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Toon Tuesday: Why "Ratatouille" 's good-but-not-great box office numbers are now causing problems for Disney's marketing department

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Toon Tuesday: Why "Ratatouille" 's good-but-not-great box office numbers are now causing problems for Disney's marketing department

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By now, you've probably heard that -- over this past weekend -- "Ratatouille" finally officially achieved really-for-real blockbuster status. Earning over $200 million during its initial domestic run.

Mind you, it did take this new Brad Bird film quite a while to reach that milestone. As you can see by the chart below ...

Film Title
Number of days that it took for this particular Pixar film to reach a domestic gross of $200 million
"Finding Nemo"
20 days
"The Incredibles"
22 days
30 days
"Monsters, Inc."
30 days
"Toy Story 2"
44 days
65 days

... Of the six Pixar films that earned at least $200 million over their initial domestic runs, "Ratatouille" took the longest. In fact, I've been told by several Disney insiders that the studio was so concerned that this animated feature might not achieve blockbuster status before the Labor Day Weekend was over that the Mouse actually increased the number of theaters that "Ratatouille" was being shown in. Bumping up the number of screens that this Pixar picture was being screened on this past Friday from 956 to 1068.

"Ah, but what does that matter how long it took, Jim?," you say. " 'Ratatouille' has finally officially achieved blockbuster status. Isn't that something worth celebrating?"

Well, the Walt Disney Company would certainly like you to think so. Which is why -- over the next few days -- you're going to see the usual self-congratulatory full-page ads in the trades. Not to mention those press releases that talk about how happy the studio supposedly is with the way that "Ratatouille" has performed to date.

Copyright 2007 Pixar Animation Studios / Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

Of course, were you to ask the people who work in Mickey's marketing department about what Mouse House senior management really thinks about this particular Pixar production's box office performance, you'd hear a very different story. One that involves a lot of finger-pointing as well as people attempting to shift blame to other departments at the studio.

"But why would people want to assign blame when it comes to 'Ratatouille' 's domestic box office performance?," you ask. Well, you have to understand that -- up until this last Brad Bird film -- Pixar productions have always finished in the Top 5 during their initial domestic runs.

Don't believe me? Okay. Let's go to the charts. "Toy Story" was the No. 1 film domestically back in 1995 ...

Top Five Films of 1995
Their Domestic Grosses
"Toy Story"
$191.7 million
"Batman Forever"
$184.0 million
"Apollo 13"
$172.0 million
$141.5 million
"Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls"
$108.3 million

"A Bug's Life" came in fourth in 1998's domestic box office derby ...

Top Five Films of 1998
Their Domestic Grosses
"Saving Private Ryan"
$216.5 million
$201.5 million
"There's Something About Mary"
$176.4 million
"A Bug's Life"
$162.7 million
"The Water Boy"
$161.4 million

"Toy Story 2" came in third back in 1999 ...

Top Five Films of 1999
Their Domestic Grosses
"Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace"
$431.0 million
"The Sixth Sense"
$293.5 million
"Toy Story 2"
$245.8 million
"Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"
$206.0 million
"The Matrix"
$171.4 million

"Monsters, Inc." finished fourth back in 2001 ...

Top Five Films of 2001
Their Domestic Grosses
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"
$317.5 million
"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"
$313.3 million
$267.6 million
"Monsters, Inc."
$255.8 million
"Rush Hour 2"
$226.1 million

"Finding Nemo" was No. 2 back in 2003 ...

Top Five Films of 2003
Their Domestic Grosses
"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
$377.0 million
"Finding Nemo"
$339.7 million
"Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"
$305.4 million
The Matrix Reloaded"
$281.5 million
"Bruce Almighty"
$242.8 million

"The Incredibles" came in fifth back in 2004 ...

Top Five Films of 2004
Their Domestic Grosses
"Shrek 2"
$441.2 million
"Spider-Man 2"
$373.5 million
"The Passion of the Christ"
$370.2 million
"Meet the Fockers"
$279.2 million
"The Incredibles"
$261.4 million

While "Cars" grabbed the 3 spot in last year's domestic box office derby.

