A Tall Order for ABC's 'Dinotopia'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taking a major leap of faith, ABC is hoping "Dinotopia"--a fantasy world in which humans and dinosaurs coexist--can help breathe life into a struggling television network that lives in a real world where big-budget, special effects-laden movies have been on the verge of extinction.

The miniseries comes at a time when other networks have cut back on or abandoned the genre after audiences seemed to lose interest. But ABC, which is owned by Walt Disney Co., is giving the six-hour "Dinotopia" three consecutive nights beginning Sunday, in the middle of the important May ratings sweeps, on which stations depend to set future ad rates.

Moreover, without waiting to see whether audiences liked it or not, ABC--whose ratings are down more than 20% this season--has already ordered seven episodes of a spinoff "Dinotopia" series for next season.

And if that pressure weren't enough, the first two installments of the miniseries, Sunday and Monday, fall on the two days immediately preceding ABC's "upfront" presentation of its fall schedule to advertisers in New York on Tuesday. The scheduling was coincidental, according to ABC executives, but if "Dinotopia" fails, it could cast a pall over the crucial event, sending the wrong signal to the advertisers ABC is trying so desperately to woo.

The gamble on the miniseries is the work of Susan Lyne, who oversaw ABC's movies and miniseries before being named president of ABC Entertainment in January, after amassing a strong track record of projects that included the Emmy-winning "Anne Frank."

Lyne--in the midst of screening new-series candidates for ABC's fall lineup, the first assembled since her promotion--declined to discuss the project. Quinn Taylor, who took her place overseeing ABC movies and miniseries, said the network is confident that it's an ideal family show, calling "Dinotopia" a "calculated risk."

Three years ago, Lyne gave producer Robert Halmi Sr. the go-ahead for "Dinotopia," based on the books and elaborate oil paintings by James Gurney that have been a hit worldwide. It turned into an $85-million production--of which ABC paid more than $20 million, according to people familiar with the situation.

"No guts, no glory," said Halmi, who produced many of the event miniseries generated during the genre's heyday, including 1996's "Gulliver's Travels" and 1997's "The Odyssey," which drew appropriately epic ratings. "Susan Lyne is in the same boat I am. We have to go out and prove something."

Gurney, in an interview from his home in Rhinebeck, N.Y, said he deliberately set out to make the world he created--from the wet World Beneath to sky-high pterosaur nests and a fanciful Waterfall City--unfilmable, "partly for the fun of it." Indeed, earlier failed attempts to adapt the book and a sequel to the screen centered on animated theatricals.

But advances in computer-generated graphics gave Halmi's Hallmark Entertainment its opening to try a live-action movie, with help from FrameStore CFC, the special effects production company behind Discovery Channel's "Walking With Dinosaurs."

"It really took until the last couple years before the technology was enough in place to make the effects part of the entire film," said Gurney, who doesn't own a television and had to buy a tape machine and monitor to watch tapes of the miniseries.

FrameStore needed a year after initial filming finished to generate the dinosaurs that populate the film, as well as some of the elaborate backgrounds. The final effects were delivered to ABC by Frame- Store's Mike McGee, the project's visual effects supervisor, in late April, when he came over for the New York premiere. Other scenery, from Arizona's canyons to jungles in Brazil, was added separately.

Much of the acting on the set was done against a blue screen, a process in which the actors pretended to interact with dinosaurs that FrameStore had yet to create.

As it turned out, the riskiest part of the production--the special effects--was less of a problem than some of the nuts-and-bolts acting. Director Marco Brambilla, a top commercial director whose credits include the film "Demolition Man," was replaced last summer, after filming finished, when a decision was made to revoice some of the parts to add more emotion.

Brambilla said a scheduling conflict prevented him from directing the relooping of the voices. ABC dismissed any perceptions that the change might reflect badly on the production, with Taylor noting that it's not easy working with a blue screen, in which actors are talking to something that isn't there. "It's still his movie," Taylor said regarding Brambilla. "We just had to make things that didn't work, work."

For his part, Halmi said having extra time to tinker with the miniseries was beneficial, especially after rushing to get on the air hurt one of his recent productions, NBC's Chinese mythology-themed "The Lost Empire." The poor ratings for that project in 2001 helped spell the end of the genre on NBC just five years after "Gulliver's Travels" revived big events and inspired a glut of similar projects.

"We in the community did it to ourselves," said Taylor, about the saturation of such fare. "The public is too smart. You just can't throw up X, Y and Z and hope it will work. It has to be a good story. You can't event-ize the audience to death."

Taylor argues that the genre isn't dead and that with fewer networks exploring that terrain, ABC has more latitude in deciding how many of these projects to do and when to play them. He also maintains the network has been smart about scheduling by premiering "Dinotopia" in the 7 p.m. "Wonderful World of Disney" slot so younger audiences can tune in, as opposed to the later hour in which some fantasy miniseries aired.

Moreover, ABC has been able to call on Disney's clout to bolster its marketing campaign, which started with a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in November. The flagship Macy's store in New York sports a large "Dinotopia" character on its awning. In Washington, D.C., a Smithsonian exhibit of Gurney's original artwork opened April 24, the same day as the premiere in the dinosaur hall of New York's Museum of Natural History. Some Hallmark stores have a line of characters for sale, and parts of the original Waterfall City set are headed to the Disney theme park outside Paris.

ABC's stations are running a "making of" program. So did the ABC Family Channel, a move that didn't sit well with the rival Hallmark Channel, though Hallmark will get rerun rights to the miniseries and the series, not ABC Family.

Halmi said "Dinotopia's" success will be his "vindication" for persevering in the fantasy genre as well as an incentive to get other networks back on board. Meanwhile, the "Dinotopia" series is already shooting in Budapest, where some of the sets have been reconstructed, and he's planning an animated movie about the dinosaur character "26."

ABC is so confident about the genre's viability that it is already developing two more Halmi projects, "Aztecs" and "Dreamkeeper," the latter a four-hour miniseries based on Native American mythology that began shooting in Calgary this week. Taylor called it one of the best scripts he's ever read. "People think we've lost our minds, but I'm mad for it," he said.

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