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What went right for "The Emperor's New Groove" ... ... what went wrong for "102 Dalmatians"

What went right for "The Emperor's New Groove" ... ... what went wrong for "102 Dalmatians"

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If you happen to be passing through Burbank today, you may hear this weird thudding noise coming from the Disney lot.

Don't worry. There's no cause for alarm. That thud is just the sound of dozens of executives' jaws hitting the floor inside the Team Disney building. These supposedly smart suits will have just gotten the news about how the studio's films did over the New Years weekend. And they've got to be wondering why it is that the film that they all wrote off as a dud, "The Emperor's New Groove," is now on track to out-gross the company's supposedly sure-fire holiday hit, "102 Dalmatians."

As of this past weekend, "102 Dalmatians" will have sold just shy of $60 million worth of tickets at the box office. That's after six weeks in theaters with the full marketing might of the Walt Disney Company -- plus a multi-million dollar McDonalds promotional campaign -- behind the film. Compare that to "The Emperor's New Groove." Even with just a half-hearted ad campaign by the studio and a handful of Happy Meal toys to promote the film, "The Emperor's New Groove" still managed to gross over $50 million less than 20 days into its domestic theatrical release.

What particularly startled the suits is the business "Groove" did over its first three weekends in theaters:

Weekend of December 15th - 17th -- $10 million
Weekend of December 22nd - 25th -- $ 8 million
Weekend of December 29th - January 1st -- $11.8 million

Did you notice that? "Groove"'s business actually went *UP* over the New Years weekend, surpassing the amount the film made during its first weekend in theaters by nearly 20%. That's really highly unusual, kids. This sort of stuff almost never happens in Hollywood. Following the rule of diminishing returns, the amount a film makes typically decreases for every week that movie remains in theaters. But "Groove" bucked that trend, with its audience significantly increasing over its third weekend in release.

Add to this the widely accepted industry axiom that if you multiply by 5 the amount a film makes during its first weekend in wide release, you'll have a close approximation of what that movie will earn during its entire domestic release. If that rule had held true for "Emperor's New Groove," the gross for Disney's latest toon would have topped out at $50 million.

Yet -- as of last night -- "The Emperor's New Groove" had already earned more than $50 million. Showing surprisingly strong legs for such a little llama, Mouse House executives are now wondering how far off "Groove" might actually go. Could the cartoon that so many wrote off could turn out to be the studio's first blockbuster of the new millennium?

Only time will tell, folks. For now, suits at the Walt Disney Company are more concerned about how they could have been so wrong with their predictions about how the studio's films would fare this holiday season. How is that "Groove" -- which was supposed to be a disaster -- ended up being the studio's best reviewed release of the year? More importantly, how did the sequel to Walt Disney's 1996 box office smash end up being such a dog?

In the case of "102 Dalmatians" ... well, let's be blunt here, folks. It's not like there was any urgent call from the movie-going public for a sequel to "101 Dalmatians." The real reason that Disney executives green lit a second "Dalmatians" film was that the 1996 film had grossed more than $130 million during its domestic release, $300 million worldwide. More to the point, the live action remake of this 1961 animated classic had moved a mountain of spotted merchandise for the Disney Stores. Three years later, consumer product sales were down company-wide for Disney. Some Mouse House executive remembered back to those golden days in 1996 when the company was selling tons of Dalmatian crud ... and that's how the idea for a sequel to "101 Dalmatians" *REALLY* came into being.

That said, Disney still assembled a first rate production team to help bring this monetarily inspired motion picture to life. Glen Close agreed to reprise her role as Cruella de Vil (Thanks in part to an uncredited script polish by noted English playwright Tom Stoppard). Kevin Lima -- fresh from his triumph helming Disney's 1999 animated blockbuster, "Tarzan" -- agreed to make his live action debut as director of this project. Academy Award winning designer Anthony Powell agreed to come up with even more outrageous outfits for Cruella to wear this time around. All in all, it was a very agreeable production.

So what went wrong? In spite of Disney's year-long promotional campaign for the project, why didn't the public turn out in droves to see "102 Dalmatians"? The short answer is: it wasn't the movie they wanted to see.

This holiday season, the film that the public flocked to was Ron Howard's bloated, over-blown live action version of Dr. Suess' (and Chuck Jones') "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." This Universal Studios release got perfectly miserable reviews. It didn't matter that -- according to the critics -- "The Grinch" was a real Thanksgiving turkey. The public just wasn't in the mood for more spotted dogs. What they really wanted to see Jim Carrey in a fuzzy green suit.

The intriguing part of this situation is that -- by the time "The Emperor's New Groove" arrived on the scene on December 15th -- the "Grinch"'s days were already numbered. After all, even though this Ron Howard film had become a box office phenomenon (taking in over $250 million during its first six weeks in release, making it the highest grossing film for all of 2000), the public's interest in this Jim Carrey comedy was sure to evaporate after December 25th. After Christmas Day, who's going to want to see a movie that's built around a holiday that won't be back for another 364 days?

"Groove"'s only other competition for the family film dollar over Christmas vacation week? Paramount's "Rugrats in Paris: The Movie" (which took several witty jabs at Disneyland Paris in the course of its story) as well as Disney's aforementioned "102 Dalmatians." Both of these films had also been released prior to Thanksgiving, which made "Emperor" pretty much the freshest product available at the multiplex. No wonder it sold a lot of tickets last week.

Add to this that "The Emperor's New Groove" was arguably the best reviewed film Walt Disney Studios had produced in the last year. And that a larger-than-usual teenage audience turned out to see "The Emperor's New Groove" during its first weekend in release (which perhaps proves that "Groove"'s marketing plan might not be as inept as many of Disney's critics -- myself included -- claimed it to be). These teens then told their friends about all the fun they'd had watching Disney's new feature length cartoon. The good press and great word-of-mouth surrounded the film with a positive buzz, which lead to "Groove"'s $11.8 gross this past weekend.

So where does "Groove" go from here? Will the film's luck at the box office hold out? With the kids back in school again after the holidays, it would seem that the audience that traditionally supports new Disney animated films during their initial release will be unavailable for a while. But -- if "The Emperor's New Groove" really has built up a following among teens and adults -- that gives "Groove" a real shot of covering its rumored $80 million production costs during its domestic release. Or maybe even breaking through to the $100 million blockbuster level.

Disney's going to keep a close watch on "Groove"'s grosses for the next few weeks. The company's supposedly really has its heart set on "Emperor" doing well over Martin Luther King Day. That's why they're reportedly looking into rolling out a whole new series of "Groove" TV commercials to make sure that the public is aware of the film just prior to that three day weekend.

Not bad for a film that nearly everyone in the Team Disney building had dismissed as an unmitigated disaster.

So who's the top dog now?

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