Top Five Films of 2006
Their Domestic Grosses
"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest"
$423.3 million
"Night at the Museum"
$250.8 million
$244.0 million
"X-Men: The Last Stand"
$234.3 million
"The Da Vinci Code"
$217.5 million

Whereas "Ratatouille" ... Well, as of yesterday, this Pixar production found itself dropping down to No. 8 ...

Top Ten Films of 2007
(As of 9/03/07)
Their Domestic Grosses
(As of 9/03/07)
"Spider-Man 3"
$336.5 million
"Shrek the Third"
$321.0 million
$310.5 million
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"
$308.2 million
"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"
$286.6 million
$210.6 million
"The Bourne Ultimatum"
$202.6 million
$201.0 million
"The Simpsons Movie"
$178.4 million
"Wild Hogs"
$168.2 million

... having just been knocked out of the No. 7 berth by "The Bourne Ultimatum."

And given the domestic market is now pretty much tapped out for this particular Pixar production (Just last week, "Ratatouille" was struggling to pull in $120,000 - $130,000 for its stateside weekday performances. And given that most of the kids in the U.S. are headed back to school today, you can now expect this movie's numbers to fall straight through the floor) and given that there are still 17 movie-going weeks left in 2007 ... It is quite possible that -- between now and New Year's Eve -- three more movies that can gross over $200 million domestically will come along. With one of those films most likely being Walt Disney Pictures' "Enchanted."

The way I hear it, the folks up in Emeryville are not happy about this prospect. Not just because "Ratatouille" has already been knocked out of the Top 5. But because -- for the first time ever -- there is the very distinct possibility that this animation studio's latest release will not be in the domestic Top 10 as 2007 draws to a close.

Copyright 2007 Pixar Animation Studios / Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

This is why there's now a new party line when it comes to discussing "Ratatouille" 's box office performance. Nowadays, Pixar die-hards don't really like to talk about how this Brad Bird film did during its domestic run. They'd much rather prefer to discuss how well this animation studio's latest release is doing overseas.

Of course, the only problem with doing that is that it then opens the window to comparing "Ratatouille" 's grosses to those for "The Simpsons Movie." And while it no longer seems likely that this 20th Century Fox release will be able to eclipse that Pixar picture's domestic earnings, "The Simpsons Movie" is still kicking "Ratatouille" 's butt overseas (i.e. Having earned $291.0 million versus $172.3 million to date).

Then when you factor in that "The Simpsons Movie" allegedly only cost $75 million to produce ... Well, that means that this Fox film will be in the black a whole lot sooner than "Ratatouille" will. Which -- given that this Brad Bird film (due to all of its production problems) reportedly cost $150 million to complete -- is something of a sore point with the suits back in Burbank.

 Copyright 2007 20th Century Fox.
All Rights Reserved

And speaking of people being sore ... Let's get back to all that finger-pointing that's been going on in Burbank. All because the folks up in Emeryville are reportedly blaming the Mouse House's marketing team for "Ratatouille" 's under-performance at the box office.

As the story goes, the people at Pixar are now supposedly saying that this Brad Bird film didn't do as well as it could have domestically because Disney dropped the ball. They insist that Mickey's marketing staff didn't put together a really effective promotional campaign for this particular Pixar production.

As you might imagine, claims like this make the folks who actually work in Disney's marketing department completely crazy. As one studio insider that I recently spoke with put it:

Copyright 2007 Pixar Animation Studios / Imagination Farms.
All Rights Reserved

We put together the best possible campaign that we could for 'Ratatouille.' Sure, this movie got great reviews. But this was a very difficult picture to sell during an incredibly competitive summer. To be honest, we're lucky that this movie did as well as it did.

Pixar is now claiming that we didn't put together a good enough trailer for 'Ratatouille.' They say that this is the main reason that their newest movie didn't do as well domestically as 'Cars' did. Which is why they're now being complete b*stards about the 'WALL-E' trailer. Insisting that only they know the proper way to promote their next picture.

