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Monday Mouse Watch : Numbers did in Disney's version of "Dawn Treader"

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Monday Mouse Watch : Numbers did in Disney's version of "Dawn Treader"

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So why exactly did The Walt Disney Company opt out of co-producing a third installment of "The Chronicles of Narnia" film series last week? To be honest, this was just a case of Hollywood's newest financial realities trumping fantasy.

Mind you, there have been signs for months now that the Mouse was getting cold feet when it came to this co-production. Dick Cook failing to mention the third "Narnia" movie at all during Disney Studios' big promo event at the Kodak Theater earlier this year was considered by many in the industry to be a huge red flag. As was Disney's sudden backing away from its 2006 promise to produce film versions of all seven of these C.S. Lewis fantasy novels. Opting instead to start off with a trilogy (i.e. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Prince Caspian" and "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader") and then taking a wait-and-see approach to producing film versions of the other four books in the series.

But in the end, it was the numbers that did the "Narnia" film franchise in. At least as far as The Walt Disney Company is concerned. The fact that "Prince Caspian" earned less than half of what "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" did during its initial domestic release back in 2005. No to mention that the DVD version of this Andrew Adamson film didn't exactly fly off store shelves this holiday season (Back in 2006, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" sold 4 million units during its first day in release. It took the DVD version of "Prince Caspian" more than 10 days to sell a similar number of units).

Given "Prince Caspian" 's worldwide box office as well as the number of DVDs of this film that had been sold since December 2nd, it was obvious that there weren't as many consumers out there eager to see additional "Narnia" movies as Disney had hoped. And given the enormous costs involved with producing big screen versions of these C.S. Lewis books ("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" reportedly cost $150 million to produce, "Prince Caspian" $175 million), it just didn't make financial sense for Disney to continue its association with this film franchise. Especially in the face of what the Studio felt were sure-to-be further diminished returns once "Dawn Treader" was released to theaters in 2010.

Copyright 2008 Disney/Walden Media. All rights reserved.

So after doing the math, Mouse House officials decided to pull the plug on this co-production. Opting instead to fund films that it felt had a far better chance of making a strong financial return. Projects like "Pirates of the Caribbean 4" and "Tr2n."

Still -- understanding that an announcement like this would cause considerable PR problems for its "Narnia" co-production partner, Walden Media (Not to mention angering billionaire Phil Anschutz. Who -- in addition to be the co-founder of Walden Media -- is also the owner of the Regal Entertainment Group, the largest movie theater chain in the world) -- Disney did what it could to mitigate the damage. Deliberately holding back this information until just before the holidays. With the hope that -- by the time everyone gets back into town after the Christmas break -- that Disney-dumps-"Dawn-Treader" story would be old news and long since forgotten.

For its part, Walden Media is trying to put the best possible face on this whole unfortunate situation. Late last week, Claudia Eller of the Los Angeles Times spoke with David Weil, chief executive of Walden's parent company, Anschutz Film Group. And he was quoted as saying:

"We're disappointed that Disney has decided not to go forward (with this project). But we regard 'Dawn Treader' as an extremely valuable property and remain committed to the ('Narnia' film) franchise."

Copyright 2008 Disney/Walden Media. All rights reserved.

"So who will pick up where Disney left off?," you ask.  Well, Walden Media currently has a deal with 20th Century Fox to market & distribute that company's films under the Fox Walden banner. So it's assumed that Fox may soon step in and become Walden's new production partner on "Dawn Treader."

But given that Disney reportedly opted out of producing any more "Narnia" movies because it felt that there just wasn't enough profit potential left in this film franchise to warrant laying out any additional cash ... In these tough financial times, what studio exec is going to risk his or her neck and/or reputation trying to prove that the Mouse was wrong about the "Narnia" franchise?

Speaking of tough financial times ... The "Narnia" movies weren't the only projects to have recently been put under Mickey's financial microscope. From what I hear, Mouse House managers have ordered an across-the-board 20% cut in production costs. So if you expect to get a greenlight from Disney these days, you'd best make sure that your new project comes across as being lean & mean. 

Beyond that ... Mickey hopes that opting out of co-producing "Dawn Treader" doesn't wind up hurting the Studio on the exhibition end of things. Given that Phil Anschutz controls 6000 screens through his Regal Entertainment Group, the worry in Burbank right now is that the co-founder of Walden Media (Who is already having a tough year, what with the failure of "City of Ember." Not to mention Walden Media having to scale back its once ambitious plans to produce 3-to-5 new family-friendly films each year to just a single release for 2009, "Bandslam") may use his clout as the world's biggest exhibitor in an effort to punish the Mouse.

