most nature documentaries are able to command higher ticket prices and are not subject to being bumped out of the auditorium by the latest "Harry Potter" movie.

Consequently, popular nature and science movies can play for months and even years, generating slow and steady ticket sales all the while. "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D" may gross only about $40,000 a week, but since it premiered in September 2005, its total gross is more than $28 million -- not much less than the Oscar-winning "The Reader."


Wider release

Disney's "Earth" falls into a slightly different category than the Imax 3-D releases. Rather than introduce the film into several dozen museums, the studio is showing the regular-format, two-dimensional movie in more than 1,800 screens nationwide.

"We asked ourselves, 'How could we bring back the very popular series that Walt Disney did in the 1950s and 1960s -- the "True-Life Adventures" films?' " says studio chief Dick Cook.

"We wanted to make sure that we could line up the very best filmmakers in this area. And we obviously thought it could be a good business."

Disneynature's upcoming slate includes next year's "Oceans" and films on bees, chimpanzees and big cats. "These movies can take on a life of their own," Cook says. "But they tend not to have the instant gratification of most theatrical releases. They play out over a long time."

* Weekend highlights:

The expected No. 1 film is "Obsessed," a "Fatal Attraction"-style drama starring Idris Elba and Beyonce. It could gross as much as $20 million. The other new wide releases, "Fighting" and "The Soloist," should each gross around $14 million in their debuts.


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