Dino's sour note

There's nothing worse than being haunted by a lost opportunity. So, you really have to feel sorry for the guys who are running the Walt Disney Co. For the past five years, they have taken a pass on more than their share of projects that would go on to become huge hit movies and TV shows.

Among the successful films that the Mouse said "no" to was Mel Gibson's romantic comedy "What Women Want." After Disney declined, Paramount Pictures quickly snapped up the project. The film grossed $182 million during its 2000-2001 run.

Likewise, Disney passed over Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring." To date, it has earned more than $300 million for New Line Pictures, and the tote board is still running.

On the TV side, Disney helped develop but eventually backed away from -- due to a lack of nerve -- CBS's hit series "C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation" as well as Comedy Central's wildly successful raunchfest "The Man Show."

Perhaps even sorrier is the saga of Disney's history with "Dinotopia," the "mega-series" that aired earlier this week on its ABC network. Back in 1997, Disney had the opportunity to acquire the entire package of TV, movie and theme-park rights to James Gurney's best-selling "Dinotopia" books. At the time, Sony Pictures Imageworks had been laboring for about a year to turn the author's 1992 Hugo Award winner, "Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time," and his 1995 best selling follow-up, "Dinotopia: The World Beneath," into a viable motion-picture franchise. Sony even had hired noted special-effects wizard Ken Ralston, best known for his Academy Award-winning work on the "Star Wars" films, to lead its team. But Sony got cold feet when it realized that the initial film would cost at least $150 million, twice as much as it wanted to spend.

That's when the Walt Disney Co. came sniffing around. Its executives recognized that the "Dinotopia" property was a virtual gold mine -- that, even with the high cost of making the first movie, millions more could be made from the merchandising of toys and from theme-park attractions based on Gurney's dinosaurs. Not to mention the likelihood of several hit sequels.

But, Disney's lawyers felt that Gurney's representatives were asking way too much for the rights to use the "Dinotopia" characters in both a theatrical and a theme-park setting. Besides, Walt Disney Pictures already had its own dino-related film, "Dinosaur," in the works. So why pay for something that you already own? Or so the attorneys argued.

As it turned out, "Dinosaur" was barely able to cover its $135 million production costs during its theatrical run in late 2000 and early 2001.

By early this year, Disney TV executives at ratings-troubled ABC were beginning to realize that they had seriously overexposed their once hit series "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" They knew they needed something really special to lure viewers back during this month's crucial "sweeps" rating period.

That's when Robert Halmi Sr., president of Hallmark Entertainment, came knocking. Halmi's company regularly produces miniseries for television, including NBC's Emmy Award-winning "Gulliver's Travels." Halmi's idea for ABC: a 6-hour miniseries based on the very same books that the Disney Co. had been too cheap to buy in 1997, "Dinotopia."

This time, Disney's brass said yes -- to an $80 million television version of Gurney's books. And, during production, ABC programmers so much liked what they were seeing that they made a multimillion-dollar deal with Halmi's people in February to use the "Dinotopia" miniseries as a "backdoor" pilot for a new ABC TV project. Thirteen hour-long episodes of "Dinotopia: The Television Series" are currently in production in Budapest, Hungary. The Mouse is so excited that it's throwing lots of extra dough at Hallmark Entertainment to rush production in order to have the show ready to air by late fall.

Meanwhile, in France, operations directors at the Disney Studios Paris have been calling the Hallmark people and begging them to send any "Dinotopia" props they can spare. All in an effort to decorate their sparsely themed new theme park. Halmi's people are more than happy to oblige -- for an additional price, of course.

So Disney continues to pay big bucks for the rights to air a TV version of a project it could have owned outright (for all uses) if its executives only had the foresight to snatch up "Dinotopia" when it first became available. And the Mouse must lay out even more money to lease props it could have owned.

For Disney, it should provide a simple reminder of the adage: penny-wise and pound-foolish.

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