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Monday Mouse Watch : Could underwhelming box office receipts for "Ratatouille" really spell trouble for Disney & Pixar officials?

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Monday Mouse Watch : Could underwhelming box office receipts for "Ratatouille" really spell trouble for Disney & Pixar officials?

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Here's the official party line for the Walt Disney Company nowadays : That everyone who works in Burbank is just thrilled that John Lasseter & Ed Catmull now exert so much control over the corporation. More importantly, that all Mouse House employees have been eager to embrace Pixar's "Quality is a great business plan" aesthetic.

Okay. Now do you want to know what's really going on? Take a gander at this excerpt from an e-mail that I received late last week from a Disney executive:

There are a lot of people here who are now actively hoping for a Pixar backlash. The transition has not been handled well, due mostly to the great care & attention that's being lavished on Pixar. Every attempt has been made to make sure that that animation studio's creative culture have been kept intact. Meanwhile, Disney Studio's own unique traditions & operating systems are being plowed under.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved

Many of us here feel that Disney's own executives (Who in some cases have decades of working experience) are needlessly being forced to take a backseat to the crew from Emeryville. Meanwhile the people from Pixar are afforded stronger creative control, get superior treatment, receive more credit and have their asses kissed regularly by Iger & associates.

The good news is that all of this may all change once "Ratatouille" 's box office receipts get counted. Though Brad Bird has made a great little movie, it won't hit the B.O. numbers that Wall Street wants and that will get a lot of attention.

Not exactly what you expected to hear, right? Wait. The news gets worse.

How much worse? Well, let's now talk about "Ratatouille" 's box office projections. Nikki Finke over at DeadlineHollywoodDaily has been reporting that Pixar's latest should pull in something around $60 million over its opening weekend. Which then puts "Ratatouille" pretty much on par with what "Monsters, Inc.," "Cars," and "Toy Story 2" earned over their opening weekends.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, those three Pixar productions would then go on to earn $242 million, $255 million & $245 million over their respective domestic releases. Unfortunately, according to current box office projections, "Ratatouille" isn't expected to do nearly as well as that.

According to information that studio insiders have shared with me, this Brad Bird movie should only earn $150 - $170 million during its entire domestic run. Which then puts Pixar's latest on par with what "A Bug's Life" (I.E. That studio's lowest grossing animated feature to date) earned back in 1998. Which only took $162 million domestically.

Okay. So you now have "Ratatouille" (Due to the fact that this Pixar production is being released during a particularly competitive summer when people's movie-going habits are rapidly changing) projected to make only $150 - $170 million during its entire domestic release. Which will be $70 - $90 million less than "Cars" made last summer. And given that many investment analysts still consider that John Lasseter film to be a disappointment because it failed to achieve "Finding Nemo" -sized grosses ... Well, how do you think that those folks are going to react when they hear this news?

The word that Disney & Pixar officials fear most here is "trend." As in " ... 'Ratatouille' 's disappointing box office receipts continued the downward trend that began last year with the release of 'Cars.' " Which -- of course -- then re-opens the door to the whole "Did-Disney-over-pay-for-Pixar ?" question.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved

Which is why -- over the past few weeks -- Disney's PR machine has gone into overdrive. Placing all sorts of pre-emptive pieces in major news weeklys about "Ratatouille." Which -- even as these articles talked up this film's artistic achievements -- they also downplayed the importance of this Brad Bird movie needing to make any real money.

Don't believe me? Then check out this story that appeared in the June 13th issue of BusinessWeek magazine. Where veteran business writer Ronald Grover actually says:

" ... even if Ratatouille doesn't come out of the gate with some super-duper opening weekend, and folks say that Iger and company got snookered in the Pixar deal, it doesn't matter. Sure, the Pixar deal was pricey, but it was worth it."

Mind you, in order to justify this claim, Grover did have to do some rewriting of recent Mouse House history. Take -- for example -- this line from his "Pixar Purchase Pays Off for Disney" article:

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc / Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved

" ... ('Meet the Robinsons') is approaching $100 million (in earnings for its domestic box office run, which is) a rarity these days for Disney-made animated films."