Our counter-argument is that if we didn't put together the campaign that we did for 'Ratatouille,' putting that 9-minute excerpt out there on the Web, holding those sneak previews two weeks out, that there's no other way that we could have built better word-of-mouth for this movie. If we hadn't done that level of promotion, spent that money the way we did, they'd have been lucky if this film had done 2/3rds or 3/4ths of the business that it eventually did stateside.

Copyright 2008 Pixar Animation Studios / Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

But because Pixar never, ever makes mistakes, we're now the ones who have to take the blame. But that's okay. Let them call the shots on "WALL-E" 's marketing campaign. Next year, they'll be the one who'll be taking the fall when that Andrew Stanton film doesn't measure up to expectations.

Because if you thought that it was tough to sell a movie where a rat runs loose in a kitchen, wait 'til you try & come up with an effective marketing campaign for a movie that stars robots who don't talk. Which is set on a version of Planet Earth that's just this abandoned trash heap that's floating in space. Try selling that as a fun summer film for the whole family to see.

I know, I know. This is probably far too downbeat a story for all you dyed-in-the-wool Disney & Pixar fans out there. Who just want to celebrate the fact that "Ratatouille" finally achieved really-for-real blockbuster status during its initial domestic run.

Copyright 2008 Pixar Animation Studios / Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

Well, based on what the folks in Disney's marketing department have been telling me ... This time around, it's only the fans who are celebrating. Meanwhile down in Burbank and up in Emeryville, people are still trying to figure out what went wrong with "Ratatouille." They want to find why a film that received such glow-in-the-dark reviews failed to connect with a far larger audience. So that these possibly-promotion-related problems can then cleared up by the time "WALL-E" rolls into theaters during the Summer of 2008.

What do you folks think? Is there something that the Mouse's marketing department could have done differently with "Ratatouille" ? How can Disney improve the promotion that it does for Pixar's animated features?

Your thoughts?

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  • this is all bull. still another negative article just like the ones for  cars

    it was not about advertsing, it was about timing. It was a bad release date

  • Cars was a much easier sell. Ratatouille didn't have the sell that could be one sentence. Rats in the kitchen is the hook, but its not a great one. I'm super excited for Wall E and I think robots are an easier sell than rats. $200 million is an artificial blockbuster number, I don't hear that being the sign of a blockbuster on movie sites or anything. I also think Enchanted isn't going to do very well, about $150 million tops.

  • Earlier this sumer, readers of this site and others came up with many effective advertising and marketing ideas after 10 minutes of thought - by and large all better than what the vaunted Disney Co marketing team accomplished.

    The picture says it all - "Win a trip to New York City." Huh?  Why not a trip to Oregon? Last I checked, the movie was set in Paris, and Disney Co has a few hotels and theme parks that could use a few extra bodies onsite. Great attention to detail, marketing department.

    Gotta love the whiny source though. "Well they think they can do sooooooo much better than us." This guy must be related to "we can't market it since we weren't there when it got greenlit." It isn't really a matter of Pixar knowing better - most anyone on the street would know better. Disney Co marketing didn't get as strong an opening for Pirates 3 as Pirates 2. Underdog didn't even open. So to recap, Disney Co marketing can't market a film with good reviews, bad reviews, or mediocre reviews.

    "Holding those sneak previews two weeks out." Very cutting edge. Studios have only been doing that for maybe five decades now.

    "Spent that money the way we did."  That's the point - the private parties and inflatable slide didn't cause a blip on the summer radar. Hope someone in the marketing department enjoyed that money. The Simpsons marketing team spent less money and got far more attention.

    "We put together the best possible campaign that we could for 'Ratatouille'." If that marketing guy really believes that, he needs to resign and leave the marketing industry. Even if you only took an introductory level marketing class, you couldn't say that sentence with a straight face.  The saddest part is - this guy shows that it's still very much Pixar vs Disney Co instead of any sort of synergy or cooperation. Who's job would it be to see that these two divisions play nice? I believe that would be the CEO's responsibility, and he doesn't seem to want to get involved.

