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Disney hits the rails with Christmas Carol train.


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By Anthony Breznican, USA TODAY

All aboard!

A Christmas Carol, Disney's high-tech, 3-D version of Charles Dickens' classic yuletide tale, isn't due in theaters till Nov. 6. But the holidays will arrive early across the USA as the studio embarks on one of its most elaborate publicity stunts in decades, maybe ever.


christmas-carolx.jpgWorkers install a display monitor in the digital portrait gallery aboard Disney's A Christmas Carol Train, a six-car passenger train pulled by two engines. The gallery gives visitors a glimpse at the development and design of such familiar characters as Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and the Ghosts of Christmases, Past Present and Future. The Train Tour kicks off Memorial Day weekend at Union Station in Los Angeles, traveling across the country with whistle-stops in 40 cities. The tour ends at Grand Central Terminal in New York the last weekend of October.



At a time when it's harder than ever to cut though the cultural clutter, the studio has orchestrated a six-month whistle-stop train tour that will hit 40 cities with a multi-car exhibit showcasing different aspects of the production. The film — which stars Jim Carrey as not only Scrooge but also all three ghosts — is from director Robert Zemeckis and employs an improved version of the performance-capture technology he used in 2004's ThePolar Express.


The train tour, Zemeckis says, is like a rolling Disneyland exhibit — only it's free.


"What brings a smile to me is that it harks back to the earliest promotional idea, now new again," Zemeckis says. "When the circus would come to town, the train would park, and they'd have the circus parade through town and then set up the tents. This is the 21st-century version of that. You get to see all these wonders, it's free, and then you hope they show up later."


Though some traditional advertising remains effective, Zemeckis says it's getting harder to capture a broad audience because so many TV stations or publications are niche-oriented.


"The way the face of the industry is changing, mass marketing isn't going to be enough," says the director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future. "This is actually the first movie I've been involved with that did a grass-roots campaign like this. Basically, in my entire career, the cornerstone has always been the television."


Other studios also are pushing non-traditional outreach. This season alone so far, Paramount conscripted an army of traveling green party girls to hype Star Trek, and Fox had towns across the country competing in a vote-off to host the X-Men Origins: Wolverine premiere, energizing whole communities to battle one another.


Disney won't reveal how much the Christmas Carol train tour — or the movie itself — will cost. But the similar-technology Beowulf cost about $150 million to make, and overall marketing can run into the many tens of millions, sometimes rivaling the budget for the movie itself.


(In this case, the studio offset the price by partnering with Hewlett-Packard, which provides support for the interactive exhibits, and Amtrak, which obviously has its share of railway assets.)


The tour begins at Los Angeles' Union Station on Memorial Day weekend, then zigzags eastward through Oct. 30, where it ends at New York's Grand Central. Stops include big cities (such as Seattle, Chicago and New Orleans) and smaller ones (Whitefish, Mont.; Fargo, N.D; and Albany, N.Y.), each lasting a few days. Here's what visitors will find inside the four cars:


•A digital gallery of the film's characters and their design evolution; each portrait will digitally change and show how they were created.


•Artifacts from the Charles Dickens Museum in London, including a first edition of the original novel and some of the author's personal writing paraphernalia.


•A display of performance-capture technology, in which the real actors' movements and expressions are recorded and digitized, then used for animated renderings.


•Interactive games, including a face-morphing photo booth that will blend the visitor's visage with Scrooge's.


The fantasy will extend beyond the train cars, with the holiday spirit re-created with decorations, local carolers and even artificial snow. And in the parking lot: a portable theater to show early footage.


While whistle-stop tours are most frequently associated with politicians from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama, those campaigns and the one for A Christmas Carol have a common foundation, says Disney studio chief Dick Cook.


Candidates can try to woo the populace through television, radio, print and the Internet, but shaking hands during a hometown visit is a much stronger connection.


"We're going town by town, city by city," Cook says. "Audiences will have a chance to feel it, touch it and know about it way before any television has run, or anything else. There's a familiarity with it. And I think that will pay off."


Disney used to achieve that direct contact with mall tours, but Cook says that now too few malls have large open spaces; they're filled with kiosks. Instead of stepping out of the clutter, mall tours place the event in the thick of it.


A train tour is fitting for A Christmas Carol more than, say, some sci-fi extravaganza. There is something warm and nostalgic about trains, says Cook, who worked in the early 1970s as a steam locomotive and Monorail driver at Disneyland, and before that as a laborer for the Santa Fe Railway.


"I've always loved them, ever since I was a kid and had my own little track around the tree at holiday time," says Cook, who counts 11 models just around his studio office. "To put it mildly, I have a strong affection for trains. There was no question, when (the special events team) presented it, it sounded pretty doggone good to me."


It sounds good to Mario Pricken, author of the book Creative Advertising, too.


"Anything that deviates from the norm will draw the public's attention," he says. "Many of the most successful advertising campaigns are based on this simple principle. If all of the houses on your street are white, then the one that is bright red will capture the full attention of the passersby. From this point of view, the train will work well for a number of times, but then one should quickly seek a new idea."


He also says the personal connection idea really can be effective. "People come into direct contact with the product and at the same time have a strong emotional experience."


Paramount's Star Trek parties also had a personal touch, albeit a less family-friendly one. Hipster photographer Mark "The Cobrasnake" Hunter was hired to throw underground parties in cities including Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Berlin. While DJs kept the crowds dancing, graffiti artists created massive Spock-themed paintings, and models in silver bikinis and bright green full-body paint writhed seductively.


Hunter, who posts shots on photo blog TheCobrasnake.com, says he delivers "people who don't want to listen to traditional advertising."


The website, created five years ago, focuses "on some of the most exclusive nightlife and parties around the world, and it's followed by these people who are hard to please and hard to persuade," he says. "We added a little sprinkle of Star Trek, because part of our whole methodology, and it's a pretty obvious thing, is you don't want to shove things down people's throats. There's just a light salt of Star Trek at the events."


Justice Laub, who helped Hunter organize the Star Trek bashes, says the parties were meant to inject Trek into the youth-culture bloodstream. They also pitched more elaborate stunts, such as staging an impromptu laser battle in the middle of some unsuspecting city.


"We wanted to go to a small town that had never had any special things happen and hire all these people to pretend they are like police officers with yellow tape and have smoke and lasers and look like crazy gunfight on top of roof. And having people calling the press and getting all scared," Laub says.


"That didn't work for everybody," he adds.


Advertising expert Pricken cautions that promos should never become more interesting than the movie.


"That can misfire badly," he says. "I suspect that many a good film has been robbed of success because of exaggerated expectations."


Disney's Cook is confident their version of A Christmas Carol is different enough to sustain the very elaborate promotional effort. "It's a very groundbreaking movie," he says, "and we felt we needed to do something wasn't just a quick splash."





Train schedule: http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/christmascaroltraintour/


There's a stop in Philly and NYC Soon! :eek:


- A

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