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Entertainment & Arts

‘Life of Pi’ a huge gamble for 20th Century Fox

Many people in Hollywood considered “Life of Pi” to be unfilmable. Now that it’s about to hit theaters Wednesday, there’s a new question: Can it be profitable?

Director Ang Lee’s $120-million adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 book, which has sold 9 million copies worldwide, is precisely the kind of movie that many complain the big studios don’t make anymore: an ambitious and highbrow creation that’s not a sequel and isn’t based on a comic book or theme park ride.

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Marketing the movie in no easy task either. A boy’s spiritual journey across the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a tiger doesn’t easily translate into a 30-second commercial.

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“It’s the biggest gamble I’ve ever taken,” said Elizabeth Gabler, the veteran 20th Century Fox executive who oversaw the film.

There’s a reason studios prefer to make movies such as “Star Wars” and “Transformers.” Eight of the top 10 films at the box office this year have been sequels or adaptations of kid-friendly books such as “The Hunger Games.” Last year, all 10 fell into those two categories.

When show business executives dare to invest in sophisticated material, they generally keep budgets low (this past weekend’s “Sliver Linings Playbook” cost $21 million) and make sure they have a recognizable star (such as Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln”).

“I read the book shortly after it came out and I remember thinking, ‘This shouldn’t be made into a movie,’” Lee said. “The artistic and the economic sides didn’t meet. If you spend too much money, you have to be mainstream. But if you don’t spend the money, you are not doing justice to the book.”

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Although early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, pre-release surveys have found lukewarm moviegoer interest in “Life of Pi,” shot in 3-D. Early estimates suggest the film will do about $20 million over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend. The new James Bond thriller, “Skyfall,” by comparison, cost almost $200 million and opened to nearly half that amount.

On Fox’s Century City lot, there’s still hope of defying the odds. With an Indian actor starring and Taiwanese native Lee directing, studio executives believe the film will do particularly well in Asia. They also hope strong word-of-mouth could keep the movie in theaters through Christmas.

One thing they are not doing is predicting a box office smash.

“It can’t always be about the bottom line,” said Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos. “It has to be about the art and the value of cinema that we all got into this business for.”

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In many ways, the challenges are similar to those facing “Hugo,” director Martin Scorsese’s 3-D adaptation of a revered children’s book that opened Thanksgiving weekend last year. Even with strong reviews, the $156-million production failed to connect with moviegoers and was a financial failure.

“I do think it’s a specialized movie,” Lee said of “Life of Pi,” using the industry jargon for an art-house film. “But I hope it reaches out to the mainstream in some way.”

“Life of Pi” features a menagerie of animals, including a Bengal tiger and thousands of flying fish. To replicate Pacific storms, the production crew built a 1.7-million-gallon water tank in Taiwan that generated capsizing waves.

The four animals stranded on the lifeboat with Pi, the only person to survive a cargo ship’s sinking, are a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and the tiger. To ensure that lead actor Suraj Sharma wouldn’t be ripped to shreds by his costars, the realistic animals are almost entirely computer-animated creations.

But that was the least of the filmmaking challenges. “Life of Pi’s” journey to the big screen was nearly as miraculous as the technology behind it.

Gabler’s Fox 2000 label acquired the movie rights soon after “Life of Pi” was published in 2001. But one filmmaker after another proved unable to adapt the book, more moving spiritual allegory than compelling page turner.

“Lara Craft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” and “The Manchurian Candidate” remake screenwriter Dean Georgaris never managed to deliver a script. “The Sixth Sense” writer-director M. Night Shyamalan expressed interest in directing the movie in 2003 but ended up backing out. “Amélie” director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in 2005 pitched his idea to make “Life of Pi” entirely with live animals. Fox estimated he would need some 300 days of filming, about four times as long as typical big-budget productions, and torpedoed his version.

The Oscar-winning Lee, whose diverse resume includes “Brokeback Mountain,” “Hulk” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” came onto the project in 2008, drawn by its many challenges.

He arranged to shoot much of the picture in Taiwan and planned to use a mix of cutting-edge CGI and 3-D effects to bring the book’s emotional intensity to the big screen.

Before filming was set to commence in mid-2010, though, Fox pulled the plug on the production. “It was too much money and too scary,” Gabler said.

Determined to save the movie, Lee flew from Taiwan to Century City and showed top executives the screen test of Sharma (a novice picked from more than 3,000 hopefuls) and plans for staging the ship’s sinking. By the time the presentation was over, Fox’s top brass had reversed their decision as long as Gabler could trim tens of millions of dollars from the film’s budget.

But just two days from release, it’s not clear who beyond highbrow movie lovers motivated by reviews “Life of Pi” is for. Pre-release tracking shows more parents want to take their children to see the animated “Rise of the Guardians”; more women want to see the final “Twilight” sequel, which opened Friday; and more men want to see the remake of “Red Dawn.” Consequently, Fox is going after a broad audience, hoping that the PG-rated picture could be a good holiday compromise for families full of turkey.

“Thanksgiving is one of the more interesting moviegoing weekends of the year because people typically go in packs,” said Jim Gallagher, a marketing consultant and former executive at Walt Disney Studios. “They’re looking for movies that everyone can go to together.”

International prospects could be brighter, including in China, where “Life of Pi” nabbed the last of this year’s coveted import quota slots. “This is truly a global picture,” said Paul Hanneman, co-president of Fox’s international unit. “You’ve got multiple religions, it starts in India and ends in Mexico, but most of the movie takes place on the ocean, so it’s really any man and anywhere.”

The only thing rarer than a big-budget movie that overcomes a soft opening weekend to become a hit may be one that turns from a domestic flop into a worldwide success.

But “Life of Pi” hasn’t followed a playbook from the moment Fox decided to make it.

Most greenlight decisions in Hollywood are reached in part based on computer programs that analyze how similar releases have performed in the past. For a picture as unusual as “Life of Pi,” Gianopulos admitted, that wasn’t possible.

“This is a movie we made based on gut and belief,” he said. “I think it’s one of the most noble risks we have ever taken.”

john.horn@latimes.com

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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