  • Could it maybe be because Ratatouille just wasnt that good? I've seen several PIXAR films in the theatre-some I've liked,some I've not. I didnt even bother to go see Ratatouille. Nothing about this film engaged my interest-not the plot,not the talent,not the trailer,NOTHING. WALL-E,however,is still a year away and I cant wait to see it. I hit the Buy n Large website almost daily. And unless the film is really,really awful I'll probably be buying one of those oddly cute robot toys thats sure to be flooding shelves next summer. I havent looked fwd to a PIXAR film this much since The Incredibles. Its not a case of PIXAR sucks or PIXAR rules....its just a simple fact that not every movie they make is going to resonate with audiences the same way.

  • $200,000,000 Ratatouille vs

    $135,386,665 Chicken Little

    $50,030,461 Home on the Range

    $85,336,277 Brother Bear

    I take it that the people who are complaining have short memories.

  • "rufus3698 said:

    $200,000,000 Ratatouille vs

    $135,386,665 Chicken Little

    $50,030,461 Home on the Range

    $85,336,277 Brother Bear"

    So, it's come to this...cherry-picking  other underperforming/bad, flicks? This indeed may be the beginning of the end....wow.

  • AGAIN, Jim Hill is misrepresenting facts, this time in his comparisions between The Simpson Movie and Ratatouille.

    Remember back a few weeks when Hill crowed about how The Simpson Movie is "on track to blow right past the $188.2 million that "Ratatouille" has earned to date during its stateside run sometime over the next three weeks" (http://jimhillmedia.com/blogs/jim_hill/archive/2007/08/06/
    ). With Ratatouille showing FAR stronger legs than TSM, that turned out to be biased and wishful thinking on Hill's part and completely inaccurate. In fact, TSM will likely not even reach that $188.2 million that Ratatouille had earned (and handily surpassed) at that point. He FINALLY writes - in a minor aside - that that isn't going to happen, but never admits how wrong HE was.

    But now he goes FURTHER in declaring The Simpsons Movie the WINNER of the overseas race with $291 million vs Ratatouille's $172 million to date. He CONVENIENTLY fails to mention the fact that Ratatouille began most of its overseas run later than TSM, and unlike TSM has not yet opened in such major markets as UK, Australia, and Germany.

    Hill employed the very same dishonest tactics with incomplete statistics when blasting Cars last year. Citing the "to-date" overseas figure of $128.1 million - and failing to state clearly that the release was still in its middle stages - he labeled Cars the "poorest performing Pixar production (at least with overseas audiences)" (http://jimhillmedia.com/blogs/jim_hill/archive/2006/08/13/4950.aspx). In actually, it went on to earn $116 million MORE money and ended up being in the MIDDLE of the pack of Pixar movies' overseas grosses. I am still waiting for Hill's retraction.

    Yes, The Simpsons Movie outperformed its expectations and yes, Ratatouille has underperformed in relation to other Pixar movies domestically. The reasons for that are open for HONEST debate. But Ratatouille MAY or may NOT surpass the Simpsons internationally. In the same way that Hill's previous articles were distortions, this article calls the race before it is over.

    If we are to believe what we read in Hill's writings, we have to consider the veracity of the source. To paraphrase Jim Hill himself, "we're not talking about the REAL world here, folks;" we're talking about JIM HILL's world.

  • The least you can say is that Jim Hill is consistent. Even when "Ratatouille" eventually bests "Cars" in worldwide gross (given the terribly competitive market this year) you can be assured that he will find something negative to say about Pixar. He will never concede that Pixar is the probably the most successful movie studio in history, as well as the most consistently praised one.

  • The only thing predictable about the JHM website, is the barrage of "comments" about how predictable he is... and how he "misrepresents" facts! This is just too much fun, Jim. "It's just Showbiz, baby"!