Which would be news to the WDAS employees who worked on "Lilo & Stitch" and "Chicken Little." Given that that 2002 Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders film earned over $145 million during its domestic run, while Mark Dindal's 2005 CG comedy went on to earn over $135 million stateside.

Anyway ... Disney's PR department really hopes that Wall Street buys into this whole "Ratatouille"-doesn't-need-to-earn-any-significant-money idea. Because -- if not ... Well, the next few months could be fairly miserable for Mouse House officials.

So let's review here ... We have Mickey's own employees chaffing at all of the changes that have occurred at the Disney corporation over the past 15 months. With resentment building toward Pixar staffers, given the obvious favoritism that Disney management has been showing toward its Emeryville-based employees. We also have reports that "Ratatouille" is expected to earn far less than "Cars" did last year. Which is why the Mouse's PR staff is now aggressively trying to spin this situation, trying to downplay the importance of this new Brad Bird film having to earn any real money during its initial domestic release. So that Wall Street types won't then start asking inopportune questions like "Did the Walt Disney Company really over-pay when it spent $7.4 billion to acquire Pixar Animation Studios?"

 Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc / Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved

This already sounds like a pretty bad situation, don't you think? Well, why don't we throw in an inside joke that misfired? Which inadvertently insulted the Walt Disney Company's newest business partner?

To explain: When you're watching "Ratatouille" later this week, be sure and stay to the very end of the movie. Where you'll then see this gag credit that Brad Bird reportedly insisted on tacking onto the end of his film. Which reads:

Our Quality Assurance Guarantee:
100% Genuine Animation!
No motion capture or any other performance shortcuts
were used in the production of this film.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc / Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved

Which (I'm told) is Pixar's none-too-subtle swipe at all those folks in Hollywood who used performance capture technology to create animated features like "Happy Feet," "Monster House" and "The Polar Express."

The only problem is ... The producer of "The Polar Express" and "Monster House' is Robert Zemeckis. As in: The Academy Award-winning director that Mickey just got in bed with in order to create a brand-new 3-D animation studio, Disney's ImageMovers Digital. And given that this company is supposed to specialize in producing new performance capture-based motion pictures ... Well, I hear that Dick Cook, Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, had to call Zemeckis and then personally apologize for this gag credit at the end of "Ratatouille." To assure Disney's newest partner that no real insult was intended. That this was just Pixar's way of twitting all of the other people in Hollywood that used motion capture to make movies. Not Robert.

* Sigh *

It would be nice if this Brad Bird film (Which is actually very cute, by the way. Nancy and I managed to catch last weekend's sneak preview of the picture and found Pixar's latest to be quite charming) could catch a break. But -- to be honest -- in spite of the glow-in-the-dark reviews that "Ratatouille" has received to date, the disappointing domestic box office returns that have been projected for this new CG film suggest that Disney & Pixar officials may may be in for a rough couple of months. As Wall Street revisits what went wrong with "Ratatouille," then wonders aloud if "WALL * E" will be the movie that can then reverse this emerging trend.

Meanwhile, Disney execs (Like the one whose e-mail I shared at the very start of this article) will be downright giddy. Not because this new Brad Bird film actually failed to meet its initial box office expectations. But -- rather -- because this under-performance then proves that Pixar isn't actually perfect. Which will hopefully translate into Bob Iger being a little less likely to follow John Lasseter & Ed Catmull's advice about what the Walt Disney Company should be doing next.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc / Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved

I know. This isn't the hap-hap-happy story that many JHM readers have been hoping to read about "Ratatouille" and Pixar in particular. But this is the news that's actually coming off the Disney lot these days. And I just thought that you folks would want to know about it.

Your thoughts?

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  • Here we go again...

    Not only does this movie look amazing, but I believe it will beat your expectations. As nay-saying as you are, you should do an article about how unusually high sales still are for Cars-releated merchandise a year after its release.

  • Jim wrote:

    "I know. This isn't the hap-hap-happy story that many JHM readers have been hoping to read about "Ratatouille" and Pixar in particular."