Copyright 2008 Disney/Walden Media. All rights reserved.

Of course, the suits in the Michael Eisner Building are hoping that this doesn't actually happen. After all, were Anschutz to order that Regal Entertainment Group suddenly stop showing Disney films, this billionaire would just wind up punishing himself. Denying his theaters the revenue that is sure to be generated from screening Pixar's next film.

So, sure. There are some hurt feelings right now. But let's remember that -- in the phrase "Show Business" -- the most important word is business. And -- in the end -- it was the business side of the equation that eventually drove Disney to opt out of co-producing "Dawn Treader." After carefully considering "Prince Caspian" 's numbers, it just didn't make good business sense for the Studio to continue with the "Narnia" film franchise. Which is why Mickey did what he did last week.

This is also why -- as angry as Phil Anschutz may be with Mouse House execs right now -- this billionaire will continue to do business (via his Regal Entertainment Group) with the boys in Burbank. Because there's profit to be had here.

Which -- I know -- is kind of bleak news for all of you C.S. Lewis fans out there. But as I said at the start of today's article, particularly in today's Hollywood, financial reality trumps fantasy.

Your thoughts?

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  • Phil Anschutz has big enough and deep enough pockets to do quite well on his own, thanks very much.

    His media empire spans a lot more than just Walden and Regal. And he's especially big into the transportation industry.

    No tears for Phil from here.

  • I hope they can find another financier.  I have been waiting to see all seven stories make some version of the screen since I first read the books as a child, and they have never made it past book 4 (BBC, I believe, though it aired here in the US under the Wonderworks show title).  I think that Disney made a mistake as the long-term returns from producing the whole series I think could equal or rival many of their other classics.

  • I couldn't disagree more, Tensik. I think it was a solid decision on Disney's part. It's actually quite rare for sequels to make more than their predecessor. Movies like Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight are an exception. Part of it has to do with the fact that it costs more to make sequels. Just look at the production costs for Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian as an example. Now include the fact that each sequel is going to make less money than the last one and you'll see where this is going. As Jim said, it's a business. They could cut the budget for the next film, but low-budget fantasy films tend to look more Uwe Boll than Peter Jackson. Not a lot of studios want to take that risk.

    Don't worry, though. Walden will continue the series as planned. You might not get all seven films, but I'm sure there will be closure.

  • Given that the BBC went as far as producing excellent versions of LION-WITCH-WARDROBE, PRINCE CASPIAN  & VOYAGE OF DAWN TREADER, and, SILVER CHAIR (all available on DVD), I am notreally worried about Disney or Walden or anyone actually completing the series.  

    In the seven books that make up the canon of the work, two of them (MAGICIAN'S NEWPHEW and HORSE & HIS BOY) are stories that, although a part of the overall history of Narnia, do not deal directly with the involvement of the core family of children in the adventures.  And, as many "chapters" in great works are let go as they do not continue the core theme of the tale (Ex. - Tom Bombadil in LORD OF THE RINGS, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn in WIND IN THE WILLOWS) when taken to cinematic realization, the two books listed above are easily dropped from the filmed lineage of the Narnia Chronicles.  

    Testy (but needed) is FINAL BATTLE, in which the strongest Christian overlay of elements is revealed in Lewis's work.  And, this is a story that is vital to the nature of the entire series of tales.  But, due to the secular needs of the film industry and wanting to make their profit margin in the day to day world, I can see the final book actually pared back to almost no Christian overlay as it is carried in the original works, or, avoided all together.

    So - there is a probability of three books being not filmed (as with the BBC Production already mentioned), a possibility of two books not being filmed by whatever new partner Walden may get...personally, I would like to see them get through (at the very least) Caspian and Silver Chair.  (Especially Silver Chair.  I'm a big Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle fan.  Although it is going to be hard to beat Tom (Dr. Who) Baker's take on the role in the BBC version...)

    If Walden and whatever production company takes on the role of completing the series (and let us hope it is not what Rankin-Bass did to complete the already bastardized take on LORD OF THE RINGS that Ralph Bakshi filmed...WIZARDS was better....I digress) they could, I imagine squeeze both tales (Magician's Nephew & Horse And His Boy) into shorter forms of an overall film body (let us say, a two parter built around Last Battle) in which the Professor is relating some of the early history of Narnia to some of the core family of children (to explain why he is knowledgeable of Narnia in that he was a central player in the original finding of the realm as revealed in Magician's Nephew) as they are on a train ride across England...which would set the story in motion for the ultimate ending to follow at the revelation point of Final Battle.  