  • And here's this Disney marketing exec whining about how Pixar claims they can do a better marketing job than them. You know what, it isn't just Pixar. Anybody with a brain and a love for Pixar's films could pull out a better campaign than Disney did. A "big cheese" tour? A promo with Intel? What the heck was that? A trip for 2 to NYC with a couple of show tickets? That honestly costs ZILCH in the overall scheme of a campaign. As curmudgeon said, so many of JHM's readers came up with outstanding ideas earlier this summer. It really isn't that hard. And looking at that Top 10 BO chart, Disney has THREE films in the top 10, three films that grossed $160+ million in the first half of the year. Other studios would kill for that.

  • A correction - Cars went on to earn almost $90 million more internationally for a total of $217,898,393. My math was off (sorry), but still, it was significantly more than the "to date" $128 million Jim Hill cited.

  • From the vault:

    //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.//


    After that, basically, today's story comes across as a "Yes, but..."  As in "Yes, Ratatouille has exceeded those expectations I put so much faith in, but I'm still right, because..."

    As for comments from people such as Bobbydafan complaining about complainers, I simply say this: Who watches the watchmen?

    Sometimes, it's important to look at more than what is presented since, often, the whole picture isn't being presented.  As many of the comments here have demonstrated, Jim can be fairly selective about the type of information he presents, and if he likes to position himself as a sort-of Disney watchdog, it's important to have other people watching him to show the other side.

    The fact of the matter is that this has been a huge summer, with a lot of tentpole releases; most people would have looked at the list of releases and figured out in advance that Ratatouille (which really isn't an "event" flick, nor is it a part of a franchise) didn't stand much of a chance of being in the top 5.

    And personally?  I'm not sure if Enchanted will be a slam dunk either, but I'd prefer to wait and see instead of forecasting expectations, since here's no way to know how a movie will perform until there are people in the seats.

    Moving on...

    rufus3698 said this:

    //$200,000,000 Ratatouille vs

    $135,386,665 Chicken Little

    $50,030,461 Home on the Range

    $85,336,277 Brother Bear

    I take it that the people who are complaining have short memories.//

    This prompted Bobbydafan to say this:

    //So, it's come to this...cherry-picking  other underperforming/bad, flicks? This indeed may be the beginning of the end....wow.//

    If comparing box office receipts is the beginning of the end, well, this site started that trend quite a while ago.  But let's take Rufus' post and expand it.

    Ratatouille has, to date, has a domestic gross just north of $200 million (Box Office Mojo is saying $201,093,000 currently).  When is the last time a Disney flick (excluding Pixar releases & DisneyToon Studios flicks) has earned that?

    Well, let's work backwards, ok?  And let's go all the way back to the Little Mermaid.

    (Note that Meet the Robinsons may still be playing in a small handful of theatres)

    Meet the Robinsons (2007): $97,801,126

    Chicken Little (2005): $135,386,665

    Home on the Range (2004): $50,030,461

    Brother Bear (2003): $85,336,277

    Treasure Planet (2002): $38,176,783

    Lilo & Stitch (2002): $145,794,338

    Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001): $84,056,472

    The Emperor's New Groove (2000): $89,302,687

    Dinosaur (2000): $137,748,063

    Fantasia 2000 (2000): $60,655,420

    Tarzan (1999): $171,091,819

    Mulan (1998): $120,620,254

    Hercules (1997): $99,112,101

    The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996): $100,138,851

    Pocahontas (1995): $141,579,773

    The Lion King (1994): $312,855,561 (with re-releases: $328,541,776)

    Aladdin (1992): $217,350,219

    Beauty and the Beast (1991): $145,863,363 (with re-releases: $171,350,553)

    The Rescuers Down Under (1990): $27,931,461

    The Little Mermaid (1989): $84,355,863 (with re-releases: $111,543,479)

    Of course, the numbers aren't adjusted for inflation, but still, I have to wonder...why push the panic button on a movie that makes "only" $200 million when the last non-Pixar Disney release to cross that mark was The Lion King (back in 1994)?

    What I wonder is, did the panic button get pushed after the Lion King, when everything else failed to live up to the large shadow it cast?

