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The Globe and Mail

Earth to Master Control: Tron is no Avatar

The Tron-a-thon has finally crossed the finish line. The three-and-half-year, $170-million marketing campaign for Tron: Legacy has reached its goal: The very expensive movie is in the theatres, and a lot of hard work and cash has been spent to get you, like the hero of the movie, inside the machine.

Disney's branding-gone-wild marketing approach is in line with a corporate policy of treating every tent-pole movie as an advertisement for a multiuse property - toys, animated television shows, theme-park attractions, DVDs, console games and, inevitably, more sequels. The studio started to "activate" (production head Sean Bailey's word) hard-core fans at Comic-Con in 2008, and then returned to the convention the next two years, leaking more goodies.

They introduced an online game, created fictional sites, scavenger hunts and tie-ins to more than 150 products, from iPod accessories to $500 Adidas sneakers, all of which could be bought from a pop-up Tron store in Culver City, Calif. For 10 weeks, starting in October, the company presented a series of Tron Tuesdays, introducing clips from the film. Tonight they'll even turn "Tron-to's" CN Tower blue.

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But does all this expensive marketing really work? In late November, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Tron's tracking numbers were "significantly below where the studio needs to be with its pricey tent pole." Researchers, paid by the studios, predicted the opening would be about $35-million, much less than the $50-million needed for break-even status.

Research companies such as OTX, MarketCast and National Research Group, are paid millions by the studios to measure audience interest, avoid scheduling conflicts and adapt marketing according to early box-office grosses. The results aren't always reliable. On this past year's Memorial Day weekend, for example, Sex and the City 2 was supposed to make $60-million but ended up with only $36.8-million; Shrek Forever After was supposed to earn $90-million and earned just $70.8-million, while The Karate Kid's $55.7-million was more than $20-million above predictions.

What the researchers can provide is a good profile of who is interested in a film. Although The Hollywood Reporter article said that Tron was getting "decent" response across the board, Disney was worried about the film's female appeal.

Tron: Legacy will probably do okay on its opening weekend. There's lots of media coverage and the movie has taken in more than 60 per cent of this weekend's advance ticket sales. By comparison, before the same weekend last year, Avatar had about 76 per cent of the advance sales, against no real competition, earning $77-million in its first three days, before becoming a pop-culture phenomenon.

In hindsight, Avatar was a natural "four-quadrant movie" meaning, in movie research terms, that it reached males and females, below and above 25. James Cameron is a baby-boomer director, whose history with Titanic, the Terminator movies and Aliens has made him a known quantity. There was the technology wow factor, as well as a softer environmental message and a pair of strong female leads (Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana) and an inviting green and blue palette.

By comparison, Tron: Legacy looks like an exercise in advanced motorcycle detailing, and it just doesn't offer an audience nearly as many connection points. Can anyone really imagine suburban parents, grandparents and children flocking to see a 3-D movie about humanoids racing motorcycles in the dark? Whatever gripes there were about Avatar's script and dialogue, Tron's are worse. The only star is Jeff Bridges, the director is unknown and the movie's only important female character (Olivia Wilde) is a chic-looking mathematical construct.

As for the overseas market, where the bulk of Hollywood profits are made nowadays, the name "Tron" has little recognition and Disney has to depend on those cool images in the trailers to sell it. Perhaps "Tron" could even become a new international word: "Origin American, meaning something flashy that goes by in a hurry."

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