Why is the $170-million ‘Polar Express’ getting derailed?

Times Staff Writer

Sometimes people invent cars no one wants to buy. Sometimes people dream up soda pop no one wants to drink. And sometimes filmmakers make movies with an exotic new technology that no one wants to see, like, ahem, “The Polar Express.” A hugely expensive gamble that has landed with an Edsel-like thud at the box office, the $170-million Robert Zemeckis-directed film finds itself sandwiched between two other family movies, Pixar’s wildly successful “The Incredibles” and “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” which is getting a big rollout from Paramount Pictures this coming weekend.

As is often the case in Hollywood, the body was barely cold when the postmortems come flooding in. Last Friday, when “Polar Express” had been open for all of about 45 hours, a rival studio executive assessed its chances of success: “It’s a disaster.” By Monday, everyone was on the phone with typical expressions of faux concern. “Oh, that’s so horrible about ‘Polar Express,’ ” one agent said. “Warners must have black crepe in all the windows,” which is Hollywood-ese for, “Thank God I don’t have a client in that movie.”

If nothing else, “Polar Express” is a cautionary tale about how there are no sure things in Hollywood, even when a big star like Tom Hanks and a top director like Zemeckis are at the helm. Having bought the rights to the slender 29-page book years ago, Hanks teamed up with Zemeckis, who made “Forrest Gump” (1994) with the actor. The director has been one of Hollywood’s leading exponents of special-effects wizardry, dating back to his magical marriage of live action and cartoon thrills in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988).


What went wrong? First off, special effects don’t come cheap -- and neither did the “Express” talent. When Hanks and Zemeckis took “Polar Express” to Universal Pictures, where there was a deal with Castle Rock Entertainment, the film’s producers, the studio was unenthusiastic about making a movie for which the two men would get not only $40 million in salary but 35% of the first-dollar gross -- 20% to Hanks, 15% to Zemeckis. The studio was also nervous about making such an expensive film with performance capture, a largely untested new technology that uses real actors whose facial and body movements become the template for digitized characters.

At one point, Universal and Warners considered making the film together, but when the talent refused to cut their prices, Universal bowed out.

Warners eventually found a partner in Steve Bing, a real estate heir who is one of the many well-heeled outsiders who have been investing in movies in recent years, often to the detriment of their bank accounts (just ask Phil Anschutz, who lost untold millions bankrolling the flop “Around the World in 80 Days”). Bing put up about $85 million of his own money to co-finance the film, which barely made $30 million its first five days of release, far short of anyone’s expectations.

Even worse, the technology takes the star out of the movie. He may play five parts, but there’s no Tom Hanks in the film. Not only is his face gone, but the performance capture somehow leaches his trademark charm and everyday humanity off the screen as well. The technology also brings out the worst in Zemeckis. Earlier in his career, he made irresistibly airy, exuberant comedies, but his more recent films have been increasingly chilly and soulless, qualities that deaden “Polar Express” as much as its technology does.

Then the film’s performance-capture technology turned out to be a bigger turnoff than Warners imagined. Kids who saw the film’s TV spots had trouble identifying with the characters, who appear not only remote and zombie like, but oddly old-fashioned, as if they’d escaped from a Norman Rockwell etching. As Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern put it: “It’s not just an epidemic of dead eyes, but deadened features that make the kids look bleak, sleep deprived or simply sad.” When you’re competing against the lively, cutting-edge technology of a Pixar film like “The Incredibles” or a film with the playful charm of “SpongeBob,” sad and sleep deprived is a tough sell.

The biggest cause for second-guessing has come from Warners’ decision to release the film five days after “The Incredibles,” which is sort of like a guy taking a girl out on a date right after she’s spent the night with George Clooney. Pixar is a tough act to follow.

On the other hand, what was Warners to do? If you have a Christmas movie, you can’t wait until Christmas to release it, because after the holiday your business drops off a cliff. Warners could’ve waited until Thanksgiving weekend, but that would have given the film a shorter run and put it opposite another holiday film, “Christmas With the Kranks.” Although it seems hard to believe, Warners was actually more concerned about coming out after “SpongeBob” than “The Incredibles,” in part because the studio thought the Pixar film might underperform. Warners’ thinking may have been influenced by the fact that “Incredibles” director Brad Bird’s last film, “Iron Giant” (1999), was a flop for Warners, which perhaps made it easier for the studio to take a dim view of his new film.

Warners is putting a brave face on things, saying it’s way too early to declare defeat, noting that exit polls have been strong for “Polar Express.” Studio executives also point to “Elf,” a New Line film that had a $31-million opening weekend last year, yet went on to make $173 million in domestic grosses. Alas, “Elf” cost about $140 million less than “Express” and got far better reviews. Warners discounts the high-profile bad reviews for “Express,” saying that elite media publications like the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly (the Time-Warner-owned magazine that gave the film a C-plus) are out of touch with heartland moviegoers.

However, a quick search turned up negative reviews in such towns as Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. Writing in the Charlotte Observer, Lawrence Toppman said that while the film “would have made a superb half-hour TV special, Zemeckis has created a steroidal monster with a heart about one size too small.”

What really seems like wishful thinking is Warners’ belief that the film’s box-office performance will somehow improve as the holidays grow near. This ignores the fact that studio tent-pole movies don’t build an audience from word of mouth, the way independent films do. Warners doesn’t grow its movies; it uses marketing to create an opening-weekend juggernaut, knowing the audience will drop off steeply immediately afterward when some other studio shells out $40 million to seduce moviegoers into seeing their blockbuster. Since the first “Harry Potter” film arrived in November 2001, Warners has released 10 Big Event movies. All 10 have dropped off at least 36% in their second weekend; seven of the 10 have dropped off at least 49%. Not one of them had as low an opening-three-day-weekend total as “Polar Express.”

The overseas prospects for “Express” aren’t especially encouraging, even though Warners’ “The Last Samurai” (2003), which was prematurely labeled a flop by the media, ended up making a ton of money across the globe. Christmas movies don’t travel so well. “Elf” made $173 million here, but only $46 million overseas. “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) made $260 million in the U.S., only $80 million abroad.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Not really. No matter how poorly “Express” does, it will hardly be Warners’ biggest flop, a distinction, at least recently, that belongs to “Looney Tunes,” a would-be franchise financed entirely by the studio that showed up dead on arrival at almost the same time last year. Hanks may be in a slump, but if he survived “Joe vs. the Volcano,” he’ll surely survive this.

Bing may have ignored the oldest maxim in Hollywood -- never spend your own money -- but he has plenty more money to lose.

It could be argued that it’s crazy to spend $170 million to make a movie, but you can always point to “Titanic” as proof that the most extravagant bet can sometimes pay off. “Polar Express” simply stands as yet another reminder that, no matter how much today’s sprawling media giants try, they’ll never be able to take the risk out of the movie business.