No Herculean Gross; Why?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though the new Disney animated feature "Hercules" should eventually hit the $100-million mark at the domestic box office, that's no cause for celebration on Dopey Drive.

Despite talk that the movie was poised to recapture the spirit--and box-office success--of 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" ($145.9 million domestic), 1992's "Aladdin" ($217 million) and 1994's "The Lion King" ($312 million), "Hercules" is no return to Disney's glory days. In fact, it has a shot at being the least successful Disney animated feature since 1989's "The Little Mermaid," which opened in November and on far fewer screens. Taking in some $72 million in its first three weeks of wide release, "Hercules" is trailing 1995's "Pocahontas" and is more on a par with last year's 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame"--both of which were less favorably reviewed.

The industry is in the process of figuring out why, raising questions about the film--as well as the medium of animation itself. Now that animated features have segued from holiday-time perennials into a summer blockbuster business, have soaring budgets, rising expectations and mounting competition set them up for a fall? Have changing moviegoing patterns among young people shrunk animation's audience? And at what point do marketing and merchandising veer into overkill, tainting a project instead of boosting it?

"No one doubted that 'Hercules' would be a biggie," said Arthur Rockwell, an entertainment analyst at the brokerage firm Yaeger Capital Markets. "The reviews were good, the buzz was great. But it may have been hurt by such calculated commercialism. When a movie is made for McDonald's and the retailers, it loses sight of the story and audience. Like 'Batman & Robin,' 'Hercules' is seen less as a movie than as a giant marketing venture."

Some suspect that "Hercules," like "Hunchback" and "Pocahontas," may have been dragged down by its subject matter--weightier than that of "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," or "Little Mermaid" and less appealing to girls. Others say this summer's live-action movies reduced its take.

" 'Men in Black,' an adult film with comic-book aspects, hurt this picture more than anticipated," said Dan Marks, senior vice president of product management at the box-office tracking firm Entertainment Data. "Eight- , nine- , 10-year-olds who might have gone to 'Hercules' ran there instead. That 'Hercules' attendance dropped less during the third weekend than during the second may be an encouraging sign, however. Kids have already seen 'Men in Black' and may now be heading for the Disney film."

Both "Men in Black" and "Batman & Robin" took a toll, concedes Dick Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group. But with a projected worldwide gross of $300 million, he says, Disney's "Hercules" expectations are far from dashed.

"Because 'Cinderella,' 'Sleeping Beauty,' and 'Lady and the Tramp' did less than 'Snow White,' does that make them unsuccessful?" he asked. "You've got to consider the marketplace. And there are no formulas when it comes to marketing. Trying to distinguish yourself from the rest of the choices, you just hope it's not the tail wagging the dog."

Meanwhile, children have become more selective about movies, industry observers agree.

"After hearing a Spice Girls song on the trailer, my 8-year-old daughter wants to see Alicia Silverstone in 'Excess Baggage,' " says a top studio executive. "The axiom, 'If you animate it, they will come' no longer prevails."

A Disney insider is even more pointed: "Animated movies under [Disney chairman] Michael Eisner and [former studio chief] Jeffrey Katzenberg appealed to kids from 5 to 15," he said. "The window now is about 5 to 9. Older kids want something grittier . . . which bodes poorly for animation down the road."

If 20th Century Fox (the forthcoming "Anastasia"), Warner Bros. ("The Quest for Camelot") and DreamWorks SKG ("Prince of Egypt") are going head to head with Disney on big-budget animation, Paramount Pictures is opting for niche product, low-budget movies with characters that are known. At holiday time 1998, they plan to release a film version of "Rugrats." Last year, they turned out "Beavis and Butt-head Do America," which took in a surprising $63 million in the U.S. and Canada alone.

Disney also has to worry about its company image and overexposure--topics that were, in fact, addressed at the Disney shareholders' meeting last February and have become more of an issue in the past few months. Despite its impressive cleanup of Times Square in Manhattan, the company drew irate response from some New Yorkers when Mayor Rudolph Guiliani handed over the city for a "Hercules" electric parade. Thursday's decision to prohibit rivals from advertising animated movies--and possibly some live-action family fare--after the fall debut of "Wonderful World of Disney" on Disney-owned ABC is unlikely to win the studio any friends. And the company has taken hits from groups ranging from the Southern Baptist Convention to the National Federation of the Blind.

Still, said Richard Schickel, author of "The Disney Version," such actions are unlikely to have box-office reverberations. "There's nothing that will stop someone--even the most hard-shell Baptist--from seeing what he wants to see," he said. "People are reacting not against Disney but to changes in the movies it makes. 'Little Mermaid,' 'Beauty and the Beast' were jaunty, unpretentious, light on their feet. 'Pocahontas,' 'Hercules,' 'Hunchback' are weightier tales . . . and you feel the corporate machine pressing down on your brow."

Some question the Disney policy of releasing an animated film each year. "Store buyers complained that we clumped 'Pocahontas,' 'Toy Story' and 'Hunchback' too close together," said a Disney consumer goods executive. "How many costumes and stuffed animals can you sell? Because they were left with so much unsold merchandise during 'Pocahontas' and 'Hunchback,' we were careful to walk a tightrope this time."

An annual animated release also may be counterproductive from a marketing point of view, raising questions about the fate of Disney's "Mulan," the tale of a high-spirited girl trying hard to be the perfect daughter (scheduled to surface in June 1998), as well as the seven other animated pictures due to open industry-wide in the next 18 months.

"It makes it difficult to create a sense of 'event,' " said Norton Virgiens, co-director of the "Rugrats" film. "Musical acts come out with an album every three years which seems like a good pace. But then, Disney has always functioned very aggressively."

At present, the company has little to fear, says producer Frank Marshall--the 1994 loss of Katzenberg to DreamWorks SKG notwithstanding. "Though Katzenberg had a lot of influence, others are rising to the occasion," said the producer who, with producer/wife Kathleen Kennedy ("Jurassic Park") spent five years overseeing animation for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. "No one is irreplaceable. Besides, it's premature to hail the end of Disney domination. No one else comes close."

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