Can Polar Express Make the Grade?

Even with Tom Hanks and director John Zemeckis, the performance capture animated epic faces tough competition and a slew of doubters

By Ronald Grover

Years back, when I asked billionaire media mogul John Malone if he aimed to buy a Hollywood studio, he could scarcely contain his contempt. "If I wanted to gamble my money away, I'd go to the race track," he told me. He had a point. Making movies -- more than any other form of entertainment -- is a crapshoot. And every so often, Tinseltown risk-takers roll the dice with stunning abandon.

This year's Exhibit A: The Polar Express, a $165 million (some say $200 million-plus) computer-animated film that more or less stars Tom Hanks. The idea was to make the film's characters look like the paintings from Chris Van Allsburg's well-loved book, which tells the tale of a boy who takes a midnight train to the North Pole. That meant covering Hanks' entire body with 194 plastic "jewels," which guided 70 cameras that captured every muscle twitch and facial expression. Animators then fed the data into a computer so those movements could be replicated. This technology is so far removed from what was used to spawn Toy Story's Woody, Buzz, and all those other computer-generated favorites that it has its own name, "performance capture."

Computer-animation leaders like Pixar (PIXR ) and DreamWorks have long avoided using their computers to spin out computer-generated versions of humans. (George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic special effects shop even shelved an attempt to create a lifelike version of Frankenstein.) The reason: Despite all the effort to record and replicate muscle movement and facial expression, human images tend to look flat with this technology.

DOUBTS APLENTY.

  But that didn't deter Warner Bros. (TWX ) and Sony's Imageworks (SNE ), the computer-animation unit that did special effects for The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings movies. They're banking on director Robert Zemeckis to make a movie that could be a technological breakthrough.

In Zemeckis, Warner and Sony have a true pioneer. He's the director who defied conventional wisdom -- and traditional movie-making -- with his 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which spectacularly combined animation and live action in a single frame. Six years later, Zemeckis collaborated with Tom Hanks in the blockbuster Forrest Gump. One of the most memorable moments: Hanks shaking President John F. Kennedy's hand, accomplished by combining old footage with current action in a single frame. If anyone can pull off a performance-capture movie, it would be someone with Zemeckis' verve and imagination.

Of course, not everyone in Hollywood is convinced that this marks an evolution in movie-making. Special-effects genius Jim Rygiel, who won three Oscars for his work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has his doubts about trying to bring live people to life through animation. "A computer can't create the soul of a Humphrey Bogart, and the audiences will see that," he told me recently. And there are plenty of folks buzzing that The Polar Express is Zemeckis' folly. (BusinessWeek Online was unable to see the film before writing this column.)

EMPTY SEATS?

  And even folks at Warner Bros. are said to be thrilled that multimillionaire Steve Bing, who aspires to be a big-time producer, has put $80 million into the film. He's also covering half the $50 million or more in marketing expenses, according to a source with knowledge of the deal. Says the source: "If it tanks, it won't leave Warner with that much of a hole [thanks to Bing]."

For the record, Warner says the film has gotten great reviews in a couple of test screenings in Arizona. "We're not worried about this film in the least," says Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.' head of distribution. "It's a great story, it plays well with audiences, and how are you going to bet against Bob Zemeckis and Tom Hanks?"

Fair enough. But Warner did the film few favors by planning to release it on Nov. 10. That's a week after Disney (DIS ) is scheduled to release Pixar's blockbuster-in-waiting The Incredibles, and a week before Paramount unveils The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, also expected to be a huge hit. Will children -- or, more importantly, their parents -- go to three different kiddy flicks on three consecutive weekends? It's perfectly plausible that The Incredibles will do the kind of repeat business that Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and other Pixar films have done, leaving The Polar Express without many passengers. And films that cost $165 million need repeat business to make money, especially when more than half the tickets sold will be discounted kiddy passes.

MAN OF MANY PARTS.

  Warners is trying to counter the bad release date with some heavy-duty marketing. It has been running trailers before kid flicks for months and is giving away trick-or-treat bags to youngsters at Westfield Mall's 66 shopping centers. It's working with Houghton Mifflin, the book's publisher, on a promotion program in libraries across the country. And along with the publisher and The National Education Assn., Warner Bros., is sponsoring a reading contest to raise money for needy schools. Videogame maker THQ (THQ ) is coming out with the requisite computer game, and IMAX will show a 3-D version of The Polar Express on its supersized screens.

Plus, this is a labor of love for Hanks, who plays four parts in the movie. He has told interviewers that the book is a personal favorite also beloved by his kids, and that's why he brought it to Zemeckis. And star and director did Forrest Gump, a truly remarkable -- and highly profitable -- movie. But all the hoopla and sentiment in the world can't change the fact that films costing $165 million are major-league risks -- even for the likes of Hanks and Zemeckis.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek

Edited by Patricia O'Connell