'Secretariat' reflects Disney's plan to trot out feel-good films with modest budgets

It didn't look as if Secretariat could pull it off. Coming out of the gate at the 1973 Kentucky Derby, the chestnut colt fell behind all but two horses and dropped more than 9 lengths off the leaders down the backstretch. Under the whip from jockey Ron Turcotte, the Thoroughbred suddenly blitzed the field, winning the Derby and the nation's adoration.

That stirring come-from-behind race — the opening leg in the horse's lopsided Triple Crown triumph, the first such sweep in 25 years — is at the center of Secretariat, a Disney drama opening Friday about the legendary equine, unconventional owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and eccentric trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich).

It's the kind of feel-good family film — Secretariat is rated PG — that evokes the quintessential Disney films of the era it's set in: Freaky Friday, Pete's Dragon and The Love Bug. At the same time, the movie recalls the studio's rousing sports dramas of the past decade, a lineup that includes The Rookie, Remember the Titans and Miracle.

Disney's new top executives think Secretariat, a project begun by their predecessors, distills their creative and commercial ambitions, and they are promising to make more modestly budgeted, uplifting films in its hoof prints.

"It's a movie that speaks to who we are today and where we are going," studio chief Rich Ross said of the film, which features a gospel song and a Bible quote and has evident heartland appeal — the perfect inspirational film, he says, for these recessionary times.

Nearly a year after Disney chief executive Robert Iger fired studio chief Dick Cook and replaced him with Ross, a cable television veteran, the movie company is assembling a film lineup that in many ways looks like the Disney of yesterday. The studio has stumbled recently with The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Step Up 3D and You Again, which were inherited from Cook's regime but were marketed by Ross's team.

"A quote was shared with me from Steve Jobs, who said: 'When you have a brand, it's like a bank account. With every offering, you're either making a withdrawal or a deposit on the brand,'" said new production president Sean Bailey. Jobs, the CEO of Apple, also is Disney's largest individual shareholder. "I feel like these kinds of movies are real brand deposits," Bailey said.

Directed by Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace and written by The Rookie's Mike Rich, Secretariat was produced by former major league pitcher Mark Ciardi and partner Gordon Gray. Ciardi and Gray, who previously had produced the hockey movie Miracle and the football story Invincible, had wanted to make a film about Volponi, the 44-1 long shot winner of the 2002 Breeders' Cup. Ciardi, Gray and Rich had discussed making a movie about Secretariat — arguably a better horse than racing legends Seabiscuit, Kelso, Citation and Man o' War — "but we didn't know what the story was," Gray said. There was no suspense "because he killed everybody."

Rich, who previously had written Radio and Finding Forrester, focused on overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, did research and decided that the most dramatic Secretariat movie would focus on Chenery, a Denver housewife and mother of four who took over her father's Meadow Stable. Under her leadership, the farm turned out Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge and, a year later, Secretariat. "The story came together pretty clearly," Ciardi said.

The movie itself, though, faced several obstacles. Disney said it would make Secretariat only if Julia Roberts or Jodie Foster would play Chenery. And Cook and production president Oren Aviv didn't want Wallace to spend more than $35 million — less than half of what Universal committed to 2003's Seabiscuit. When Roberts and Foster passed, Wallace was able to persuade the studio to hire Lane, who hadn't been in a $100 million-grossing movie since The Perfect Storm in 2000.

In a way, the studio mimicked the strategy that Cook and Aviv used on The Proposal, which originally was offered to Roberts. When she passed on it, Disney cast Sandra Bullock in her place (saving several million dollars), and The Proposal grossed more than $300 million worldwide.

"Penny has a well of dignity and quiet strength. And I believe Diane had that quality, that you wouldn't see how tough she was until you punched her," Wallace said. "The exterior was soft and genteel and the interior was steel, and that's what I thought Penny needed to be."

Secretariat represents one of three genres of film the studio is pursuing under Ross, whose own film lineup is at least a year away from reaching theaters.

Disney's studio makes its own films and distributes movies from Pixar Animation Studio and superhero tales from Marvel Studios, along with the occasional live-action offering from DreamWorks. For Disney-branded films, Bailey said, he is primarily focused on making movies that fall into three broad categories: family-friendly comedies with heart (Bailey and his team cite Splash, Big, Enchanted and Elf), epics that create worlds (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Pirates of the Caribbean and the upcoming Tron: Legacy), and inspirational true stories (The Blind Side, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Remember the Titans and Erin Brockovich).

The studio also will occasionally make movies aimed at a narrowly defined demographic — next year's high school girls' movie Prom and the young-adult adaptations Fallen and Matched are current examples — but it is scaling back on adult dramas.

Even though Disney didn't wager a lot of money to make Secretariat, the studio is placing big bets on a surprising number of big-budget projects helmed by prominent directors including David Fincher, Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro.

Fincher, fresh off The Social Network, is developing a remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a movie that Ross shut down under director McG, whose vision was deemed too dark. Raimi, of Spider-Man fame, is set to direct a Wizard of Oz prequel, and Del Toro, the filmmaker behind Pan's Labyrinth, plans to remake The Haunted Mansion.

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