Disney needs wide audience support to justify the WWII drama's $140 million price tag

By Josh Young
Updated May 11, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Pearl Harbor: Touchstone Pictures

As Disney gets ready to launch its $140 million ”Pearl Harbor,” the most expensive movie ever greenlit, it’s time to ask the question: Is America’s 21 gun salute to the Greatest Generation coming to a close? Three years ago, Steven Spielberg’s ”Saving Private Ryan” sparked a cottage industry of flag waving valedictories in books, websites, and TV specials (mostly from Tom Brokaw), not to mention talk of a WWII cable channel. But last month, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd suggested that praise for the sacrificing warriors who saved democracy might be ”getting a little out of hand…. We encouraged our parents to stop being so modest and share their stories. Now they can’t stop gushing and celebrating themselves.”

Preparing a Memorial Day assault on multiplexes, Disney is showing signs that it’s unwittingly adopted Dowd’s message. Both at home and abroad, the studio’s marketing team seems to be stealing a page not from the ”Ryan” battle plan but from the ”Titanic” survivor manual. Forget historical issues, political ramifications, and moral quandaries. What’s important here is the epic scale love triangle between Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale. As ”Pearl” producer Jerry Bruckheimer says, ”You sell the romance.”

Thus far, the studio hasn’t courted World War II veterans in the way that Spielberg & Co. did. ”’Saving Private Ryan’ took advantage of the opportunity to deal with veterans who felt they weren’t spoken for,” says Mark Gordon, one of ”Ryan”’s producers. To that end, Spielberg and star Tom Hanks cut the ribbon at the D-Day Museum and supported the building of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (The director also received a special honor, the Spirit of Normandy Award, from the American Legion.)

In contrast, Disney contacted the 2.8 million member American Legion about using the cover of the organization’s magazine in ”Pearl” — but never followed up. And Bob Kronberger, former president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, says he consulted on the script and visited the set but was disappointed that Disney asked him to pay his own way to the $5 million gala premiere on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor. ”I don’t want to spend $2,000 for my wife and me to see a movie,” he says.

Of course, given its Pentagon style cost, ”Pearl” must enlist a wider audience in its box office campaign than the $65 million budgeted ”Ryan.” In fact, director Michael Bay needs to outgross his previous blockbuster, the $135 million ”Armageddon.” (Despite a $550 million worldwide haul, that film was reportedly only modestly profitable due to marketing and production costs.) And unlike most buck burning productions, ”Pearl” won’t be able to defray marketing costs with alternative revenue sources like fast food tie ins. ”They can’t really have McNuggets with kamikaze sauce,” says Chris Pula, Disney’s former president of marketing. ”It will be interesting to see if they can pull this puppy off.”

Even if the film wins over audiences on the home front, how will a potentially jingoistic love story told against the backdrop of the most brutal attack on American soil play abroad? That’s a critical question, since foreign ticket sales accounted for two thirds of ”Titanic”’s record $1.8 billion gross.

Disney plans to open the film in every country within a month of the U.S. release, except Japan (where it will open July 14). ”It’s fair to say that we’re focusing more on the romance element in foreign markets,” says one Disney source, who notes that the studio pretested marketing campaigns in France, Germany, England, and Japan. So far, the strategy appears to be working. ”The feeling in England is that it’s not really about Pearl Harbor,” says Baz Bamigboye, columnist for London’s Daily Mail. ”It’s a great big confectioner’s tale. It’s ‘fall in love at Pearl Harbor.”’

Selling the film in Japan, obviously, is a much more delicate matter. The country, which tossed a whopping $225 million into the ”Titanic” bank, remains very sensitive to its WWII history. One Disney marketing exec suggests that plans to open a new $2.9 billion theme park, DisneySea, adjacent to Tokyo Disney just two months after the film’s release underscore the need for additional diplomacy. Still, the mini posters now on display in Japan highlight both the military and romantic elements of the film, with battle heavy imagery and a tag that promises ”the heart grabbing drama of the century.”

Atsushi Naito, a Tokyo based entertainment attorney, worries that the film will imitate Japanese propaganda films by failing to show the enemy’s side. But after seeing the trailer, he thinks the effects might play to Japanese audiences: ”[The] kamikaze airplanes fly like a group of reptiles that run in ‘Jurassic Park.”’

The trailers have sparked a different reaction among several Asian American groups. ”They showcase the attack and Roosevelt talking about Japanese atrocities,” complains Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, who says he offered notes on the script but never heard back from Disney. Nevertheless, ”Pearl”’s filmmakers claim they don’t expect much controversy in either America or Japan. ”When the script was written, we sent it to Disney in Japan and they had some minor notes,” Bruckheimer says. Bay adds that a voiceover describing an alleged human rights violation by the Japanese was excised: ”It wasn’t important to the story.” The duo also say they received a positive response from a group of Japanese journalists who recently saw footage. Says Bay: ”A lot of young Japanese kids are really interested in this subject.”

And as far as Bay is concerned, the kids who buy tickets will be the greatest generation of all.

Additional reporting by Chris Nashawaty

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