LAS VEGAS -- 20th Century Fox showed off footage from a handful of splashy summer blockbusters, including Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," at CinemaCon, the theater owners' convention now underway. But studio co-chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos made it clear that they're hopeful their biggest movie this year will be December's "Life of Pi," Ang Lee's 3-D adaptation of Yann Martel's best-selling novel.
"Ang wants to raise the bar," Rothman said. "The medium skips forward again [with 'Life of Pi'], and you will believe the unbelievable."
Indeed, the footage shown from the film seemed to inspire a resounding positive reaction from the crowd. In it, 17-year-old protagonist Pi finds himself on a cargo ship with his family and a slew of zoo animals when a storm begins to rage in the middle of the night. The young man rushes to the ship's deck to witness the intense weather first-hand when he ends up being thrown overboard and into a lifeboat with a zebra and a Bengal tiger. The 3-D technology was especially impressive in the underwater scenes, where Pi floated lifelessly for nearly a minute, and in moments when waves of bubbling water and animals came rushing toward him.
Despite the encouraging response from the crowd -- many of whom were even brought to tears and seemed quick to proclaim the movie a possible Oscar contender -- Lee immediately walked on stage and told the audience: "It's unfinished! When you see the movie, it will be a lot more moving."
In an interview after the screening, the "Brokeback Mountain" filmmaker said being compared to directors like James Cameron and George Lucas -- two directors who appeared along with Lee in a promo reel screened at the event -- made him uncomfortable.
"To be honest with you, I like to be modest," the 57-year-old said. "I would like people to get surprised about my work, instead of it being over-hyped. That's what I'd be more comfortable with. But it's a big picture. I have to go with the flow."
Lee said it was the performance of young Indian actor Suraj Sharma, chosen from more than 3,000 hopefuls, that ultimately inspired him to move forward with the technically challenging production -- even though Sharma couldn't swim when he was first cast.
"I met him, I tested him, and he held his breath for 20 seconds. So I got him a swimming coach, work-out coach -- every coach," the filmmaker said with a laugh. "He gives an emotional performance in a movie that has the look of a family film, but it's also a movie about big ideas. I hope people will spend weeks talking about it -- that's my idea of a family film."
Photo: "Life of Pi" Credit: Rhythm and Hues / 20th Century Fox