Minus Disney logo, 'Swan Princess' swims against tide

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Despite favorable reviews from many critics, New Line Cinema's "The Swan Princess" was being viewed by Hollywood this week as something of a swan dive.

The film's lethargic domestic box office opening of $2.4 million has again raised an age-old question in Hollywood: Can a full-length animated movie be a hit if it isn't made by Walt Disney Co.?

The experience of "The Swan Princess," made by former Disney animators, is especially relevant these days with Hollywood sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into what may soon look like an animation binge to the moviegoing public.

"There's no question Disney has taken animation to a whole new level. If you argue that, you come from another planet. But there's definitely room for animation from other places than Disney," says Tom Sherak, senior executive vice president at 20th Century Fox.

Fox, which today enters the fray with its own live action-animated "The Pagemaster," starring Macaulay Culkin, is investing $100 million in a new animation division -- including a new studio in Arizona -- that will release an animated film every 18 months in a direct challenge to Disney's dominance.

Universal has long been active through its association with Steven Spielberg. Warner Bros. has a feature animation department. The new studio planned by former Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, music mogul David Geffen and Mr. Spielberg expects animation to be a cornerstone of the business.

The attraction stems partly from favorable economics. Animated films usually cost less to make than big star-driven movies, and they can attract corporate sponsors that boost exposure at marketing time. "The Swan Princess," for example, marked steakhouse Sizzler's first tie-in to an animated film.

And, animated films often sell well on videocassette.

All this means that the threshold for making a profit is usually lower than in live action, the potential exists for huge profits when a movie is a hit, and studios can retain more of those profits.

Hollywood executives say the case of "The Swan Princess" shows that such efforts aren't without risk and that it is difficult to replicate Disney's success without the label, even when a film tries to get some of the look and feel of a Disney film.

"It looked like a Disney movie, but it wasn't," one rival executive says. "And the public is mindful of that."

New Line isn't giving up. Mitch Goldman, head of marketing and distribution, said the company, while disappointed at the box office results, believes the $35 million film will play through the holidays on strong word-of-mouth.

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