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TESTING THE WATERS; FOX TO CHALLENGE DISNEY HEGEMONY.

Byline: Dave McNary Daily News Staff Writer

One of Hollywood's legendary studios is 20th Century Fox with hits including ``All About Eve,'' ``The Sound of Music,'' ``Star Wars'' and ``Independence Day.''

But when it comes to animation, the slate is blank.

All that will change this fall when Fox releases ``Anastasia,'' its first project from its new animation studio in Phoenix. Understandably, the king of Hollywood animation isn't letting Fox set up shop in Toon Town without a fight.

In fact, this next month is shaping up to be one of the most intense battles in Hollywood history. Fox - backed by the deep pockets of parent company News Corp. - is releasing ``Anastasia'' with all the pageantry deserving a Russian princess. Burbank-based Walt Disney Co. is countering with the re-release of one of its most popular animated features and the release of a Robin Williams comedy that's expected to be one of the top movies this holiday season.

Yet, despite all of the attention to the on-screen battle, the war will be won or lost on the toy shelves and fast-food counters of America. That's where Fox hopes to elevate ``Anastasia'' from movie to franchise, a formula Disney has successfully used for everything from Mickey Mouse to Hercules.

``Fox, in every respect, is making the campaign for `Anastasia' into the major challenge to Disney's feature animation franchise in terms of both the movie side and in licensing,'' said Marty Brochstein, editor of the New York-based Licensing Letter.

Why are the stakes so high? Money, in a word. Fox is trying to create a franchise like Disney has done with the Lion King, for example, and Warner Bros. has done with Batman - a property with ongoing potential for movies, merchandise, theme parks and cartoon shows.

``The `Anastasia' characters have evergreen aspects with a shelf life much longer than the movie,'' said Jon Richmond, president of Fox Interactive.

Jim Silver, editor of industry tracker Toy Biz, said such broad-based campaigns are crucial to break through the clutter of marketing pitches for children and parents.

``In the kids' arena it's not just about making a good movie,'' Silver said, noting that New Line's ``Swan Princess'' died at the box office in late 1994 despite strong critical support when Disney re-released ``The Lion King'' on the same day. ``If `The Swan Princess' were released by Disney, it would have done $100 million domestically.''

Dressing up `Anastasia'

Early reports on ``Anastasia'' are solid. ``Everyone is pretty excited about `Anastasia,' and not just the people who are paid to be,'' said Michael Schau, editor of the New York-based Entertainment Marketing Newsletter.

Silver said ``Anastasia'' has a strong but not overwhelming presence on toy-store shelves currently. ``You have to be careful not to ship too much or you wind up with a lot of returns and you can lose a lot of money,'' he said.

Fox has decided to revamp history, much like Disney did with ``Pocahontas,'' into a feel-good tale about the long-lost Romanov princess. Curiously, Fox made a live-action version in 1956 of ``Anastasia,'' starring Ingrid Bergman in an Academy Award-winning performance.

``Ingrid Bergman wouldn't recognize herself,'' Schau said. ``The story's been so softened, so there's none of this vile murdering stuff and her character's not schizophrenic. You will not be able to tell this woman from Cinderella.''

Fox has lined up product-marketing pushes such as a figurine tie-in with Burger King and licensing deals with Galoob Toys and Harper-Collins. On top of those deals, Fox is believed to be spending as much as $35 million on advertising in preparation for the movie's Nov. 21 opening.

``I'm sitting here in my office with all kinds of `Anastasia' products - 10 different books, diaries, dolls,'' Schau said. ``It's as if Fox decided that if Disney's ever done it, then we're doing it.''

Brochstein said he's been impressed so far with Galoob's toy line, which includes plush toys and carries a heavy emphasis on high-fashion dolls such as a $25 horse-and-carriage set. ``I think the dolls will do pretty well,'' he said.

Fox spent a reported $100 million to open the Arizona studio three years ago and an additional $65 million to make ``Anastasia.''

For parent News Corp., succeeding with ``Anastasia'' would represent an upbeat ending to a rough year. Of its films, only the ``Star Wars'' trilogy re-releases topped expectations and ``Speed 2: Cruise Control'' was a costly disappointment.

Competition lines up

But success won't come easily. First of all, the group of customers most likely to see ``Anastasia'' is preteen girls, making it a hard-to-sell genre based on performance at the box office in recent years.

It's a problem faced by another movie that opened Friday - Paramount's ``Fairy Tale: A True Story,'' a live-action film from the producers of ``Forrest Gump.''

``The thinking goes like this - girls will go to films perceived as boys' (films) but boys will avoid films they think are girls' movies,'' said Debbie Petrasek, an executive with Paramount owner Viacom.

