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How A Sequel To A 28-Year-Old Flop Costs $320 Million: Inside ‘Tron: Legacy’

How A Sequel To A 28-Year-Old Flop Costs $320 Million: Inside 'Tron: Legacy'

With the release date two weeks away, Disney are hoping for big things from their franchise reboot “Tron: Legacy” and have a lot at stake. With a reported $170 million budget, in addition to another $150 million for marketing worldwide (total cost: $320 million) the studio has a lot riding on the success of the film as does its helmer, Joseph Kosinki, who after making a name for himself in the commercials world, is making his feature directorial debut. In The New York Times there is a wonderfully entertaining piece on “Tron: Legacy” that shares intriguing information about the film, the director and how Disney’s plans for ‘Tron’ extend far beyond the multiplex.

So just how serious is Disney about making ‘Tron’ a household name? The studio is already deep in production on “Tron: Uprising,” an animated series for Disney Channel and Disney XD. Toys, clothes, jewelry, electronics, a theme-park tie-in and if all goes well, a sequel, are in the works. It’s certainly a huge burden for a first-time director to carry on his shoulders, but Kosinski seems quite comfortable and confident in the lead up to the film’s release.

“As a director, if you know what you want, then it’s not scary,” he said. “I had a very clear idea of what I wanted ‘Tron: Legacy’ to look like.”

So how did Kosinski convince a major studio to entrust him with nearly $200 million and a major franchise? Well, he had the early support of producer Sean Bailey who had heard of his commercial work and Kosinski did the rest. Thanks to additional buzz fueled by an uncommissoined video called “iSPEC” (watch below) — a fake ad for a futuristic version of the iPod which places the user inside a movie of their choice — Disney ponied up the dough for Kosinski to create three minutes of test footage. The studio was impressed, but they needed to be sure. They unveiled the footage at Comic Con in 2008 where the spot featuring a lightcycle battle went over like gangbusters. Disney had instant geek cred.

Another early fan of Kosinski was David Fincher. “In my earliest look at Joe’s work I felt as though he had an immediate understanding of how to structure images,” Fincher told the Times. “This is not an easy thing to do. It takes many years for most filmmakers to develop the kind of fluency and ease that Joe had very early on, and very naturally.”

However, as this year has shown, geek approval never guarantees box office success. “Kick-Ass” and “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” barely played outside their core audience but their budgets are just a drop in the ocean compared to what Disney is spending on changing ‘Tron’s, well, legacy, from cultural footnote to contemporary relevance. The math suggests that the film won’t break even until it enters the $600-$700 million realm worldwide and with early tracking apparently off the mark, Disney has a lot of ground to gain in the next couple of weeks.

That said, another film released around the same last year was widely thought to be strictly for geeks before becoming one of the most successful films of all time. Of course, that was James Cameron‘s “Avatar.” So the studio will be banking on Kosinski’s ambitious digital world, shot with an updated version of the 3D cameras Cameron used on “Avatar,” becoming an eye candy wonder that will generate huge word of mouth. In short, they want another ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean,’ a genre film with big, broad appeal. And it’s not out of the question — if you had told us that “Alice In Wonderland” would end up becoming a billion-dollar movie, we would have thought you were crazy. Disney know marketing and all bets are off for “Tron: Legacy.”

For Kosinski, his work, for now, is done. The Disney marketing machine is in full swing and if all works out, “Tron: Legacy” will be this winter’s must-see blockbuster film. Whatever happens, come the morning of December 18th Disney and Kosinski will be eyeing the Friday grosses anxiously. For the studio, those numbers will determine if they can get out of 2010 without egg on their faces, and for Kosinski, his future in Hollywood will depend on it. He’s currently attached to the alien pic “Oblivion” based off his own graphic novel, a remake of the Disney cult film “The Black Hole” as well as the sequel to “Tron: Legacy.” Whether or not any of those projects go forward will greatly depend on if “Tron: Legacy” can strike a chord outside the geek set and if early word is any indication, it will be a uphill battle, as many reviews cite the film as looking great but offering little else. Then again, that argument could also be levelled at “Avatar” a film that with its turgid plotting, cheesy enviro-message and hammy acting still managed to pack ’em in thanks to its glossy sheen.

“Tron: Legacy” opens on December 17th. — additional reporting by Kevin Jagernauth

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