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Michael Rielly

Disney stokes publicity engine with 'Christmas Carol' train

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Michael Rielly

Disney stokes publicity engine with 'Christmas Carol' train

May 7, 2009

USA TODAY

By Anthony Breznican

EXCERPT:

christmas-carolx.jpg

All aboard!

A Christmas Carol, Disney's high-tech, 3-D version of Charles Dickens' classic yuletide tale, isn't due in theaters till Nov. 6. But the holidays will arrive early across the USA as the studio embarks on one of its most elaborate publicity stunts in decades, maybe ever.

At a time when it's harder than ever to cut though the cultural clutter, the studio has orchestrated a six-month whistle-stop train tour that will hit 40 cities with a multi-car exhibit showcasing different aspects of the production. The film — which stars Jim Carrey as not only Scrooge but also all three ghosts — is from director Robert Zemeckis and employs an improved version of the performance-capture technology he used in 2004's ThePolar Express.

The train tour, Zemeckis says, is like a rolling Disneyland exhibit — only it's free.

"What brings a smile to me is that it harks back to the earliest promotional idea, now new again," Zemeckis says. "When the circus would come to town, the train would park, and they'd have the circus parade through town and then set up the tents. This is the 21st-century version of that. You get to see all these wonders, it's free, and then you hope they show up later."

Though some traditional advertising remains effective, Zemeckis says it's getting harder to capture a broad audience because so many TV stations or publications are niche-oriented.

"The way the face of the industry is changing, mass marketing isn't going to be enough," says the director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future. "This is actually the first movie I've been involved with that did a grass-roots campaign like this. Basically, in my entire career, the cornerstone has always been the television."

Other studios also are pushing non-traditional outreach. This season alone so far, Paramount conscripted an army of traveling green party girls to hype Star Trek, and Fox had towns across the country competing in a vote-off to host the X-Men Origins: Wolverine premiere, energizing whole communities to battle one another.

Disney won't reveal how much the Christmas Carol train tour — or the movie itself — will cost. But the similar-technology Beowulf cost about $150 million to make, and overall marketing can run into the many tens of millions, sometimes rivaling the budget for the movie itself.

(In this case, the studio offset the price by partnering with Hewlett-Packard, which provides support for the interactive exhibits, and Amtrak, which obviously has its share of railway assets.)

The tour begins at Los Angeles' Union Station on Memorial Day weekend, then zigzags eastward through Oct. 30, where it ends at New York's Grand Central. Stops include big cities (such as Seattle, Chicago and New Orleans) and smaller ones (Whitefish, Mont.; Fargo, N.D; and Albany, N.Y.), each lasting a few days. Here's what visitors will find inside the four cars:

• A digital gallery of the film's characters and their design evolution; each portrait will digitally change and show how they were created.

• Artifacts from the Charles Dickens Museum in London, including a first edition of the original novel and some of the author's personal writing paraphernalia.

• A display of performance-capture technology, in which the real actors' movements and expressions are recorded and digitized, then used for animated renderings.

• Interactive games, including a face-morphing photo booth that will blend the visitor's visage with Scrooge's.

The fantasy will extend beyond the train cars, with the holiday spirit re-created with decorations, local carolers and even artificial snow. And in the parking lot: a portable theater to show early footage.

While whistle-stop tours are most frequently associated with politicians from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama, those campaigns and the one for A Christmas Carol have a common foundation, says Disney studio chief Dick Cook.

...

Disney's Cook is confident their version of A Christmas Carol is different enough to sustain the very elaborate promotional effort. "It's a very groundbreaking movie," he says, "and we felt we needed to do something wasn't just a quick splash."

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