Fox has another problem, namely a mouse with bite. Disney will re-release its 1989 hit ``The Little Mermaid'' a week before ``Anastasia'' after a heavy marketing campaign of its own and then open its holiday season blockbuster, Robin Williams' ``Flubber,'' on Nov. 26. That's less than a week after ``Anastasia'' opens.

The Disney marketing machine is in high gear to promote ``Mermaid,'' which grossed an impressive $84 million eight years ago. The studio has scheduled an invitation-only ``world's biggest indoor beach bash'' for a Nov. 10 screening at Madison Square Garden; promotional partner McDonald's has launched a Happy Meals campaign worth an estimated $20 million; the more than 600 Disney Stores have ramped up displays of ``Mermaid'' goods such as a $28 gown and $10 headdress; and toy stores are selling such items as a $20 talking Ariel mirror.

Disney Stores spokeswoman Sondra Haley reported the chain started its push in March with such items as stationery and snow globes, offered a wide assortment of beach-themed products over the summer and has been ramping up the selection in recent weeks.

Haley said sales have been strong, particularly of $6 beanbag toys of the Sebastian and Flounder characters from the film. ``We haven't been able to keep them in stock,'' she said.

Disney will pull the film after 17 days and is widely expected to re-release the home video next year.

``I think what Disney's done with re-releasing `The Little Mermaid' as counter-programming to `Anastasia' is a brilliant move because there's a whole generation of children who haven't seen the film,'' Silver said.

Brochstein agreed. ``There's still a lot of good feeling about `The Little Mermaid,' '' he said. ``Its look and artwork have been freshened. So I'd say the theatrical release is mostly a platform for the merchandising.''

Battle on store shelves

With both studios scrambling to mine every potential dollar from their investment and make sure neither outdoes the other, both have developed $35 CD-ROMs based on the movie characters and aimed at children aged 6 to 12. The products are part of the ``edu-tainment'' sector, aimed at parents wanting to inject education into their children's recreation.

More to the point, though, both programs can have lives lasting far longer than the movies will be in theaters.

Disney's ``Ariel's Story Studio'' includes programs for creating a story, taking photos of fish, conducting an orchestra, designing an aquarium and singing along with four songs from the film. Disney is also launching a print studio program for $20.

``What we're trying to do is go way beyond the movie by providing for the child to direct it,'' said Joseph Adney, Disney Interactive's marketing director. ``The property is already timeless because the characters, like Sebastian and Ursula, are so well-developed.''

Fox's ``Anastasia: Adventures with Pooka and Bartok'' calls on children to collect clues and solve puzzles, such as a ``Skull Toss'' with Rasputin's minions, with multiple outcomes. It represents Fox's first step into the ``premium'' sector of the children's CD-ROM market.

``We decided early on to do more than retell the story by bringing you into Anastasia's world,'' Richmond said. ``Most of the art in the CD-ROM was taken directly from the film. We got the stars, Meg Ryan and Hank Azaria, to do voice-overs.''

As part of the Burger King promotion, up to 40 million coupons for the CD-ROM will be given away along with the movie's figurines. It will be cross-promoted in the compact disc of the movie's songs and featured in theaters and popcorn cups.

Disney also has started to promote ``Flubber,'' starring Robin Williams in a remake of the 1961 comedy ``The Absent Minded Professor.'' It is already selling via General Mills cereals jars of the green goo that gives the movie its title.

Paramount also has been active in pushing ``Fairy Tale,'' which has received some solid critical support. Its key licensee, Playmates Toys, began shipping a ``Fairies of Cottingley Glen'' line in August. Other deals include Random House for publishing and CUC for a CD-ROM.

Silver said Paramount is in for a tough time. ``The movie may help the line somewhat, but it's not a home run,'' he said.

But Petrasek, vice president of strategic development at Viacom, said the company is looking far past the film.

``Fairies have long been an established play product and ours have done extremely well,'' she said. ``We've felt all along they had long-term brand potential.''

Dominated by Disney

Walt Disney Co. has released all but one of the 10 animated movies with the highest domestic grosses.

Title, studio, domestic gross (including reissues)

1. The Lion King, Disney, $312.9 million

2. Aladdin, Disney, $217.4 million

3. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Disney, $154.1 million

4. Beauty and the Beast, Disney, $145.9 million

5. Pocahontas, Disney, $141.6 million

6. Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney, $100.1 million

7. Hercules, Disney, $95.6 million

8. Space Jam, Warner Bros., $90.2 million

9. The Little Mermaid, Disney, $84.4 million

10. Snow White, Disney, $76.7 million

CAPTION(S):

Drawing, Box

DRAWING: no caption (Little Mermaid on a big black rock)

Illustration by Bonita Clark / Daily News. Art work courtesy studios. BOX: Dominated by Disney (see text)
COPYRIGHT 1997 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 26, 1997
Words:1695
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