    So - whatever happens, happens.  I think the best answer to a child who is clamoring to find out what does become of the story after the movies stop, however, is to give them a copy of the books and tell them to read.  They will get more out of it and develop their skills in literate cognition as well. ;)

  • I think that all this amounts to extremely bad publicity for Disney. There are a lot of families who look to that company for wholesome family films. The idea that Disney dumped Narnia because of money (however practical that move may be) really tarnishes the Disney dust, especially when the actual monetary figures come to light. A lot of families are going to look at that 400 million wordwide take and think "That's not good? Huh?" What do they know about profit vs. investment? It just makes Disney look greedy.

    Plus I think that once again Disney exercised extremely poor timing (as it did with its release schedule of "Bolt" and ironically "Prince Caspian") with this news. Announcing on Christmas Eve that it's dumping Narnia? Isn't going to make a lot of Christian Narnian fans happy.

    Now having said that, I don't think Adamson was a very good choice for the films' producer. He seems to have limited vision, imagination and understanding when it comes to the Narnia books. He seems to look at them as a kiddie version of LOTR, when Narnia emphatically is not. If Fox does pick up the franchise, I hope to God (or Goddess, whatever) that a producer is hired who has some grasp of what made Narnia so popular and what has kept the books in print for half a century. And that Fox, unlike Disney, has the guts to put a decent amount of resources into the franchise.

    Or maybe Disney could change its mind and re-up with Walden. Crap, does Disney even have any good projects coming up? I mean, speaking of "Up", that Pixar film doesn't look promising (how the hell, for instance, do you merchandise THAT?), the so-called Muppet movie is a bomb waiting to happen (and is a stupid idea anyway) and "Princess and the Frog" is extremely risky (not that I'm not rooting for a return to Disney 2D). Narnia could have been spectacular for Disney, had Disney not been so gutless about it. I have to say, as a stockholder and Disney booster for years, I'm extremely disappointed with this company. I had big hopes for Iger. Guess those hopes have been dashed...

  • If anyone at Disney could be pursuaded to reverse this decision, I wish they would. Here's why: Dawn Treader has the most potential to be the best of the series of the books. It manages to emphasize character as well as tell a very magical, fanciful story. It could very well rejuvenate the series.

    I agree that Adamson had a questionable vision with "Caspian." Many feel it is the thinnest and weakest of the Narnia books and the film seems to pile on battle scenes to compensate at the expense of characters. The casting -- or perhaps more fairly, the direction -- of Ben Barnes as the character who has to carry the entire film lacked charisma, at least in the film performance (he is entirely different on the DVD audio commentary). Adamson sacrificed lots of early detail in Caspian's story to get the the action and that left us without much of a bond with the Prince.

    That said, it was not a terrible film by any stretch, but it did not live up to its potential in many ways. However, with a director who can stay under budget (how about a cost-cutting yet special effects-savvy director like Robert "Spy Kids" Rodriguez?) and a script that uses the strengths of the book rather than de-empahsizing them, "Dawn Treader" can be a huge hit.

    I have seen almost every Walden Media film and have never seen a truly awful one. Can any of us say the same for those with the Disney brand? This is not a good time to sever ties with a good partner.

    Again, I implore those who made the decision to halt "Dawn Treader" at Disney -- please say, "Oops! Never mind," read the book and you'll see what a treasure you may still have to profit with.

  • Giggleback wrote: "...does Disney even have any good projects coming up? I mean, speaking of "Up", that Pixar film doesn't look promising (how the hell, for instance, do you merchandise THAT?), the so-called Muppet movie is a bomb waiting to happen (and is a stupid idea anyway) and "Princess and the Frog" is extremely risky (not that I'm not rooting for a return to Disney 2D)."

    I think 'UP' is going to really surprise folks.  PIXAR films have always had a mature edge to them that will draw an adult crowd to see a family picture...look at 'RATATOUILLE' - a very mature piece of animated story-telling...and it did quite well.  And, the promo reels I've seen for 'UP' show the kid joining the old man on his voyage of discovery...so, there promises to be a great bonding of generations type story as well as experiences through the eyes of a kid...that relates to any age group across the board.

    The new "Muppet Movie", if it is anything akin to the work done on the recent Muppet Christmas Special, truly is exciting me.  The "Letters To Santa Claus" (whatever the title was) they aired a week ago was a return to a tried and true Muppet format that is the foundation of what makes the Muppets work.  It was the first good thing I've seen come out of Muppet/Disney since the release of MUPPTE TREASURE ISLAND.  

