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Disney is finally ready to show off its princess

Times Staff Writer

It’s the time you unpack holiday decorations, hound kids to finish school projects and do all the shopping you were supposed to finish last Friday. For good reason, this coming weekend has long been considered a moviegoing abyss.

Can Disney’s hit romantic comedy “Enchanted” buck that trend?

The studios live in such fear of two specific weekends -- the one after Labor Day and the one following Thanksgiving weekend -- that few movies ever debut during them. This Friday, only one new film opens in wide release: “Awake,” a thriller with such limited prospects that the Weinstein Co. tried (and failed) to sell it to another distributor.

That means the animation-live action hybrid “Enchanted” is a lock to win the weekend box office, but Disney’s challenge is to keep the film’s second weekend grosses from plummeting faster than the historical averages.

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With opening three-day ticket sales of $34.3 million (and a five-day gross of $49 million), “Enchanted” surprised not only box-office prognosticators but also Disney executives.

Buoyed by consistently favorable reviews and a larger-than-expected turnout by men and boys, the fairy tale story easily surpassed four new movies in wide release.

Now the hard work begins.

Even the most popular movies, especially those aimed at families, get keelhauled the week after Thanksgiving. Part of the problem is that the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend is one of the busiest multiplex days of the year, so the following Friday (and the weekend that goes with it) is doomed in comparison.

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In 1999, Disney’s “Toy Story 2" fell 52% from its Thanksgiving weekend debut to the next weekend. In 1998, “A Bug’s Life” dropped 48%. Last year, Warner Bros.’ “Happy Feet” (which was in its second weekend of release over Thanksgiving) tumbled 53%.

“I have been bracing myself for it,” says Kevin Lima, “Enchanted’s” director. “I’ve been forewarned.”

If “Enchanted” can slip only 40%, falling to around $20 million for the coming weekend, that would be cause for a Disney celebration. And yet it’s possible, because Disney is just now starting to sell “Enchanted” for what it truly is.

From the very first conversations about “Enchanted’s” marketing, the studio avoided selling the film as a princess story (even though, at its heart, that’s just what it is). Instead, Disney focused on the movie’s unusual blend of animation and live action, preparing audiences for the mixed genres.

“I always felt the concept was the star of the movie -- a Disney princess who comes to life as a real woman -- is what stood out and made it feel original,” Lima says.

Disney worried that focusing on the fairy-tale romance between Giselle (Amy Adams) and Robert (Patrick Dempsey) would scare off male moviegoers, leaving “Enchanted” with an audience that skewed as heavily female as “Hairspray’s.” Early trailers and Internet promotions also steered clear of the film’s musical numbers. Instead, the marketing focused on the film’s Disney pedigree, its characters and physical comedy.

“I don’t think we hid the music in any way, but we didn’t feature the music so that we’d be pigeonholed in one genre,” says Mark Zoradi, Disney’s worldwide head of marketing and distribution.

Once moviegoers started to see the movie, men and boys apparently didn’t mind the music and romance; the opening weekend audience was 60% female and 40% male, the studio says. “It wasn’t just moms and daughters coming to the movie -- it was the whole family,” Lima says.

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Disney has started running new television spots heralding “Enchanted’s” glowing reviews and No. 1 finish at the box office. Other TV advertisements, some of which started running before the film opened, are narrowly focused on selling the film’s romance. “There’s a much greater understanding now,” Zoradi says, “of what the movie is.”

With the film opening strongly not only here but also overseas, Disney is considering an “Enchanted” sequel. A domestic gross of $150 million or more seems possible.

And, for the time being, Disney will promote the movie it has, not the movie it feared. “It’s first and foremost a romantic comedy,” Lima says. “And we shouldn’t be afraid of that.”

john.horn@latimes.com


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