Movies Imitate Disney's Parks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hollywood has a long tradition of looking outside itself for raw material, drawing on sources including novels, plays, comic books, television shows and video games.

Now it's turning to theme parks.

Walt Disney Co. is developing three movies based on classic theme park attractions, adding a new twist to an idea the company exploited half a century ago.

The movies, "The Country Bears," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Haunted Mansion," are inspired by the iconic Disneyland attractions and will be released this year and next.

The movies mark both a new chapter in the history of film and a new strategy for Disney, which until now has modeled its theme park rides and shows mainly on its own movies, from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to "The Lion King."

Walt Disney built Disneyland in 1955 as a physical home for the cartoon characters he and his animators created on screen.

Walt's idea of synergy or cross-promotion, which other media companies now mimic, reaches new heights in the upcoming movies. The titles will be already familiar to millions of Americans who've visited Disney's parks in Orlando, Fla., and Anaheim, providing Disney with a ready-made audience at a time when studios are competing fiercely to market their movies.

And by shining the light back on the company's classic attractions, the movies also will help promote Disney's theme parks.

"This just seemed to be so natural that we'd be crazy not to pursue it," said Disney Studios Chief Dick Cook. "These are Disney icons. They just lend themselves to movies."

Cook should know. The studio executive began his 31-year career at Disney as a ride operator, and his wife once worked the Country Bears Jamboree show in Anaheim. "These films are the definition of the kind of films we want to do," he said. Disney may produce more such movies if the first three are successful, Cook said.

His experiment comes as Disney is testing new waters to improve its box-office performance with more family-oriented fare tied to the company's roots. Disney, challenged by rival hits such as "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "The Lord of the Rings" is seeking to reclaim its reputation as a leader in family movies.

Disney's new strategy also underscores how movies increasingly are becoming vehicles to market products, from video games to cars, film historians said.

"There's a tremendous paucity of new ideas today," said Rick Jewell, associate dean of the School of Cinema-Television at USC. "The studios are not willing to take enough chances with new material."

Company executives dismiss that idea.

"There would be no point in making these movies if you didn't think they had the right to exist on their own terms, otherwise they'd be commercials, not movies," said Disney Studios Production Chief Nina Jacobson. "The truth is Walt was one of the greatest minds of the 20th century and there are reasons why these rides are so popular and people remember them. If you have access to this great cultural iconography, there's no shame in going back to it."

Though Disney produced a made-for-TV movie in 1997 based on the Tower of Terror attraction at Disney MGM Studios in Orlando, the studio has never developed a feature film out of one of its theme park attractions.

That will change with "Country Bears," a live-action musical comedy based on the animatronic bears that have been fixtures at the Country Bear Jamboree at Walt Disney World in Orlando since 1971. Disneyland closed a similar attraction last year before the studio decided to make the movie.

The $30-million movie, which debuts July 26, tells the story of a legendary Southern rock band reuniting to save the legendary Country Bear Hall. Actor Christopher Walken plays a greedy banker who is about to foreclose on the concert hall. The bears were designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop and dance to original songs by John Hiatt.

Of the three movies, "Country Bears" is the most faithful to the attraction, said director Peter Hastings. "You're building on a huge fan base because millions of people have visited the Country Bears in Florida and at Disneyland."

Jeffrey Chernov and Andrew Gunn are producing the movie.

Gunn also is producing "Haunted Mansion" with Don Hahn, who also produced "The Lion King." The movie is loosely based on the Haunted Mansion attraction originally built at Disneyland in 1969.

"Haunted Mansion," which premieres late next year, stars Eddie Murphy. He plays a father who encounters a ghost when he and his family move into a haunted house.

The third movie, "Pirates of the Caribbean," is a big-budget "romantic action adventure" produced by high-profile filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer ("Pearl Harbor") with Clayton Townsend. The movie, set for summer 2003, features a daring attempt to rescue someone from dangerous pirates.

"I've always wanted to get involved in a pirate movie," Bruckheimer said. "[Pirates] was one of my favorite attractions growing up."

Bruckheimer expects the ride's popularity will give the movie a lift. "You're bombarded with thousands of images trying to pull your attention, from TV to video games," he said. "If you have something people are interested in, it makes it much easier to get them out of their living rooms and into theaters."

The parks will help spread the word. To promote "Country Bears," for example, Disney World will plaster theatrical posters on trams, billboards and buses throughout the resort and run trailers of the movie on hotel televisions.

And the movies should give the attractions a lift.

"It does help raise awareness for our attractions," said Walt Disney Parks and Resorts spokeswoman Leslie Goodman.

Steve Ross, USC professor of film and popular culture, agrees. "How can it not help them?" he asked. "They're getting all this free advertising."

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