Hollywood is obsessed with producing reboots and sequels to its hit movies.
But Walt Disney Co. is trying something more audacious this week — releasing a sequel to a 1982 sci-fi fantasy film that was a box office disappointment and that most of today's moviegoers have never seen.
On Friday, "Tron: Legacy" will arrive in theaters as one of most intensely marketed films of 2010, but it represents an investment that goes well beyond the box office. The movie sits at the center of a massive multiplatform push with high stakes for Disney, which is counting on the mercury-glow of the film to light up toy and apparel sales, spark purchases of related video games and lure viewers to an upcoming animated series on cable television.
All of this new business architecture is built on an unlikely foundation. The original "Tron" film was lost in the shuffle when it was released in the same sci-fi summer as "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and grossed only $33 million domestically.
"No one is more surprised to see all of this than me," said Steven Lisberger, the writer and director for the first "Tron" film and a producer on the new one. "It's been an amazing journey. And I'm eager to see what happens next."
Although pre-release surveys indicate the movie, which cost about $170 million to make and more than $100 million to market worldwide, will have a solid opening this weekend, it remains to be seen whether it will be a big-enough hit this holiday season to spawn a new live-action franchise for the studio on the scale of its "Pirates of the Caribbean" series.
The early reviews for "Tron: Legacy" are mixed, with plenty of praise for the action sequences and digital vistas but less glowing appraisals of the story and the lifeless visages of some computer-generated character faces. There may be a generational divide in the audience. A New York magazine reviewer complained of eye strain and described the movie as "Disco Night at the jai alai fronton" while the Cinema Blend website called it "unbelievable, almost magical" in its best moments.
Disney is hoping that the visual achievements and a high-profile soundtrack by cutting-edge electronica stars Daft Punk will pull in teenagers, while even younger fans will be drawn to the film's prodigious toy aisle presence, which includes 12-inch action figures that feature moving faces projected onto the helmet that deliver snippets of dialogue, and a remote-control light cycle — the film's signature vehicle — that climbs walls.
The new film continues the story of the Grid, a civilization that exists inside a computer and is populated by Programs, as the locals call themselves. "Tron: Legacy" has a stand-alone story that brings a father-son tale into a land of pulsing circuitry and hard-edged light. The film's stars include Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner, who also starred in the original, as well as Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde.
While the original "Tron" hasn't aged especially well — the character's wore thinly disguised hockey helmets and their "identity disc" weapons were Frisbees — the movie, a blend of live-action and computer animation, represented a visual effects milestone.
"Tron" inspired John Lasseter, at the time a young animator at Disney, to take a pioneer's path by joining a company called Pixar, which eventually led to a whole new pixel-painted chapter in American pop culture. After Lasseter won a special achievement Oscar in 1995 for the first fully computer-animated feature film "Toy Story," he told the press backstage that a bright line could be drawn straight back to Lisberger's "Tron."
The team behind "Tron: Legacy" speaks in wistful tones about the original movie, as well as the famed arcade game of the same name. Sean Bailey, Disney's president of production, acknowledged at July's Comic-Con comic book convention in San Diego that the trick would be to win over not only hard-core "Tron" fans, but also mainstream moviegoers who are oblivious to the lore.
"We do think 'Tron,' with a very certain crowd, has a legacy … but this movie, we knew, had to be a stand-alone," Bailey said at the time. "You don't have to know anything about the 1982 movie or 'Tron' to come into this."
From the onset Disney envisioned "Tron: Legacy" as a classic Hollywood "tent-pole" film whose flaps would stretch across all of the entertainment giant's businesses. Studio executives made early presentations to consumer products, the theme parks, the interactive group and Disney Channel, showing off concept art and working to get these other divisions engaged in the movie.
The early efforts are paying off now in the run-up to Friday's opening.
Disney's California Adventure park in Anaheim turned on the laser lights and cranked up the techno music in early October for a "Tron"-themed dance party in its Hollywood Pictures Backlot. More recently, the park added a "Tron: Legacy" segment to its new World of Color nighttime attraction, projecting light cycles onto towering plumes of water in the liquid spectacle.
Meanwhile, Disney Consumer Products converted the Royal/T cafe-exhibition space in Culver City into a "Tron: Legacy" Pop-Up Shop, where it displays products inspired by the film in a setting that evokes the movie's futuristic vibe.
Video games based on "Tron: Legacy" hit stores last week, featuring some voice talent from the film. Next fall, a 10-episode "Tron" series debuts on the Disney XD cable channel, setting the stage for a new animated series, "Tron: Uprising," scheduled to premiere in summer 2012.
The marketing campaign also reached onto Apple Inc.'s hot-selling iPad. The Disney movie is the first (and only) ad to appear on the device this year. The mobile ad includes about 10 minutes of video, a theater locator with show times, and the option to sample and buy the soundtrack on iTunes.
Disney's ambitious roll-out of "Tron: Legacy" is indicative of its strategy for future big-budget movies that have the potential to become franchises that ripple through the company's various businesses via "multiplatform storytelling," say industry analysts.
"It increases the upside and it increases the risk associated with failure," said Laura Martin, media analyst with Needham & Co. "You amortize the marketing expense," said Martin. "You can be advertising not only the movie but the game and the ride, messaging all that in the advertising."