Disney, WB bank on nature

Animal documentaries headed to the big screen

Big cats, little lemurs and weird birds are getting enhanced theatrical exposure thanks to two studio commitments to the venerable nature documentary.

Last week, Walt Disney Studios launched a unit called DisneyNature, committing to a full slate of titles going into 2012. Although the studio set up the venture with an appealingly modest investment, the nature docs are all planned as mainstream theatrical releases so convinced is the Mouse House of the potential upside.

In addition, the studio also forged a multi-picture deal with Alastair Fothergill, producer of the BBC's landmark "Planet Earth" series.

Meanwhile, Imax and Warner Bros. Pictures -- which has already found success with nature docs through a different type of model -- ended last week with the news that they had crossed the $400 million mark at the Imax boxoffice with films released through their partnership. While that milestone represented 16 titles in the Imax format that included mainstream tentpole titles, it also encompasses original Imax 3-D films co-produced and released with Warner Bros. Pictures. The latter include "Deep Sea 3-D," which opened in 2006 and grossed $64 million worldwide at the Imax box office on a limited number of screens.

So why this newfound adoration of the animal kingdom? One stimulus is digital technology, as more and more film producers think about how to expand the genres that auds traditionally go to see in their local moviehouse. Not to mention the fact that they've taken a cue from just how well nature docs have been playing on cable outlets.

"Our nature documentaries play with our theater network for months and months -- in many cases, years -- and they play in multiplexes and museums," Greg Foster, Imax's chairman and president of filmed entertainment, said. "Speaking in general terms, our nature docs tend to be more successful when they run for a long time on 10 a.m. on Tuesdays, rather than only focusing on the opening Friday night."

While Imax has taken the more traditional route with its nature films, Foster also hopes that Disney's model, which will find its movies competing head-on with studio fare, proves to be a good one. He said: "I'm hoping all nature movies are successful. It's really good for the business."

A handful of nature docs have already hit it big in regular theatrical release. Warner Independent's Oscar-winning "March of the Penguins" grossed $77 million in the domestic market. On the flip side, other nature outings like Paramount Vantage's "Arctic Tale," released last year, haven't cracked the $1 million mark.

"For us it has been highly successful," Foster said. "We have a brand and a history. The movies are 45 minutes long, cater to school groups and educators. They are part of the curiculum." He added that these productions are designed to be entertaining as well as educational: Entertainment value is pumped up by adding narrators such as Johnny Depp and by incorporating stereoscopic 3-D projection.

Disney execs say developments in production technology, which are also making for more exciting content, will be a driver for its new brand.

"Wildlife photography is very traditional photography. It's about a cameraman or woman spending a lot ot time sitting...waiting for animals to do things. Technology is important because we are often trying to reveal things that people haven't seen before," Fothergill explained.

Axsys's CineFlex high definition camera stabilized system, for example, was used in filming "Planet Earth" -- and DisneyNature's 2009 release "Earth" simultaneously -- allowing a camera to sit outside a helicopter to get aerials, while the tape recorder is inside the doors.

"The issue with stabilization is weight," Fothergill explained. "Now all the weight of the recording element is not outside the helicopter in the part that is being stabilized. That means the support system only has to stabilize the camera, and importantly, a very big lens. We were able to use a lens that was four times more powerful than any lens we were able to use with helicopter aerials before.

"In the past, when we have filmed animals from the air, we had to fly so low to get the shots that the animals would run away," he added. "That was really not useful. Now we can fly four times higher."

In another example, a camera that can record 1,000 frames per second was used to slow down action over 40 times. That allowed Fothergill and this team to capture, for instance, a shot of a great white shark jumping out of the water. "The great white shark comes up at great speed. At this pace, you can appreciate the action."

Meanwhie, 3-D projection has been attracting audiences, and the upcoming Warners/Imax slate of docs will incorporate the format, with titles such as "Under the Sea 3-D" (2009).

Disney is not planning 3-D releases for its first batch of titles, but the studio has been bullish about the format, and it may be a part of the equation at a later time.

Upcoming DisneyNature titles from Fothergill include "Earth" (2009), "Big Cats" (2011) and "Chimpanzee" (2012).