    No, Jim, actually this is EXACTLY the type of heavy-handed opinion piece  I expected you to post about Ratatouille a week or two before it opened.   You are so predictable.

  • Great article Jim...it takes a lot of guts to write about things people don't want to hear...sadly, you know you're gonna get slammed...I'm guessing a 2% fresh on the "Rotten Jim Meter".

  • I'll be honest, his movie doesn' look That appealing to me.

    I'm a big Pixar guy, and an even biggerBrad Bird fan, but everything I've seen just doesn't have that "IT" factor, to me anyway. I honestly don't see it being SUPER-Successful. I'm sure it'll make good money, but I doubt it'll hit gigantic numbers.

  • "Take a gander at this excerpt from an e-mail that I received late last week from a Disney executive"

    By the way,  that e-mail didn't happen to be from Sharon Morrill was it ?  ;-)

  • This is just a repeat of the CARS thing.

    Thanks a lot of Jim, you're doing exactly what everyone was expecting. Tons and tons of negative articles over this movie, but you continue to give so much love to the DreamWorks pictures, which is not a shock from you. Yeah, you SAY you thought the movie was 'cute', but then spell out the doom of this movie.

  • I certainly expected people to complain about the negativity in this article, and it's already started.  Honestly, the people who complain about it are as predictable as they are complaining that the article is.  Get over it. Jim got an interesting e-mail that he wanted to share with us.  I'm glad he did. Don't shoot the messenger.  Yeah, it's unfortunate that the outlook is pessimistic.  Ratatouille (which I saw last week) was a great film, and its a shame that it may not get the box office it deserves. But what was really upsetting was that Jim felt the need to apologize to his readers who seem to blame him for what he's reporting on.  Excellent article. Let's hope things get brighter for Pixar and Disney animation.

  • No problem with this "story" - the tale of one unnamed "executive" who hopes the worst for Pixar. Then as you say,"The news gets worse." Only - is this "news"? Some might call it conjecture, heresay, rumor, gossip, or pettiness. Certainly nothing new.

    In Walt's day, animators were jealous of Freddy Moore - the praise he received, his favored status - and were only too happy as he lost his fight with the bottle. Ward Kimball had a pretty rough time after Walt referred to him as a "genius" - and were thrilled years later to see him thrown off the lot. Any of the "nine old men" or any animator or imagineer that achieved some level of success - others became jealous and hoped to see them fail.

    Listing Lilo and Stitch and Chicken Little, but leaving out Brother Bear(85), Atlantis (84), Home on the Range (50), Treasure Planet (38),,,, tsk tsk

    Poor little Bob Zemekis might be offended by a joke so the principal has to call him at home, but frail little Bobby somehow has the strength and courage to produce and direct big budget movies?             please,   spare us

    After looking at Cars toy revenues alone, there's an analyst anywhere that would say Pixar was a bad purchase? Oh, there might be, maybe, possibly.         I see

    Here's the situation Mr unnamed executive:

    Pixar has out-Disneyed the Disney Co on the big screen for quite some time now.

    The Oriental Land Co has out-Disneyed the Disney Co in theme parks for quite some time now.

    Eisner turned his back on Disney Co's "own unique traditions & operating systems" so he could raid the treasury. We understand there are jealous people working in Hollywood, but hoping that successful people fail, so that executives with "decades of working experience" can maintain their expense accounts - that's just sad.

  • Did Disney pay too much for Pixar?  Well if they were ONLY getting BO receipts from Pixar films then yes...but really...come on...its a much bigger picture then that.  You could also say Did Disney spend too much on the Pirates sequels?  AWE isn't hitting predictions here domesticly.  But again...bigger picture...(check out AWE worldwide BO..wowzers)....merchadising, theme park attractions, blah blah not to mention sole ownership of the previous Pixar films, John Lasseter's guidance in Feature Animation...you know all this...the list goes beyond Pixar make zillion dollar movies..

    Domestic BO is not the end all.....if it were then Disney would have NO WAY spent $300 million on Pirates 3...because there was NO WAY it could turn a profit, domestic only.....(the general rule of thumb is a film needs to make 3 times its costs to be really profitable)

    This summer has been full of surprises.....why don't we wait and see what Rat does before we start predicting doom and gloom....


