STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The Walt Disney Company is creating a film division that will release nature documentaries. The same theater where you saw "The Matrix" or "Talladega Nights" may soon show the kind of stuff usually reserved for the Discovery Channel. But on this Earth Day and beyond, Disney is hoping audiences will march like penguins to see its movies.
NPR's Kim Masters reports.
KIM MASTERS: Filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg grew up watching Disney nature films and that inspired him. Known for time-lapse photography, he's literally been filming flowers 24 hours a day for 30 years.
Mr. LOUIS SCHWARTZBERG (Filmmaker): I've been archiving this footage for a long time, because well, I guess, bashert(ph) that this thing should happen.
MASTERS: Bashert is a Yiddish word that means fated. And the thing that Schwartzberg is talking about is the chance to make a nature film that will be released with Disney's marketing muscle behind it. Set for 2011, his movie will be called "Naked Beauty," and it will provide a close-up look at flowers and the creatures that pollinate them.
Schwartzberg says that when he approached Disney about a flower movie he didn't know a nature label was in the works.
Mr. SCHWARTZBERG: And it all came down pretty quickly.
MASTERS: Well, you must feel surprised.
Mr. SCHWARTZBERG: I'm more than surprised. I'm floating.
MASTERS: Schwartzberg was on the Disney lot in Burbank yesterday as the studio gave a splashy launch to the first new Disney branded film label in 60 years.
Also there was Alastair Fothergill, who produced the BBC series "Blue Planet" and "Planet Earth." The latter was turned into a feature film, "Earth," which will be the first released under the new Disney label next year. It has already opened in Europe and Japan.
Mr. ALASTAIR FOTHERGILL (Producer): Very happily $37 million box office, which is amazing. It's the most successful nature documentary in European cinema history.
MASTERS: Fothergill is working on two more films for the new label - one about chimpanzees and another about big cats. He knows that replicating the success of "Earth" will be a challenge.
Mr. FOTHERGILL: We only have to deliver a couple of bad movies and people will say nature films don't work.
MASTERS: If Disney didn't believe that it will make money, of course it wouldn't pursue this line of business. But that doesn't mean Disney chief executive Bob Eiger wants to divulge the company's box office projections.
Mr. BOB EIGER (Chief Executive, Disney): Do you think I'll ever share them with you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MASTERS: Studio Chairman Dick Cook says the movies take time but don't cost that much in the scheme of things.
Chairman DICK COOK (Disney Studios): Your animals are your actors. And, you know, you don't have to pay the shark much to do its thing in the ocean.
MASTERS: Of course it's hard to name many nature films that have done big box office. Though there is one.
(Soundbite of movie "March of the Penguins")
Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Actor/Narrator): We're not exactly sure how they find their way. Perhaps they were assisted by the sun or maybe, having taken this march for thousands of generations, they are guided by some invisible compass within them.
(Soundbite of music)
MASTERS: "March of the Penguins" grossed more than $77 million in the US. Box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian says that's unprecedented for a nature film. But it's not like a lot of big studios have been trying to sell movies of this type, as Disney is now.
Mr. PAUL DERGARABEDIAN (Box office analyst): Maybe if they do that and follow up on the success of "March of the Penguins," they may have something there.
MASTERS: And, of course, Disney isn't counting on box office alone. It expects to make money in many ways - from DVDs and books to theme park tie-ins.
One thing that's clear based on the clips that Disney showed at yesterday's presentation is that audiences will see a lot of adorable baby animals. Of course that ploy won't work for Joe Schwartzberg, who knows he may face special narrative challenges with a film about flowers and pollinators. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: LOUIE Schwartzberg, not Joe.]
Mr. SCHWARTZBERG: They're not as cute and cuddly as polar bears or big cats. But guess what? Without them no mammals would exist.
MASTERS: And he hopes that's dramatic enough to draw in a big audience.
Kim Masters, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
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