Pixar Has a Seemingly Sure Thing With <I>Toy Story 2</I>

It may not answer bigger questions at the animation studio, but a $200 million box office can't hurt.
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In Hollywood, there's usually no such thing as bad publicity.

But there's one glaring exception: Movie studios will almost never offer hard predictions on how well specific films will do before they're released.

And for good reason. Making forecasts has little upside and lots of downside. If a studio lowballs predictions, it'll be accused of lacking confidence in its films. But if it aims high, movies that fail to deliver will immediately be pegged as flops.

But sometimes, when studio executives know they have a hit, they just can't help guessing out loud how big it'll be.

That's what seems to be happening with

Toy Story 2

, which arrives in theaters on Nov. 24. The potential for the film, a 50-50 joint venture of

Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

and

Pixar

(PIXR)

, is obvious. After all, the combination of Disney's marketing muscle and Pixar's talent for computer animation helped the original

Toy Story

to pull in more than $190 million at the U.S. box office when it was released in 1995.

That performance, which put

Toy Story

third all-time among animated movies, set an exceptionally high bar for

TS2

. But Disney and Pixar now appear increasingly certain that their sequel will not just match but beat the original.

Exhibit A

: At a

Prudential Securities

press conference last week, Pixar Chief Financial Officer Ann Mather said her personal opinion was that

Toy Story 2

would outperform its older cousin.

Exhibit B

: A

Salomon Smith Barney

report on a conference Disney hosted for sell-side analysts last Wednesday noted "over $200 million domestic box-office expectations" for

Toy Story 2

. (Where that figure came from is unclear. A Disney spokeswoman says the company didn't make any official projections for the film's performance at the conference.)

Publicly, both Disney and Pixar decline to comment on their expectations for the film. But Paul Dergarabedian, president of

Exhibitor Relations

, a Los Angeles company that monitors box-office grosses, says that

Toy Story 2

"is probably going to be one of the biggest films of the year, just based on the pedigree and the buzz. Plus, Disney has been incredibly successful releasing movies over Thanksgiving."

Dergarabedian adds that the conventional wisdom that sequels are unlikely to be as successful as their predecessors is wrong. In fact, the biggest movie this year,

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

, is a sequel (or, technically, a "prequel"). So is

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

, which has grossed more than $200 million, four times the 1997 original.

"The problem is historically that sequels have not been as entertaining as the original," says Chris Lanier, editor of the

Motion Picture Intelligencer

. "When they have been, they have made more money."

And the advance buzz on Toy Story has been nothing short of phenomenal. Two Web sites for film buffs,

Aint-it-cool-news.com

and

Darkhorizons.com

, have published glowingly positive reviews about the movie from people who've seen preview screenings, with comments like this:

Computer animation or computer-generated images are definitely the wave of the future in feature filmmaking, as is cleverly proven by Disney and Pixar's latest screen gem, Toy Story 2. Which, I have to admit, was absolutely brilliant in all senses of the word, more so considering that I really did not like the first film.

Whether

Toy Story 2

can boost the corporate fortunes of Pixar and Disney is another story. Pixar's problem, as our very own

Herb Greenberg

has

noted more than once, is that it doesn't have another movie in the pipeline until 2001, while Disney has more issues than the average

Teen People

reader.

But a $200 million domestic box-office gross is never bad news.