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The big picture

From IMAX documentaries to Disney’s ”Fantasia 2000,” a new generation of giant flicks is looming large

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”I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” — Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

Norma, call your agent. Pictures have gotten big again. Really big. The box office roar generated by the mouse movie Fantasia 2000 ($35 million in just nine weeks of release) is creating a tsunami-size surge in large-format flicks.

”Disney really put IMAX on the line with Fantasia,” confirms Mike Pade, executive VP at United Artists Theatres. ”Even people who thought it would work were surprised that it opened to capacity crowds and hasn’t budged.” Now more than 100 large-format projects are being prepped by over 65 companies, and lots more are eager to jump in. ”My guess is that every studio in town is looking [to release] at least a couple,” says Warner Bros. domestic-distribution president Dan Fellman. ”We certainly are and don’t want to miss the wave. There’s no question this could be a significant part of the industry in the way that animation exploded in the past decade.”

That explosion is already being registered at the box office. In 1999, such large-format films as Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box and the undersea odyssey Galapagos (both in 3-D) generated more than $500 million at the box office, for a 6.7 percent slice of North American moviegoing. (Because of its multitasking role as theater owner, camera inventor, and producer, the Toronto-based IMAX Co. is the best-known name in large format, but since it’s not the only producer of such films, the industry prefers to use the term large format.)

But here’s the really big news: These movies are no longer synonymous with boring museum-field-trip flicks. With Fantasia 2000, says Disney Motion Picture Group chairman Dick Cook, ”it’s clear we raised the bar and are creating the standard others will aspire to reach.” While Disney and Pixar are rumored to be developing a digital-animation yarn for large format, this year’s boundary-breaking coming attractions will include:

· A close-up of Michael Jordan‘s astounding career called Michael Jordan to the Max, coproduced by Chicago-based Giant Screen Sports (which is developing Stomp); it debuts May 5.

· Grammy winners Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas showcased in All Access.

· The Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil’s Journey of Man, based on one of its popular touring shows; arriving in late spring. Produced by Sony Pictures Classics Large Format, the movie has already grossed $1.8 million on only six screens in Europe and Australia.

While no mainstream Hollywood studio has greenlit a large-format drama just yet (the last one was 1995’s Wings of Courage, starring Val Kilmer), it seems like only a matter of time. James Cameron, for example, has a hush-hush Mars project in the planning stages at one of the major studios. There’s also talk of an adaptation of the Stephen King novella The Sun Dog.

All of these films hope to follow in the record-shattering footsteps of 1998’s Everest. Made by MacGillivray Freeman, the documentary — which chronicles a hair-raising trek to the top of the world — has grossed $100 million to date. Providence played no small role in Everest’s success: Director David Breashears filmed his ascent to Everest during the highly publicized 1996 summit season (in which 12 mountaineers died). But MacGillivray Freeman’s promotion, marketing tie-ins, and ad campaign — all firsts for a large-screen movie — also helped Everest soar to dizzying heights.