Disney hoping for a chicken coup
Updated: 12:10 a.m. ET Nov. 5, 2005
When the curtains opened on Friday on Chicken Little, one of Walt Disney's most anticipated animated films in years, the studio was betting that its feathered star would not only soar across the screen, but fly right off it.
That is because Chicken Little is being shown in 3D in 84 US cinemas, marking one of the most high-profile uses of the technology in years and a potential leap forward for the film business' transition to the digital age.
"It's not your father's 3D. It's a much more immersive experience," promised Charles Viane, president of distribution at Disney's Buena Vista film division. "It's almost like we've all been invited into Chicken Little's living room."
It is difficult to overstate Chicken Little's importance to Disney. The studio that was once synonymous with animation has been outpaced in recent years by rivals such as Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, which used computer technology to bring to life Toy Story, Shrek and other cartoon franchises.
As Disney's first feature to be made entirely using computer animation, Chicken Little is a crucial test of whether the studio is again at the forefront, and capable of creating the characters that populate the company's theme parks, consumer products, video games and other businesses.
The film's release also comes as Disney has been attempting to renew a lucrative agreement to distribute Pixar's films. The talks have dragged on for months, and Wall Street is awaiting Chicken Little as eagerly as children to see if it will give Disney more leverage.
One analyst predicted that Disney's shares would fall if the film failed to take in at least $35m over the weekend. To achieve that, Chicken Little will have to fight against some poor early reviews, and a prolonged slump in box office attendance that has made Hollywood executives question their ability to drag audiences into cinemas in a media landscape crowded with other diversions such as video games and the internet.
Given the weight of expectations resting on Chicken Little's narrow shoulders, Disney has pulled out all the marketing stops, promoting the film across its TV networks and other properties.
Yet the 3D release may be one of Disney's boldest moves to guarantee the film's success. A limited 3D release helped generate buzz for Warner Brothers' Polar Express, another animated film, which took in more than $280m at the box office in spite of weak reviews.
Mr Viane said Disney had been considering 3D long before Polar Express, but struggled to find the right vehicle. Then, when the company's animators were about 100 days from Chicken Little's deadline, someone proposed the idea. "It was just one of those lucky situations where someone made an off-the-cuff comment: 'Wouldn't it look great if the sky fell and it fell right in your lap?'"
They brought the film to engineers at George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, who rushed to re-work it. Another company, Real D, signed on to provide the 3D system and glasses. But the switch would not have been possible if not for the emergence of digital cinema, which is the platform on which Real D's technology operates.
"The beauty of digital is you don't get any wear and tear," said Tim Partridge, senior vice-president of Dolby Digital Cinema, which has supplied the computer systems and projectors that will play Chicken Little. "We say it's opening night every night."
Studios estimate that digital could save them $1bn a year by eliminating the need to print and ship films to cinemas. In theory, the technology will also allow them to more easily transmit their content to a variety of digital devices, such as iPods, mobile phones or a coming generation of high-definition DVDs – a priority identified by Bob Iger when he took over as Disney's chief executive a month ago.
Its adoption has been delayed, however, because the six largest studios only came to an agreement on digital standards over the summer. There was also a chicken-and-egg problem: cinema chains were reluctant to pay as much as $100,000 per screen to upgrade facilities without any digital or 3D product in the studios' pipelines, while studios were hesitant to produce such content without any screens available to show it.
Disney's commitment to Chicken Little broke that stand-off, at least on a limited basis. If it is a success, then Mr Viane believes the adoption of digital cinema and 3D could be dramatic.