Dark ‘Guardians’ faces box-of­fice hur­dles

Los Angeles Times - - Business - Ben Fritz and Clau­dia Eller

Half­way through the pro­duc­tion of “Leg­end of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” di­rec­tor Zack Sny­der be­gan feel­ing pres­sure to lighten the tone of his 3-D an­i­mated fea­ture.

Ex­ec­u­tives at Warner Bros. and Vil­lage Road­show Pic­tures, the movie’s back­ers, were wor­ried that the story was too dark for young au­di­ences, a pri­mary tar­get. They wanted Sny­der, known for the Rrated ac­tion movies “300” and “Watch­men,” to add hu­mor and “charm” to “Guardian’s” tale about the bat­tle be­tween good and evil in a fan­tasy owl king­dom.

The cre­ative ten­sions be­tween fi­nanciers and filmmaker il­lus­trate why “Guardians” faces sig­nif­i­cant hur­dles as it opens Fri­day. The fore­bod­ing and weighty as­pect of the film stands in stark con­trast to the up­beat and fast-paced hu­mor that au­di­ences have come to ex­pect from such an­i­mated fam­ily films as the “Toy Story” and “Shrek” se­ries and even Warner’s last an­i­mated pro­duc­tion, the 2006 hit “Happy

Feet.”

“They started say­ing, ‘Let’s make it’s fun­nier,’ ” Sny­der said of his first an­i­mated movie and first for a fam­ily au­di­ence. “But you can’t have some­one in a ‘Lord of the Rings’-like story do­ing a fart joke. It doesn’t work.”

Sny­der mostly re­sisted their en­treaties. Like the young-adult books on which it’s based, “Guardians” is a fan­tasy ad­ven­ture fea­tur­ing in­tense bat­tle scenes and some graphic vi­o­lence, which could limit its com­mer­cial prospects, par­tic­u­larly for fam­i­lies with small chil­dren. A re­view in the Hollywood trade paper Va­ri­ety said the movie had “a note of sus­tained men­ace and ter­ror in what is os­ten­si­bly a chil­dren’s film.”

And, be­cause it’s an an­i­mated film about owls, it will have a tough time draw­ing Sny­der’s usual young male fan base and older adults.

“The chal­lenge for us was that ev­ery­body wants to go to movies to have a big ex­pe­ri­ence and have fun,” said Warner world­wide mar­ket­ing Pres­i­dent Sue Kroll. “We have to show that you can have fun with­out be­ing funny.” The tar­get au­di­ence, she said, is par­ents with kids 8 to 12.

Kroll ac­knowl­edged that “Leg­end of the Guardians” has sev­eral ob­sta­cles to over­come, in­clud­ing the ab­sence of ma­jor stars voic­ing the char­ac­ters who could help mar­ket the film, a book se­ries as source ma­te­rial that’s rel­a­tively ob­scure and a wordy ti­tle (the books are called “Guardians of Ga’Hoole,” ref­er­enc­ing a le­gendary tree in which heroic owls live, but Warner moved that word into a sub­ti­tle for the film af­ter re­search in­di­cated many peo­ple didn’t know what it meant or how to pro­nounce it).

Sur­veys of po­ten­tial movie­go­ers in­di­cate that the film, which cost about $80 mil­lion to pro­duce, af­ter tax cred­its, and nearly $50 mil­lion to mar­ket in the U.S. alone, is poised to have a soft open­ing week­end of less than $20 mil­lion.

For­eign box of­fice prospects are also un­cer­tain, al­though Warner Bros. ex­pects the best re­sults in fam­ily film-friendly Latin Amer­ica and in Aus­tralia, where the movie was pro­duced and from where many of its voice ac­tors hail.

Jeff Robi­nov, head of Warner’s mo­tion pic­ture group, said “Guardians” is “in­ten­tion­ally not a cook­iecut­ter movie and is edgier than some fam­ily films,” but he hopes it will per­form as least as well as last year’s “Co­ra­line,” which grossed $75 mil­lion do­mes­ti­cally. Though that film had no vi­o­lence, it was spook­ier than most an­i­mated fare.

Kroll at­tributes the lack of pub­lic buzz about “Guardians” in part to the ab­sence of ad­vance pub­lic­ity screen­ings be­cause the film wasn’t fin­ished soon enough. But she and the film­mak­ers be­lieve an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign that kicked into high gear this week, in­clud­ing spots on a num­ber of net­work sea­son pre­mieres and kids’ cable shows, as well as a global pro­mo­tional part­ner­ship with Burger King and sev­eral on­line video games, will boost its ap­peal.

While ads aimed at chil­dren down­play the film’s somber mo­ments, those for gen­eral au­di­ences em­pha­size the epic scale, in­clud­ing spec­tac­u­lar 3-D ef­fects that all in­volved tout as one of the pic­ture’s prime as­sets.

“Vis­ually, it’s some­thing re­ally new and in­ter­est­ing Zack has done here,” said Deb­o­rah Sny­der, one of the film’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers and wife of the di­rec­tor. “Par­ents won’t be cring­ing while they watch this with their kids.”

Un­like “Watch­men,” which Warner ag­gres­sively pro­moted as com­ing from the di­rec­tor of “300,” ad­ver­tis­ing ma­te­rial for “Leg­end of the Guardians” makes no men­tion of Sny­der. In­stead, ads brag that the movie comes “from the stu­dio that brought you ‘Happy Feet.’ ”

“Zack Sny­der’s built-in au­di­ence is not the one we’re tar­get­ing here,” Kroll said. “He brought an amaz­ing vis­ual style, but con­sumers, es­pe­cially fam­i­lies, are not that fa­mil­iar with him.”

In­deed, there’s not much at all in “Leg­end of the Guardians” that au­di­ences are fa­mil­iar with, at least in an­i­mated form. Hollywood has had a less-than-stel­lar track record when it comes to veer­ing off the path of main­stream an­i­ma­tion. The 2000 sci­ence-fic­tion ad­ven­ture “Ti­tan A.E.” was an in­fa­mous flop, and even more suc­cess­ful, darker films such as “Mon­ster House” brought in less than $80 mil­lion do­mes­ti­cally.

“There is a cer­tain per­cep­tion that an­i­mated movies need to be kid-friendly and have a cer­tain light­ness to them,” said Kevin Koch, a vet­eran an­i­ma­tor and out­go­ing pres­i­dent of the An­i­ma­tion Guild.

“The most suc­cess­ful an­i­mated movies have se­ri­ous el­e­ments that are bal­anced with a huge amount of comedic, light play­ful char­ac­ters.”

Warner Bros.

DARK: “Leg­end of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” tells the story of the bat­tle be­tween good and evil in a fan­tasy owl king­dom.

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