Walt Disney Co. (DIS:US)’s “Planes,” a low-cost animated feature that began life as a direct-to-DVD project, is shaping up as a potential moneymaker for theaters in a summer marked by slow sales for big-budget films.
The movie, inspired by Pixar’s “Cars,” opens today. The picture went from DVD-only to cinemas when Disney, the world’s largest entertainment company, saw how test audiences responded to a rough cut, Dave Hollis, the studio’s executive vice president for sales and distribution, said in an interview.
“It was off the charts,” he said.
Produced for about a fourth of what big budget movies cost, “Planes” could generate $21 million this weekend and $81 million in its domestic run, according to Boxoffice.com. Animated films typically do more outside the U.S., and Disney already has “Planes” toys and apparel in stores. The film was made for about $50 million, according to a company official who asked not to be named because the figure isn’t public.
“Planes” could be a surprise success because of its lower price tag, according to David Weitzner, a movie marketing consultant who teaches at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “The Lone Ranger,” a July release from Burbank, California-based Disney, may lose as much as $190 million, the company said on Aug. 6.
Disney executives “see where the market is going, what families are looking for, and are bringing it in at a price that makes sense,” Weitzner said in an interview.
“Planes” is about a cropdusting aircraft named Dusty with a fear of heights and dreams of racing. It has a similar look and feel as the two “Cars” movies, from Disney’s Pixar, which have collected a combined $1 billion worldwide in ticket sales, according to researcher Box Office Mojo. Comedian Dane Cook supplies the voice for Dusty.
“Planes” was produced by DisneyToon Studios, a division specializing in low-budget animated features mostly for home video. “The Jungle Book 2,” a $20 million theatrical release from the division in 2003, had $135.7 million in worldwide sales, according to Box Office Mojo.
John Lasseter, who joined Disney as chief creative officer of the animation studios following the company’s acquisition of Pixar in 2006, scaled back the unit’s production after voicing dissatisfaction with the quality of direct-to-home features. DisneyToon Studios has been releasing about one movie a year, down from six a decade ago, according to researcher IMDB.com.
The timing of “Planes” may help, according to Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office division at market researcher Hollywood.com. It comes on a weekend when other new pictures are aimed at older theatergoers.
“August can be the land of opportunity for movies that aren’t hardcore action films,” Dergarabedian said. “It’s sort of like counter programming.”
“Elysium,” a science-fiction film from Sony Corp. starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, also opens today. “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” based on a series of young-adult novels, opened Aug. 7 and targets older kids than “Planes” because of its PG rating.
“Planes” will compete with three animated films still in theaters: “The Smurfs 2,” in its second week, the hit film “Despicable Me 2” in its sixth week, and “Turbo,” in its fourth week. The picture is opening in 3,700 theaters, according to Hollywood.com.
“Cars” is among Disney’s largest toy franchises, generating more than $10 billion in retail sales since the first picture’s release in 2006, the company has said. Last year’s Cars Land addition to the company’s California Adventure park in Anaheim, California, led to a 23 percent jump in attendance, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.
Disney has already released “Planes” related merchandise, including $6 diecast airplanes, $13 story books and $18 children’s jackets. A sequel, “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” is scheduled for theaters in July 2014.
Advertising and word-of-mouth from the theatrical release could lead to higher sales of the DVD and merchandise tied to the film, according to David Paiko, vice president of business development at Rentrak Corp. (RENT:US), a media measurement firm.
“All those marketing dollars to promote it theatrically puts an awareness into people’s minds,” he said in an interview. “It’s ‘Cars’ in the sky.”
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