Disney Hopes ‘Christmas Carol’ Lives Up to Its Blockbuster Marketing
LOS ANGELES — Most Hollywood marketers would balk at selling a movie about winter in the dead of summer. But not Walt Disney Pictures, which arrived in New Orleans in August to promote its new 3-D version of “A Christmas Carol.”
The scene was certainly Dickensian. Drenched in sweat, hundreds of people waited in a muddy field for hours to tour a train filled with exhibits about the film. “This is beyond miserable,” said Kimberly Serpas as a squadron of dragonflies dive-bombed her 2-year-old son.
Still, the event did its job. “We’ll go see it,” Ms. Serpas said. “The exhibits ultimately made it look interesting. It’s on my radar now.”
What does it take to persuade the world it needs yet another “Christmas Carol” adaptation? Apparently, a whole lot of hard sell. Under pressure to deliver a big hit after losing money in the most recent quarter, Disney’s studio is backing the movie’s Nov. 6 release with one of the most elaborate and expensive marketing campaigns in its history, at least for a live-action film.
By the time that five-car train rolls into Grand Central Terminal in New York on Friday, it will have visited 40 cities, logging about a million visitors and generating a mountain of news media coverage. Costumed carolers unveiled footage at the Cannes International Film Festival in May. Fake snow will blanket the London premiere, an affair that will accommodate 4,000 guests.
The studio is also pulling out all the new-media stops it can. There is a Scrooge iPhone application, a “naughty or nice” Facebook quiz and a themed video game on Disney.com.
A Web site where people around the world can make virtual ornaments and decorate a communal online tree was unveiled last week.
Add in an omnipresent television and billboard advertising campaign and myriad merchandising tie-ins, and Disney will have bombarded most of the moviegoing souls on the planet with its message by the time the movie opens.
“Its success is very important to the company,” said Mark Zoradi, president of the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group.
More than the fortunes of a hugely expensive film is at stake. The media giant is betting that the movie, “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” estimated to cost about $175 million to produce, can become an annuity.
If people like the movie, which stars Jim Carrey in several incarnations and was directed by Robert Zemeckis, Disney could rerelease it every year, generating a steady stream of holiday-driven DVD and merchandising sales. Deeper in its life cycle, annual television runs could produce meaningful revenue.
“The Polar Express,” which Mr. Zemeckis directed for Warner Brothers in 2004, is one model. Warner has rereleased the movie every November to solid results, selling more than $300 million in tickets at the global box office. The DVD has become one of the studio’s best sellers; more than nine million copies have been sold in North America alone, according to the research company SNL Kagan.
Disney has had niche success in this area with “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the Halloween-themed film that was conceived by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick in 1993. But its version of “A Christmas Carol” carries significant risk.
For starters, the studio is replowing perhaps the most overplowed piece of intellectual property in history. The 1843 novella about a greedy curmudgeon who is visited by three apparitions on Christmas Eve is old enough that it is public domain, and it has been adapted for stage, television and film more than 50 times in recent decades, including an all-dog version.
“It has never been done with modern technology and with the acting talent of Jim Carrey,” Mr. Zoradi said, adding that the visual style was “very new and very hip. It’s a 3-D thrill ride from start to finish.”
Mr. Carrey plays Ebenezer Scrooge (at various stages of his life) and the three ghosts. Gary Oldman stars as Bob Cratchit, Marley and Tiny Tim. Mr. Zemeckis has called the dark movie a “graphic novel version” of the classic tale.
Mr. Carrey has a strong holiday track record — his “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in 2000 was a global hit — but his overall drawing power has weakened in recent years. Attempts to stretch beyond slapstick (“The Number 23”) have proved ill-fated, and even some family movies (“Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”) have been softer than expected.
Mr. Zemeckis, who won an Oscar for “Forrest Gump” and was responsible for the “Back to the Future” trilogy, certainly knows how to deliver box office dynamite. But his remake of “A Christmas Carol” involves a style of filmmaking — motion capture — that audiences are still chewing over.
While moviegoers responded to “The Polar Express,” which served as a kind of major-league debut for the technology, they largely rejected it with “Beowulf,” which Mr. Zemeckis directed for Paramount in 2007 to weak results. Cinema buffs complain that the technology, which essentially turns live actors into computer-animated figures, can deliver a creepy “dead eye” effect.
Mr. Zemeckis has said repeatedly in interviews that the technology has evolved to the point that such complaints are moot. “We fixed the eyes,” he told the fan Web site Ain’t It Cool News in July.
“Disney’s A Christmas Carol” finds itself in the awkward position of arriving in theaters without its cheerleader in chief: Dick Cook, who was ousted as studio chairman last month after clashing with Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive. His approach to the marketing — namely the much-ballyhooed train tour — worsened the relationship.
Mr. Iger has been vocal in pushing the studio to cut marketing costs and worried the train was too big a drain on company resources. While the six-month, 16,000-mile train tour was sponsored by Amtrak and Hewlett-Packard, among others, it required a heavy personnel commitment on Disney’s behalf to plan and manage.
A busload of staff members followed the train from place to place, including the Grand Canyon; Whitefish, Mont.; and Charleston, S.C. Disneyland executives consulted on crowd control; air-conditioning units were trucked in for sweaty summer stops. Mr. Cook himself took time to appear at the train’s introduction in Los Angeles and again in Chicago; he had planned to be in New York for the finale.
As far as the studio is concerned, the train has been a smash success, bringing the 3-D message to the heartland and generating deep audience awareness. About 40,000 people turned out over three days in Los Angeles; in some cities, people have come dressed in Santa costumes. A spokeswoman said the experience in New Orleans was an unfortunate consequence of bad weather and not representative of other stops.
“It has proven very Twitter-friendly,” said Mr. Zoradi, comparing the marketing gimmick to a circus coming to town. “People have been talking like heck about it.”
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