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"Planet' no treasure at box office

Published Dec. 3, 2002|Updated Sep. 4, 2005

Walt Disney Co.'s expensive new animated film Treasure Planet stumbled badly during the Thanksgiving holiday, and may be headed for a dubious distinction: the biggest financial turkey delivered by the company's fabled animation studio in modern times.

The film, which cost nearly $140-million to produce, sold an estimated $16.5-million in tickets for the five-day holiday period, including $11.9-million for the usual Friday-through-Sunday weekend. That placed it in fourth place on a holiday weekend in which holdover films blocked the way for new releases. Die Another Day led the way with $46.3-million for the five-day period; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets pulled in $45.8-million; and Walt Disney's The Santa Clause 2 (made at a cost of $60-million) took in $17.2-million in its fifth weekend.

Ever since its animation resurgence began in the late 1980s, Disney has maintained that all of its major cartoon features have at least managed to break even _ including such lesser pictures as The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. But barring a major turnaround, Treasure Planet appears destined to go down as the first clear money-loser. In its opening weekend, it was nearly matched by the lowbrow animated flick Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights, which took in $15.1-million for the five-day period and probably will turn a small profit because it cost just $34-million to make.

Disney's animated films tend to play in movie theaters longer than other films, and there isn't tremendous competition for the family-film audience between now and the end of the year. Even when the films play weakly in the United States, they can be bailed out financially by strong international business and video sales. But after its poor debut, it will now be two to three weeks before children are out of school for the holidays and available to see Treasure Planet. Such a lag will allow even more time for the film's weak buzz to wear off.

"There are a lot of good movies that are appealing to the family audience," Disney studio chief Dick Cook said. "Obviously we were not the first choice this weekend."

If there is any silver lining for Disney, it's the fact that Treasure Planet _ a twist on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic Treasure Island and set in outer space _ is probably the last animated film the company will make at such an exorbitant price.

From now on, each new film is expected to be much cheaper as the result of a major cost-cutting initiative at the studio in recent years. Disney became alarmed in the late 1990s when the cost of making its film Tarzan soared to $175-million, the result of skyrocketing salaries for animators and what the company considers a lack of discipline when making the films. Tarzan became quite profitable because it was a big hit all over the world, but Disney realized it would eventually get hurt financially if it didn't move to reduce costs significantly.

To do that, Disney has cut hundreds of jobs from its feature-animation staff, and at the same time forced the remaining workers to take sharp pay cuts. It also has installed new processes aimed at making its animators think twice before making expensive choices in the production of each new film.

The model for that drive is Lilo & Stitch, a relatively simple $80-million film that Disney released last summer. The film, which went into production after the more complex Treasure Planet, sold more than $145-million in tickets domestically, and Disney hoped it signaled a turnaround after the tepid performance of 2001's Atlantis, which sold just $84-million in tickets domestically.

Disney counts on its animated films to add to the pantheon of characters that form the foundation of the company. When a film like Lilo becomes a hit, it goes on to generate big profit in video and DVD, and often leads to a lucrative direct-to-video sequel, a television series and other spinoff projects that add to the company's profitability for years to come.

But don't expect to see Treasure Planet's lead character, Jim Hawkins, in a "Disney on Ice" show anytime soon. The company has until now planned for a video sequel, but it's possible that it will be shelved, and many of the other ancillary projects that could have been developed around the film also may not materialize.

Disney's next two major animated films _ Bears, which comes out a year from now, and Home on the Range, due out in 2004 _ are expected to be much cheaper, with the company hoping each can be made for significantly less than $90-million.

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