Quasi-Successful

To use an analogy that seems appropriate during the Olympics, the bar has just been lowered when it comes to Walt Disney's classic animated feature films.

Although it will undoubtedly turn a profit--and probably a very good one compared with the dismal performance of most Hollywood movies--"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is clearly less successful than last summer's "Pocahontas," which in turn was a lot less successful than the previous summer's hit, "The Lion King."

A month after the release of the movie, Quasimodo is wheezing his way toward $100 million at the box office domestically, a mark that most recent Disney animated features cleared easily. Over the weekend, the movie dropped 43% to $3.6 million, putting its gross to date at $84.4 million. No doubt Disney will do what it takes to get that number past the triple-digit threshold that seems to define a hit these days, although it's going to take a lot more effort than anyone expected.

"They knew they weren't going to get 'Lion King' numbers, but they thought they'd at least get 'Pocahontas' numbers," said one former Disney executive. ("The Lion King" grossed $312 million domestically, and "Pocahontas" grossed $141 million.)

Correspondingly, merchandise sales are disappointing. Mattel Vice President Glen Bozarth said sales of "Hunchback" toys won't match those for "Pocahontas." Some analysts said sales of "Hunchback" merchandise could total $70 million, a respectable figure, though less than the $100 million Mattel is believed to have taken in from its "Pocahontas" line.

Tellingly, a Toys R Us spokeswoman said the nation's largest toy retailer hasn't decided whether to offer "Hunchback" toys through the Christmas shopping season. (Toys based on "Pocahontas" and "The Lion King" continue to sell year-round.)

Likewise, the "Hunchback" soundtrack hasn't cracked the Billboard top 10, unlike previous soundtracks that did, often reaching No. 1. Turn on a radio and you won't hear a "Colors of the Wind," "Circle of Life" or "Beauty and the Beast."

What makes the results troubling for Disney is that the studio has come to depend heavily on profits from animated feature films, which have been the key growth engine for it in the 1990s. "Hunchback" also was launched with a huge marketing campaign estimated at $40 million when the money spent by partners such as Burger King and Nestle are thrown in.

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No doubt the softer-than-expected results are giving pause to executives at rival companies planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to get a piece of the animation market Disney has exploited.

Still, don't feel too sorry for Disney. Studio executives say privately that they expect "Hunchback" to gross about $300 million at the box office when international receipts are tallied. And the $70-million movie will still be one of the most lucrative of the summer, potentially reaping $400 million in profit after every videocassette and figurine is sold--something that says a lot more about the crazy economics of Hollywood these days than it does about the performance of the movie. ("Pocahontas" made an estimated profit of more than $500 million, "The Lion King" a staggering $1 billion.)

Unlike "Mission: Impossible," there's no Tom Cruise whose contract calls for a huge chunk of profit. Unlike "Twister," there isn't another studio carving out profit because it shared the financial risk, as MCA did when it partnered with Warner Bros. on the film. It's also a safe bet that "Hunchback" will sell a lot more videocassettes--the closest thing to pure profit for a studio these days--than "Independence Day."

Phil Garfinkel, senior vice president of Entertainment Data Inc., which tracks box-office receipts, warns against becoming jaded about Disney animation because of the "Hunchback" results.

"It will probably end up as the sixth-highest animated picture ever made. Is there anything wrong with that? If you look at it in that context, that's unbelievable business," Garfinkel said.

And as a company overall, Disney is showing strong theme park results, analysts say. Some movie projects with a big potential payoff lie ahead this year, including a live-action "101 Dalmatians" and the re-release of the animated hit "The Little Mermaid."

In most recent years, Disney's animated movies--including last fall's computer-generated "Toy Story"--have been hugely profitable while its live-action slate went bust. (Ironically, this summer a Disney live-action movie, "The Rock," has outperformed "Hunchback" domestically so far, and another strong performer, "Phenomenon," may do the same.)

The performance of "Hunchback" is already causing a lot of soul-searching, both among Disney, its partners and throughout Hollywood.

Was it the dark tone of a movie that seemed geared more toward adults than kids? Did Disney fail to address concerns raised by some critics about the suitability of the movie for children? Should the company have spent more time and money marketing the movie itself rather than on expensive promotional gimmicks, such as arranging a New Orleans parade and a Louisiana Superdome screening?

Was the movie marketplace too crowded with movies? Did "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback" perform worse than others because former Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn't there to nurture the films? Or should he be blamed for giving the movies the go-ahead in the first place?

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More interesting will be whether the results of the last two films affect decisions about next year's "Hercules," and "Tarzan" after that.

No doubt it will add to the natural tension between the creative forces wanting to make the best animated movies and the business side, which wants them to fully drive the gigantic sales machine.

Finally, there's no doubt that concern has arisen at other Hollywood studios, where huge amounts are being spent in an effort to replicate Disney's success with animation. "Hunchback" may prove that Disney is vulnerable after all when it comes to animation, which would bode well for competitors. More troubling is the question of whether this is an early sign that the moviegoing public is tiring of the formula.

In the meantime, Disney's animation remains a license to print money. It's just not printing as much.

Times staff writers Denise Gellene and Claudia Puig contributed to this column.

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