Movie Aims for More Than Rail-Thin Profit

Times Staff Writer

There’s a lot riding on “The Polar Express.”

To make the film, which uses new technology to insert actor Tom Hanks into a computer-generated Christmas fantasy, the fare for Warner Bros. and its financing partner, producer Steve Bing, came to $170 million.

On top of that, $125 million is going toward global marketing and distribution. And if the movie turns a profit, Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis can claim more than one-third of it for themselves.

All told, “Polar” will have to amass more than $500 million in worldwide revenue from box-office, DVD and TV sales and other sources to leave Warner and Bing any presents under the tree.


“We need to do a lot of business on this movie to come out,” Warner Bros. President Alan Horn said. “It is a big risk, and the decision to do any movie this expensive is not done lightly.”

So risky that another studio, Universal Pictures, passed up a chance to co- finance the film. “It was too expensive for us and the technology was untried,” said Universal Pictures Chairwoman Stacey Snider, “so we just opted out.”

But Horn has confidence in the movie. Calling Zemeckis and Hanks “gigantic talents,” he said he believed the duo -- who teamed on the hits “Forrest Gump” and “Castaway” -- had worked their magic again.

“We’re betting on them,” Horn said.

The two took Chris Van Allsburg’s 29-page tale of a young boy whisked away by a magic train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve and made it into a family adventure film. Featuring performance capture technology, it copies the look and motions of Hanks and the other actors via sensors attached to their bodies. The images are picked up by cameras, then manipulated by computer animators to appear realistic.

“Polar Express” expands on Van Allsburg’s book significantly with new characters such as a hobo ghost, songs and scenes that ramp up the action. Although “Polar Express” is rated G, it includes harrowing runaway train sequences and an eerie scene in which the film’s young star stumbles into a box-car of broken toys and is startled by a marionette.

Warner hopes that by injecting action into a popular sentimental story it can attract a broad audience. A good box- office performance means better sales on DVD, where family films sell especially well because kids like to watch their favorites over and over. Perennial holiday films, Horn added, can put money in a studio’s stocking year after year through DVD sales.


But “Polar Express” has a more immediate problem -- being sandwiched between two major family theatrical releases.

Five days before “Polar Express” opens Nov. 10, Walt Disney Co. releases “The Incredibles,” the next computer- animated film from industry powerhouse Pixar Animation Studios. Then, on Nov. 19, Paramount Pictures debuts the “SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” based on the wildly popular Nickelodeon cartoon series.

Although Horn acknowledged that being in such competitive company as “The Incredibles” and “SpongeBob” was “a terrifying thought,” he said he was sure there would be enough business to support all three films over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

“We hope we’re the ham in the middle of a bread sandwich,” he said. “But, if you could get Mr. Jobs and Ms. Lansing to put their movies on the shelves for a year, we’d all appreciate it,” he added, referring to Pixar chief Steven Jobs and Paramount Pictures head Sherry Lansing.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co., agreed that when movies are good, Hollywood’s holiday family market will expand. In 2001, “Monsters, Inc.” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” both were blockbusters despite opening two weeks apart.

“Kids are insatiable -- they want to see everything,” Dergarabedian said.

Still, Horn hedged his bet by taking financier Bing up on an offer to co-finance the movie.

Known in Hollywood as a major Democratic contributor and for tabloid stories of his love affairs, Bing can afford to bankroll films thanks to a real estate inheritance. Forbes magazine estimates that Bing and his family are worth $750 million.

Horn had already given “Polar” the go-ahead for production when he had the fateful lunch with Bing, a good friend who has an overall movie deal at Warner. When Horn suggested that Bing could put up a quarter of the budget, the financier upped the stakes by insisting on being an equal partner.

“He’s a gutsy guy,” Horn said. “For him to put up half the money and not blink is very courageous.... I welcomed a sharing of the risk.”

Bing, who doesn’t grant interviews, declined to comment.

With $85 million of his money on the line, “Polar Express” is by far Bing’s biggest movie investment to date. As a producer, Bing has largely struck out with such flops as “The Big Bounce” and “Get Carter.”

Longtime Bing friend Martin Shafer, chief executive of Castle Rock Entertainment, which helped develop “Polar Express” as a pet project for Hanks, said that Warner benefited from having an individual buy half of the movie rather than another studio. That way, he said, Warner, which is owned by Time Warner Inc., retains worldwide distribution rights that a rival would have demanded to share.

“It’s smart to have a partner to reduce your downside,” Shafer said, noting that other studios including Sony Pictures offered to team with Warner.

With “Polar Express” about to leave the station, Horn isn’t concerned about Hollywood buzz that the film seems too dark and may not appeal to teens who have become used to more irreverent humor that is the hallmark of such successful computer-generated films as “Finding Nemo” and “Shrek 2.”

Horn said parents shouldn’t be any more wary of taking impressionable children to “Polar Express” than they were to films such as Disney’s classic “Bambi” that featured scary scenes.

Horn’s worries about the film’s financial prospects have been somewhat eased by encouraging reactions Warner received from two recent test screenings near Phoenix.

The studio chief said one daytime showing for parents and their kids was well received, as was a nighttime screening for teens and non-parent adults.

“It’s a family movie for everybody,” Horn said.