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"Worldwide" may seem an ambitious goal for an independent film, but such a wide release will be necessary for a picture with a budget in the "tens of millions of dollars," according to Jones. "Independent does not mean inexpensive." Jones is similarly tight-lipped when asked who will voice the characters, saying only that the cast will include "Academy Award winners and nominees."
And while cartoon features can be wildly popular, they're not guaranteed. Final Fantasy, a spinoff of the popular video game of the same name, had ground-breaking computer animation, yet cost more than $100 million and grossed less than $35 million in 2001, according to the movie revenue website Box Office Mojo.
Linda Simensky, the Cartoon Network's senior vice president of original animation, says that compared to making animated TV series or commercials, "Movies are the hardest thing to do. You work and work for all these years, and if you want to have box office that competes with the majors, it all comes down to the opening weekend. Three days, and it's over. [Fathom's filmmakers] face an incredible potential for a let-down. If it doesn't hit, they'll just have to get it out on video as soon as possible."
Simensky adds that while science fiction and fantasy have had huge big-screen success stories, they also run the risk of merely appealing to a specialized fan base. "When you tell a story like that, you limit yourself to the people who like that stuff, so getting non-fans to the theater to watch it will be hard."
The notion isn't lost on Adler, who hopes to ensure an even bigger return through ancillary merchandise. Jones says that the company has been approached by Simon and Schuster for a book deal, and that they hope to transfer Delgo's animated images to video game tie-ins. Fathom has put together an in-house "catalog" of potential tie-in products, with ideas including Halloween costumes, action figures, lunch boxes, temporary tattoos, and even a Princess Kyla makeup head and kit. The marketing ideas, along with a trailer and pieces of finished animation, will be part of Delgo's "distribution kit" to woo distributors, a process that Jones says will go "full throttle" in early 2003.
Given so much possible merchandising, Maurer tries to stay sensitive to Delgo's integrity. "We try to remember that this is a business, but that the most important thing is the story. People will go, take their children and be influenced, so we have a responsibility to have a positive message. If we can do that and have good products along with it, then we're good. We're golden."
As Delgo's director, Maurer acknowledges that he's the point man for a lot of pressure. "Anyone who said there wasn't any is a lying fool. That's part of the excitement, and part of the challenge: How do you manage to keep going when things look darkest? But in the worst situations, you can always say, 'I'm making a movie, and that's important.'"
When Delgo's deadlines seem unattainable, or when the animated frames seem plagued by a million bugs, Maurer can find inspiration whenever he looks up from his computer. Hanging on the wall in a small glass frame is a portion of the white burnoose worn by Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, directed by one of Maurer's favorite filmmakers, David Lean.
Looking at the fabric, Maurer marvels at how fortunate he is, having lucked into making a film that strives for the scope of a Lean picture. Only Maurer need not hire thousands of extras or travel to exotic locations.
As a boy struggling to hand-draw his own cartoons, Maurer could only have dreamed that he'd one day be creating scenes like a stampede of dinosaur-like "rockbiters." "Every day," he says, "is something else: 'Oh, this is so cool!' 'Oh, this is so cool.'"
For now, Fathom is pinning its hopes that the American public will have the same idea of "cool," and find Delgo to be a fantasy hero worthy of Yoda and Gollum, and not a computer-generated pest like Jar-Jar.
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