    Essentially, Finding Nemo is Pixar's Lion King, only Disney seems to have had a much sharper drop-off in numbers after Lion King.

    Sometimes, it's hard to say why an audience connects with certain movies and not other movies; it's just something that happens.  Audiences truly connected with Lion King and Nemo, and those became benchmarks that were tough to follow.

    It's been a long time since Disney had an animated film top $200 million.  I guess I just can't see why these "insiders" are so unenthusiastic about Ratatouille doing decent business, unless it really is some form of resentment or something like that.

    Unfortunately, the thing that seems to get lost in all of this number-related talk is the issue of quality; Ratatouille was a great film, as were a number of the movies I've listed that failed to make $200 million (I guess I'm with Eisner, as I'm one of the folks who absolutely adores Hunchback).  Both Disney and Pixar have produced many hours of quality entertainment that will entertain for years to come, and that's good enough for me.

  • I think the marketing was excellent and really this year was packed with competition as noticable by PotC:AWE's profits.

    It was easily the best of the spring 3rd sequal releases... yet it did not make as much.  Why?  Well Spiderman had 2 weeks all to itself before Shrek would come out and start snatching away box office receits.  Shrek was still only battling Spiderman 3 and well.. a lot of people had seen that movie enough already.. and then comes PotC:AWE.  Since it was battling Spiderman and Shrek in the first couple of weeks it did not do so well.

    As far as total gross goes I can pretty much guarantee you the only reason why Pirates was out done was simply because the first two opening weeks were not strong enough to top Spiderman or Shrek.  Though as far as following weeks go I think it did better, but not good enough to make up for it's lack of opening weekend.

    Now factor for Ratatouille that when it opened it was still dealing with Pirates and Shrek the 3rd... well it's no wonder why opening weekend wasn't strong.  Then came the megablockbuster Transformers and Harry Potter and hell it's no wonder as to why Ratatouille struggled in the box office.

    IT's a very sweet film grant it.  I saw it twice but it just was nothing special compared to the other list of movies out there.  I would have rather seen Transformers again or Harry Potter (which I still have not been able to see even though I work at a freaking movie theater) or Knocked up.

    Pixar should be greatful it recieved what it did.  THe movie really shouldn't have made that much money but I think marketing busted their ass on this one and it payed off some what.

  • The comments from the insider you spoke with, Jim, made me laugh.  "Ratatouille" is a great movie, and it's doing well.  They need to stop whining.  I think the marketing campaign was great.  I know that my uncle & aunt in-law don't want to see "Ratatouille" because it features rats in the kitchen.  My husband & I have told them that it's such a great movie.  Some people don't care, I guess.  

    The 9-minute sneak peak, as well as the Disney Channel Movie Surfers sneak peaks, really were such great marketing tools.  I don't know why anyone is complaining.  This was a summer full of big movies.  "Ratatouille" sure did better than so many other movies released this summer.

    Curmudgeon said:

    <"The Simpsons marketing team spent less money and got far more attention.">

    Yeah, but "The Simpsons" has such a huge fanbase already, whereas "Ratatouille" had all-new characters.

  • It seems to me, having finally just seen the movie, that Ratatouille was mis-marketed to an extent - but even correctly marketing it wouldn't have saved it.

    The movie will resonate strongly with pretty much one crowd - elitist intellectuals, who can sympathize with Remy's drive for perfection at the expense of family.  It is not, largely speaking, a kid's movie, although the frantic action sequences that occasionally punctuate the long stretches of dialog and inaction allow previews to SUGGEST that it's a kid movie, and the existence of these sequences can convince some of the target audience that the movie isn't really theirs.  (A lot of the kids in theater I was in were getting seriously antsy about 60% of the way through the film)

    But elitist intellectuals don't make movies into blockbusters, while families do.  So for the movie to have had any marketing success, it may have HAD to be mismarketed to an extent.  

    I firmly suspect Wall-E will be an unmitigated disaster.  I love Pixar, but I have less than no desire to see this movie, and it looks doubtful that they'll be able to sell this movie as anything but a Kubrick-type fringe film.

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