    "PRINCESS & FROG" is tremendously exciting as a project, not just a return to enhanced 2-D animation, but, look at the central core story...an African American  starring role.  Come on, that is tremendous!  No more lily white "WASP" Princess to covet the Disney screen!  This is a major statement that only Pochontas and Mulan and gained before.  

    Also, the real excitement around P & F is that it is going to (theoretically) have an excerpt from SONG OF THE SOUTH in the extra files...to show how Disney has progressed in story telling of "Deep South" tales...which, God Willing and the creek doesn't rise, will herald the over due and long-awaited release of SONG OF THE SOUTH to the American Audience market.  A risk? Yes. A good one? Absolutely.

    Now if DESTINO would just hurry up and get a DVD release....

  • I think Disney along with everybody else in the business world is running scared right now. That plus the fact that Caspian didn't do as well as they had hoped. Personally I didn't like Caspian as much as Lion Witch & the Wardrobe, but that's my personal preference. I think Walden will eventually find a co-producer for Dawn Treader.

  • Gigglesock, are you actually claiming LWW and Prince Caspian to be "wholesome family films"?

  • Did the economy have the huge impact of the poor ticket and DVD sales of this movie(compared to the original), or was it the movie itself? I haven't seen either, but I was just wondering if... had this movie been released when our economy was better, would there have been a difference in it's sales?

  • This is just an amazing act of cowardness of Disney's part.  First they blow the release dates of the movie's theatrical run and DVD run and now they won't make the second most popular book in the series because times are tough.  Caspian didn't sell itself as a movie with a lot of battles and then pay off the MPAA to get a PG rating.  Caspian didn't ask to be stuck between Iron Man and Indiana Jones.  Caspian didn't do a terrible job marketing his movie.  And Caspian didn't ask to be released on DVD a week before Christmas during a HUGE recession with almost no promotion.  Maybe Narnia is better off in other hands...

  • If "Prince Caspian" ultimately made more money than it cost to produce, then it's a success. And in regards to the DVD release, if it took 10 days to sell as many units as the first film had sold in just one day, so what? Are the brass at Disney that impatient and greedy that they can't wait an additional 9 days?

    Admittedly, I saw "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" when it first came out at the theatre and didn't much care for it, therefore I didn't bother to go see "Prince Caspian" as it didn't appeal to me personally. I've not read the books, by the way, so I am indifferent to this series to begin with.  However I do feel that Disney should follow through and film the third installment of this trilogy, not only to make the fans of this series happy, but also because it makes better business to in the long term.

    If Disney does not produce the third film, then it is not a given that they'll be able to secure the DVD distribution rights in the future, therefore not being able to count on releasing boxed sets of the trilogy later on. This is an important consideration in light of the success of series like "Lord of the Rings", "Harry Potter" and Disney's own "Pirates of the Caribbean" films being released not only individually sometime after their theatrical debuts, but also being gathered together as boxed sets later on and making untold millions more in profit - all gravy. It's also frankly embarrassing when a studio has let a series entry slip through their grasp, ending up in somebody else's hands. This happened to MGM with "The Pink Panther" series, as they'd allowed the distribution rights of "The Return of the Pink Panther" to end up with Focus Features many years ago. So when MGM wanted to put out their special edition boxed set of DVDs to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the original film, they had to do so with that one glaring omission! Fans were none too happy about that, myself included.

    I really feel that Disney is being very shortsighted in their decision with "Narnia", as it's the type of film series that could become a cult favourite with new generations of fans for many years to come, thereby ensuring future DVD sales for the company. This decision reflects very badly on Disney in my opinion.

  • **Gigglesock, are you actually claiming LWW and Prince Caspian to be "wholesome family films"?**

    Okay, I'll take the bait:


  • Like Ponsonby Britt, I saw "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" first-run in the theatre and wasn't completely bowled over by it.  So, when it came to "Prince Caspian", I waited for DVD.  Rented, didn't buy.  I actually ended up liking "Caspian" *better* than LWW and have since purchased the disc (further than 9 days out from its release date!).  This is why I think Disney's reading of the box-office tea-leaves is erroneous.  Caspian's box office may have been less than LWW, because LWW wasn't good enough to hold the entire audience that went to see it in the first-run theatres.  As I saw Caspian as an improvement, it's too bad to now hear that they won't be continuing the series.


  • Disney should have just cut costs on the the 3rd film, so they could at least have a trilogy to market.  I wish Disney would have just been smarter about this series and made them all.  They should have spent less on Prince Caspian and released it at Christmas.  It is Disney's fault it didn't do well.  Prince Caspian was a good film.  I hope Fox makes all the rest as I will see them.

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