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‘Speed Racer’ trying to gain traction

Times Staff Writer

The stakes in the industry’s most competitive moviegoing season are high for all Hollywood studios, which spend heavily to sell their big-budget popcorn titles around the world. This summer, the risks are particularly steep for Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. studio, which has hundreds of millions of dollars riding on three major releases: “Speed Racer,” the Batman sequel “The Dark Knight” and “Get Smart,” a big-screen adaptation of the 1960s sitcom.

“Get Smart,”And “Speed Racer” by far is the riskiest of them all.

Warner and its financial partner Village Roadshow Pictures committed about $250 million to make and market a hopeful blockbuster: a “family friendly” pre-sold concept based on an iconic 1960s cartoon show, written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski -- the filmmakers behind the studio’s hit “Matrix” movies -- all under the guidance of their collaborator, Warner producer Joel Silver.

Yet, despite one of Warner’s most ambitious global marketing campaigns and consumer products programs -- which includes 220 licensees and 53 promotional partners -- the studio’s sales pitch has gained little traction with audiences beyond a narrow sliver of boys 7 to 11 years old, according to movie tracking surveys.

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Warner’s top executives acknowledge they’re mystified about “Speed Racer,” given how pervasive their campaign has been and how favorably they say the movie has played with screening audiences.

“We’re bewildered,” said Sue Kroll, the studio’s president of worldwide marketing. “We’ve been talking about this a lot internally. There is a disconnect between how people react to the film and what the tracking is indicating.

“There is a lot of competition out there and, as a result, a lot of noise. So tracking doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.”

But “Speed Racer” is opening between other alluring family films with huge “want-to-see” appeal: “Iron Man,” which has grossed more than $120 million domestically since it opened last week, and the much-anticipated sequels of “The Chronicles of Narnia”:-prince-caspian and “Indiana Jones,” on May 16 and May 22, respectively.

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Warner domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman believes that there’s potentially enough business for all of the offerings just as there was last May when blockbusters “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” opened back to back.

Those were sequels to proved franchises, however, that had mass appeal.

“Speed Racer,” a computer effects-driven live-action adaptation of the cartoon series inspired by Japanese anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida, is largely unknown to today’s kids and their under-40-year-old parents. And, many believe tweens and teens will find the PG-rated movie way too tame.

Opening today in 31 countries, including 3,600 theaters in the U.S., the movie stars Emile Hirsch, who starred in the 2007 film “Into the Wild.” He plays a young racing fiend fighting to save his family’s business from a takeover by an evil automotive magnate.

Warner had planned to open the film Memorial Day but pushed up the release by two weeks when Paramount Pictures plopped “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” on the date. Some question why Warner didn’t move again once “Iron Man’s” buzz built.

“I didn’t have any concerns, and I still don’t,” Feldman said.

Warner Bros. President Alan Horn and his top creative lieutenant, Jeff Robinov, say they too are confident that their movie will find an audience because it is unique in its highly stylized look and action. They also hope that some folks in the over-50 crowd who have a nostalgic affection for the TV series will show up.

“Our theory is that there’s enough audience and box-office dollars available so that when this Friday comes, families with kids will want to see ‘Speed Racer,’ ” said Horn, adding that he believed the movie would also benefit from strong merchandising and DVD sales.

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Warner’s licensees are hawking nearly 5,000 movie-related products, including toys, bedding, apparel and back-to-school items. Mattel has the most extensive product line, including Hot Wheels toy cars, action figures and track sets.

“We have a broad line of toys that shipped three weeks ago, and we’ve been selling really well,” said Mattel spokeswoman Sara Rosales, who declined to divulge sales figures.

Toy industry analyst Gerrick Johnson of BMO Capital Markets said he was surprised at how much space retailers Toys “R” Us and Target were devoting to the product. “Relative to other movie properties, they have placed a pretty big bet on ‘Speed Racer,’ ” he said. “Now, that product has to sell to the consumer. . . . The recognition isn’t necessarily there.”

In addition to spending about $100 million to market the movie worldwide, Warner is getting additional support it values at another $100 million from such promotional partners as McDonald’s Corp., which is giving away 70 million movie-related toys with Happy Meals, and Puma, which customized a Speed Racer shoe.

“Speed Racer’s” journey to the movie screen crawled along in low gear for two decades. Along the way, various stars, writers and filmmakers jumped aboard, including Johnny Depp and Vince Vaughn, director Alfonzo Cuaron and screenwriter J.J. Abrams. The project’s original producers, Richard and Lauren Shuler Donner, had a falling out with producer Silver and reached a financial settlement with the studio.

The movie finally was given the green light after the Wachowskis expressed an interest in the project. The Wachowskis were a known quantity at Warner Bros. Not only did they make the “Matrix” movies, which grossed $1.6 billion worldwide at the box office, but they are close to Robinov, who was their agent before joining the studio.

Robinov remembers getting a call he found uncharacteristic from his former clients, who made their name on dark, edgy R-rated movies that include 1996’s thriller “Bound” and the script for “V For Vendetta.”

“They wanted to make a family movie that their nieces and nephews could see,” Robinov said. When they mentioned “Speed Racer,” he steered them to the project’s producer, Silver.

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Given what the film would cost -- about $150 million -- Warner looked to share the risk with Village Roadshow, which also co-financed “The Matrix” films. The partners were able to defray the cost with a $14-million German tax rebate for filming outside Berlin.

“It was a comfortable bet for us,” Robinov said. “We wish the tracking was better, but we’re very proud of this cutting-edge film and hopefully we’ll outperform the tracking.”

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Expensive rollout

$150 million

estimated production cost before a $14-million German tax rebate

$100 million

estimated cost of worldwide marketing

$100 million

estimated amount of additional marketing support from promotional partners

220

total number of global licensees -- including Mattel, LEGO, Hallmark and Schwinn -- producing nearly 5,000 products such as toys, apparel, bedding, stationery, party goods, back-to-school items and collectibles

53

total number of global promotional partners, including Target, McDonalds (Happy Meal toys), General Mills (cereal boxes), Puma (customized “Speed Racer” shoes) and Topps (candy).

Source: Times research


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