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  • this is hilarious, love how Jim is twisting words from articles bash Pixar` again.

    If Walt Disney studio animationis feeling like they are being pushed aside while Pixar gets all the attention  instead of wanting backlash they should excited that a company with all hit movies is helping them out.

    After all Disney hasn't seen a big hit in years so its obvious whatever management and culture they have had for several years is not working.

    There are several articles which Jim does not put links to, that clearly says that no matter what this picture does in box office, Disney should not have to explain themsleves to Wallstreet since the bought more than just one film.  They bought a package of hugely succesful characters and some of the most sought after creative forces in the animation field.  They also manage to get Steve jobs to become a very important hand in Disney's future by being the biggest stockholder in Disney while being in the board.

    If the movie does not do high numbers, its not because of the movie or a trend, it is because of one of the most competitive summer seasons in history.

    with movies out there like Spiderman 3, Pirates of Carribean, Even almighty, SHrek the third, the simpsons, live or let die hard, knocked up, transformers, fantastic four, oceans thirteen and harry potter all opening up within weeks of eachother  i don't see why any one movie would be guilty of not hitting high numbers and being considered failures.

    So far the ones that were going to be considered hits have not broken any signifcant barrier yet are still holding on. Even sure hots like Pirates and Shrek are not doing as expected.

  • oh and by the way, we are suppose to believe that because of one e-mail of someone which is probably being affected by the changes is suppose to dictate the feelings of everyone in WDAS.

    I have heard diferently as well as others i have spoken too.

  • Quote: "Many of us here feel that Disney's own executives (Who in some cases have decades of working experience) are needlessly being forced to take a backseat to the crew from Emeryville."

    Yay! Yay! Whooopeee! (sound effect: tap dancing feet)

    If these are the same creative executives who helped undermine Disney 2d animation while helping to cripple the Disney brand in the process, I say "More please".

    It doesn't matter if/when/ or how badly "Ratatouille" bombs, the term "creative executive" will STILL be an oxymoron.

  • "Many of us here feel that Disney's own executives . . . are needlessly being forced to take a backseat to the crew from Emeryville."

    Oh no,

    How could they do this the geniuses who brought us Home on the Range, Chicken little and Meet the Robinsons?

    Or maybe the writer mistook "needlessly" for "necessarily" . . .

  • Honestly I find it silly that executives are getting miffed that the people who SHOULD be running various aspects of a company are being highlighted over those who read spreadsheets and manage above all else.  Creativity is breathing new life into the Disney company and people should stop and realize that quality will forever be a better business plan then a quick buck.  Disney was a broken machine - that's why it's being overhauled.  Pixar's got a set-up and mentality that WORKS; it makes sense for them to bring the same philosophies over to WDA while still guarding their own identity from a corporation who - quite frankly - could easily devour all it is.

    I honestly have no idea how well Ratatouille will do in the end.  I can't judge the publics response to this film at all, and it has be slightly on edge.  The coming week will be very interesting to say the least - and with insane competition from Transformers and Harry Potter (not to mention this week's Die Hard), I fear the lil' rat won't be getting the attention he very much deserves.

    Yet even if it doesn't do well - people would be wise to remember that the ideals, philosophies, and mentality that Disney added to their collective when they purchased Pixar are all worth the price of a few films that under-perform.  The cash forked over for that deal shouldn't rely solely on the films coming out this year or next year; Its the films that start developing out of a revamped studio and collective mentality that'll be the true tell of if the cash was well spent.

  • I think the real issue is the stock market- an inescapable reality of the business and one that's worth fans being aware of.

    I'd say that quality productions, even if they don't keep topping their predecessors at the BO, are an asset that will ultimately turn a profit. Whereas cheapquels only serve for quick cash and erosion of the company's chief asset: its reputation for quality. "Not being able to tell the difference" works both ways.

    Another issue is these projects reworked late in the game- adding millions of dollars and unused animation to the budget. I'm hoping this becomes less frequent in coming years, because it only adds to the pressure of making the money back in the theatrical run.

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