If Walt Disney Co. and its Pixar Animation Studios unit have their way, by the time Ratatouille is released on 29 June, millions will have learned not only to pronounce the movie's title—Pixar's website insists on the somewhat un-French "rat-a-too-ee"—but to love the idea of a rodent in the kitchen.
But not without some extraordinary effort. Next Tuesday, Disney will unleash an unusual all-day television advertising campaign, culminating with a 90-second spot on American Idol, intended to drive viewers to a nine-and-a-half-minute clip from the film at disney.com.
In effect, the studio is promoting its promotion.
Such bravura is necessary in this case because Disney and Pixar have once again staked their fortunes on a big-budget film that is completely original in concept and execution at a time when ticket buyers have shown a growing preference for repeat performances of known commodities like SpiderMan, Shrek and Disney's own Pirates of the Caribbean.
"It takes a lot more work," Richard Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said of the effort to introduce original films.
"The rewards can be unbelievable. But they're clearly more difficult to market."
That originality is a dying value on the blockbuster end of the movie business is no secret. In the last five years, only about 20% of the films with more than $200 million (Rs840 crore) in domestic ticket sales were purely original in concept, rather than a sequel or an adaptation of some pre-existing material like The Da Vinci Code.
In the 1990s, originals accounted for more than twice that share, led by Titanic, which took in more than $600 million at the box office after its release in 1997.
Pixar and Disney have enviable name recognition among moviegoers compared with virtually any other studio. But when an original like Ratatouille costs roughly $100 million to make and perhaps half that to market in the United States alone, even they cannot trust viewers to show up without a painstaking introduction.
"Wonder takes time," said Brad Bird, the movie's director. "You don't rush wonder. You have to coax the audience toward you a little bit."
Born of an idea from the animator Jan Pinkava (A Bug's Life) and others, Ratatouille is not only original but also a bit subtler than some of its Pixar predecessors. Without superheroes, as in Bird's The Incredibles, or talking toys, as in the Toy Story films, it is about a rat who wants to cook in a French restaurant that once had five stars, but has slipped a couple of notches.
The conceit brings with it something of an "ick" factor, Bird acknowledged. Yet, he resisted calls during production to make the lead character, Remy, more human and less ratlike. And he predicted that even the whiff of aversion would become an asset in seeking attention in a crowded season.
"That 'ick' is something in our favour," he said. "It makes the story more interesting."
(Disney, for its part, has generally done well with rodents, from Mickey and Minnie Mouse through the creatures in Cinderella and the Rescuers films.) Ratatouille has already appeared in a trailer, attached to Cars almost a year ago. And Bird helped produce an elaborate promotional video that circulated on the web this spring, even as he scrambled to finish the film, which he took over two years ago from its original director, Pinkava.
As the release date nears, Disney will add ploys like a scratch-and-sniff book from Random House (I Smell a Rat) and a 10-city Ratatouille Big Cheese Tour.
Led by its founder, Steven Jobs, and its top officers, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, Pixar has been ferocious in its insistence on originality through a cycle of hits that has included only one sequel, Toy Story 2 in 1999. That policy led to a rift with its partner, Disney, which once planned its own follow-ups to Pixar films.
Disney finally backed off when it acquired Pixar last year. According to Cook, Pixar—which has agreed to make Toy Story 3—will now be in charge of its own sequels.
Devotion to freshness can have its price. Since the release of Finding Nemo, which had about $340 million in domestic ticket sales, each succeeding Pixar film, first The Incredibles in 2004, then Cars in 2006, has done less business than its predecessor.
In addition, the entertainment conglomerates that now own studios may only bring their full resources to bear on the second or third in a series of films. Next month, for instance, Disney will unveil a "massive multiplayer" online game keyed to its three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. This potentially lucrative enterprise took three years to develop, and would be far more difficult to build around a one-time success like The Incredibles.
"Branding is the word of the day and it will remain that way," Russell Schwartz, president of New Line Cinema's domestic marketing, said of the growing preference by audiences and the industry for known quantities.
Schwartz, whose own company had huge hits in recent years both with high-profile adaptations in the Lord of the Rings cycle and with an unexpected blockbuster from scratch in The Wedding Crashers, noted that executives would rather not depend on the latter sort of success. "There's a zeitgeist about that kind of movie you can't control," he said.
The drift away from pure inventiveness is limited to the industry's most expensive and commercial films. According to the Writers Guild of America West, the balance between original and adapted scripts in overall feature film production has remained constant in recent years, with slightly more than half of the screenplays being original.
Old hands in the film business argue that the industry cheats itself of something precious when it leaves the creation of its blockbuster bets to a graphic novelist like Frank Miller, whose work was behind this year's 300, or a distant predecessor, like the makers of the original King Kong.
"It's tragic," the screenwriter Bob Gale said of what he sees as Hollywood's lost inventiveness. Missing, he said, is the nonpareil thrill he experienced in creating, with Robert Zemeckis, the early drafts of Back to the Future, a 1985 hit provoked by his own question: Would he have liked his own father if he had known him in high school?
Still, Bird confessed that pure invention can be "scary" even for those at Pixar. The director pointed, for instance, to a moment in Ratatouille when he felt compelled to forgo a climactic action sequence that was demanded by conventional movie logic, but that did not fit the story he and his peers had invented. "You have to let the movie be what it wants to be," he said.
Yet that can be easier, he added, than trying to follow in the tracks of the audience. "When you just make something you want to see," he said, "it becomes very simple."