Disney ready to unveil 'Gourd'

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BEIJING -- "The Secret of the Magic Gourd," the first Disney-branded film made in China, previewed here Monday for a crowd of reporters and a clutch of capital schoolchildren on the cusp of summer break.

Four years in the making, timing could be key if the Walt Disney Co.'s first co-production here is to earn the 50 million yuan ($6.5 million) or more hoped for by Stanley Cheung, company executive vp and managing director for China.

Made with Centro Digital Pictures of Hong Kong and state-controlled China Film Group Corp., which will handle Friday's roll-out on about 400 prints, "Gourd" tells of a boy who learns the value of hard work from a mischievous animated squash who, at first, gives him everything he wants.

Merchandising also is a big factor in the release, with branded gourd dolls, tea cups, books, washcloths, tee-shirts and slippers on display outside the theater.

"Before, we never had more than 10 weeks to reach licensing deals," said one company official who asked not to be identified. The official described how government censors often left Disney waiting for an import approval and wondering if it made sense to license film merchandise. But as a co-production with CFG, theatrical distribution for "Gourd" was guaranteed. "This time we planned all the licensing from the beginning," the official said.

"('Gourd') is a part of our international expansion into the area of branded content tapping local talent for the local audience," Cheung said.

After the mainland, Disney plans to take "Gourd" to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Might it be dubbed in English?

"The film will travel, but we have to get the China part right first," said Jeffrey Forman, Asia Pacific senior vp of sales and marketing for Buena Vista International, Disney's overseas distribution arm.

The plot of the live-action, Mandarin-language update of the 1958 children's book classic by Zhang Tianyi reflects some of modern China's biggest aspirations.

In the film's opening dream sequence, young Wang Bao pilots a spacecraft to save a troubled U.S. space station crew. Later, he wins a gold medal in a swimming relay.

China launched its first manned space flight in 2003, lagging the U.S. and former Soviet space programs by decades. Beijing will host China's first Olympics next summer, signaling for many its arrival at last on the world stage.

"We wanted to be sure we had a great movie, but also the right date to release it," Shanghai-based Cheung said in a phone interview from the U.S. "Eight Below," a Disney film about a team of courageous sled dogs, earned about 65 million yuan at the boxoffice in China last summer, Cheung said.
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