This morning was 20th Century Fox’s turn at bat at CinemaCon, where the studio showcased its 2012 product reel hosted by co-chairs Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman. They said, “we get to take credit today for everyone else’s hard work, but I think we have our best, most diverse slate in years”. The undisputed highlight of the presentation was saved for the end of the studio’s breezy hourlong show. (“Unlike some of the others, we are not into lengthy presentations, just in delivering the goods”, Rothman said.) Setting up the 10 minutes of 3D footage from Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s epic The Life Of Pi, scheduled for a Christmas release, Rothman compared the film to the innovations and groundbreaking filmmaking techniques the studio experienced with Titanic, Avatar and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. He said all of these techniques come together in The Life of Pi, the screen adaptation of a book by Yann Martel that sold 7 million copies about a 17-year-old zookeeper’s son and his arch rival, a bengal tiger, who are stranded together on the open seas after their ship is pummeled by stormy seas. Rothman also compared it in some ways also to the studio’s Castaway (in which Tom Hanks played opposite a volleyball).
Then he introduced approximately 10 minutes of extraordinary 3D footage involving the shipwreck and the fight for survival of the boy, the tiger and a zebra that was also on board. Even though it was emphasized that it was very rough footage, with temporary visual and sound effects and music, it was extraordinary and riveting to watch. Afterwards one media person told me, “put that footage as a trailer in front of The Avengers and every single person would want to see this film”. After the extended look, a world premiere not seen anywhere before, Rothman and Gianopulos brought on director Ang Lee, who modestly promised it would be even more moving and spectacular — hard to imagine considering the impact of what we saw today. Lee explained he has been working on this for 3 1/2 years with just a few months left to completely finish. He describes it as “an adventure of hope, wonder, survival, spirituality and faith” and emphasized that the use of 3D is there not as a gimmick but an “attempt to put you in the emotional space with these characters as much as the action”. He said they embarked on a worldwide search for the boy lead and found him in India — 17-year-old student Suraj Sharma — and once Lee saw how he played it the director “began to believe everything is possible”.
At last night’s Pioneer dinner reception, Lee confirmed to me that this would have been completely unfilmable five years ago, something he thought even when he read the book. But the 3D technology has advanced to the point where he was able to get these remarkable shots on water and to also make the tiger believably real. He told me he would do 3D again, but only on a bigger movie where he had the proper budget. For Pi, he had state-of-the-art water tanks with huge wave machines built in Taiwan to film these harrowing sequences and said he wouldn’t trust any of it to actually shooting on a real ocean.
For the past few weeks, Fox has quietly been putting together a plan and a team to promote the film during awards season. One top exec told me it is their major Oscar hope this year and it’s clear — at least from this footage — that it will be. After the presentation one pundit said, “Well there is one of your Best Picture nominees for sure,” while a rival studio’s distribution head in the audience told me “it looks amazing”.
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