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Tron: Disney's Big 3-D Bet

Disney opened "Tron: Legacy" at midnight Thursday after a huge marketing push, hoping to draw fans of the 1982 cult original and a new generation of 'fanboy.' When the studio watches the box office returns this weekend, it isn't just thinking about whether or not this film will be a theatrical hit, it will be evaluating whether "Tron" will become the kind of brand Disney can exploit across all its platforms, from action figures and video games, to a show on Disney XD, the cable channel which targets boys, to an attraction at the theme parks.

Tron Legacy
Source: Disney
Tron Legacy

Tron has a lot working in its favor, starting with the very simple fact of its launch date. This is the same weekend "Avatar" opened last year, and it fills that same 3-D family movie slot. Plus, the timing of this release will allow the movie to draw audiences through the end of the year. Plus, there's already built-in recognition of the "Tron" brand — and in Hollywood getting people to know a movie exists seems to be more than half the battle. Fans of the 1982 movie could come and bring there kids.

But "Tron" does have its share of challenges. It's been a whopping 28 years since the last "Tron" movie, and while it did respectably in 1982 terms, it didn't make it into the top ten films. And enough time passed that there isn't exactly a cult fan base that's been awaiting a sequel since then. It's not the kind of sure thing like restarting "Star Wars" or re-booting B. And "Tron" wasn't cheap — a reported $170 million, plus certainly another $100 million to market it.

Despite Disney's huge outlay of cash, the movie should do just fine — it would be considered a success if hit if it meets the $200 million box office projected by Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce.

Plus, for Disney "Tron" is much less about the actual movie's performance and much more about creating a boy-friendly brand. Disney has a slew of girl franchises — Princesses, Fairies. On the more masculine side it has "Pirates" and "Cars." But it's this kind of edgy, high-concept story that could do well on Disney's XD channel, which focuses on boys. Think about the potential for a "Tron"-themed 'Star Tours'-type ride at Disneyworld.

No matter how the movie performs, "Tron" toys are already on track to be top sellers at retail this holiday season. Panjiva, a company that tracks merchandise shipments into the US reported that there were 187 containers packed with "Tron" toys arriving in U.S. ports from August to October, the key time to deliver Christmas merchandise. That's less than the amount of "Shriek Forever After" related merchandise after it's debut earlier this year, but more than any other movie-related merchandise.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.