Fox's Serious Case of Elf-Envy

Studios have been looking to fantasy books for the next big hit since The Lord of the Rings. Will Fox's bet on Eragon pay off?

It's been another Frodo-free year for Hollywood, and the suits are getting nervous. In 2001, '02, and '03, Frodo and his army of hobbits and elves hypercharged the box office, practically minting money for New Line Cinema (TWX), which distributed The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In all, the three films grossed $1.1 billion at the U.S. box office, according to The final installment, 2003's The Return of the King alone sold $337 million in tickets in the U.S. and $1.1 billion worldwide.

Little wonder then that the rest of Hollywood has elf-envy. Every studio worth its screening room has been eagerly tapping the fantasy kingdom to find its own mega-hit. Walt Disney (DIS) had a massive hit last year in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. A sequel is planned for 2007, Disney has said. General Electric's NBC Universal (GE) studio has a movie in development based on British author Michael Moorcock's Elric novels, featuring an albino wizard.

Fox's (NWS) entry in the fantasy fest is Eragon, written at age 15 by Christopher Paolini, who—big surprise—thrived on books by Rings' author J. R. R. Tolkien when he was growing up in Montana. The book revolves around 15-year old Eragon and his pet dragon, who save the kingdom of Alagaësia with the help of, yup, some elves and dwarves.

You Deserve a Promotion

Never underestimate Hollywood's ability to hop on a good thing, and Fox is doing its best to hop as high as possible. It's spending north of $120 million to make Eragon, having shipped in designers from George Lucas' ILM special effects shop to help create the dragon. It has brought on producer John Davis, one of Hollywood's best, and the guy who delivered the 2004 sci-fi hit I, Robot for Fox.

There's already an Eragon video game headed to stores, and Fox has signed a ton of licenses for lunch boxes and t-shirts and has enlisted Mountain Dew, Intel (INTC), and Eragon publisher Random House as promotional partners. Heck, ol' Eragon even has his own page on MySpace. If there's a 20-year-old out there who hasn't heard of Eragon by the film's Dec. 15 release date, I'll put on an elf suit myself.

So the money spout ought to open up on pretty soon for Fox, right? Well, that would be an ending worthy of any fantasy novel. And maybe there will be one. Fox has been on a hot streak for some months, with hits this year such as X-Men: The Last Stand, and Ice Age: The Meltdown.

Fighting the Champ

But Eragon won't have a cakewalk once it opens. It's scheduled to open the same weekend as Blood Diamond, another big-budget action flick, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a South African mercenary in Sierra Leone. A Will Smith drama is also opening that week: The Pursuit of Happyness (sic).

And the week after it opens, Eragon will have to contend with another heavily promoted flick, the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum. Even Sylvester Stallone is returning to the ring 16 years after his last Rocky flick with Rocky Balboa.

If you've got a hefty film, usually the competition steers clear. The fact that other studios aren't making way for Eragon tells you something. Moreover, if you've detected any buzz for this movie, you've got supersonic hearing. Despite the three years Eragon spent on the New York Times bestseller list and the millions of copies the book sold, the movie doesn't seem to be one of those hold-your-breath, can't-wait-to-see-it events. No flood of fan sites.

Nothing New Here

Heck, even the film's Myspace page has a just over 1,000 "friends" who have signed onto the page. Compare that to the 31,000 or so who have visited the site of Saw III, the Lionsgate flick due out Oct. 26.

You have to think that none of this is a surprise to the folks at Fox, who know their way around promoting big flicks. They did just fine for the X-Men and Fantastic Four features, as well as a little thing called Star Wars. (Of course, they also have that big-budget stinker Kingdom of Heaven on their résumés.)

Still, you have to think that they're holding fire until the time is right. They've already shown some smarts this July by trotting out the film's young star, 18-year old Edward Speleers, to the annual Comic-Con gathering of geeks and fantasy faithful. For Fox's sake, I hope so. (Fox declined to participate in this story, and producer Davis was unavailable for comment.)

Hollywood knows all too well what becomes of a kids'-book-turned-movie without buzz. You get Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. That's the Paramount film that cost $140 million to make and grossed $118 million in 2004.

Hardly Lord of the Rings money. Of course that film was dark and starred a demented Jim Carrey. I've got more faith in Fox and John Davis. After all, they've got a cute kid and some high-end special effects from Lucas's ILM shop. And they've got elves and dwarves. How could it miss?

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