The 48,000 folks who trooped through the San Diego Convention Center last July for the annual Comic-Con International gathering were typical comic-book lovers. Mostly boys from 16 to 24, they scoured the 600 booths for kung fu videos, vintage Batman comics, or new stories featuring female wrestler Chyna. Many also wandered into a booth where they could catch a 10-minute segment of a dark animated film called Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Nearly a year before the film was scheduled to hit theaters, Walt Disney Co. (DIS ) was trying to create buzz among a segment of the movie audience that cringes at Disney's warm, fuzzy characters. Its hope is that by drawing an expanded audience to a bold action adventure, it can revive an animation franchise that seems to be losing luster among its traditional audience of younger children and their folks. After years of easily passing $100 million at the box office, recent Disney animated films have struggled to hit that mark. So while Atlantis might turn a profit even as a modest hit, the bigger challenge for Disney is to create durable characters that will generate a long-term stream of revenue from videocassettes, merchandise, and spin-offs.
Compounding the challenge, the PG-rated film, which cost $90 million to make, rolls out on June 15, the same weekend as Paramount Entertainment's similarly teen-targeted Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. "You never count Disney out, but it is a tall order to get teens to go out to watch one of their animated films," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks films for theater owners.
NEW TRICKS. To get the word out on Atlantis, Disney will go with some tried-and-true tactics: an estimated $40 million on TV ads and movie trailers, and $50 million from marketing partners like Kellogg Co. (K ), which is selling an Atlantis cereal. But to pull in the older, Comic-Con types, Disney is resorting to some new tricks. It put a trailer for the film before its Memorial Day blockbuster Pearl Harbor, one of the few times Disney has paired an animated film with a PG-13 offering. It has scheduled a prime-time show on the Atlantis myth, with TV stars Melissa Joan Hart and Tom Skeritt as narrators. Disney is feeding the Internet with art from the movie, designed by Mike Mignola, known in comic-book circles for his work on the cult favorite Hellboy. Disney also seeded Web sites with information about the fictitious Atlantean language featured in the film. And it distributed 12 million copies of an Atlantis CD-ROM game at its parks and through marketing partners. "The PC gaming market is 18 to 35 and frequent moviegoers," says Jan Smith, president of Disney Interactive.
Disney will likely need all these marketing ploys to connect. So far, no studio has found a way to make a hit of an animated action film--never mind doing so while contending with Tomb Raider's curvaceous heroine, played by Angelina Jolie. To keep Atlantis from sinking once again, Disney will have to lure its usually fanatical fan base and keep its fingers crossed that a bunch of teenage boys will tag along.
By Ronald Grover in Burbank, Calif.