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Monday Mouse Watch: Will live action productions really help Pixar deal with its brand fatigue problem?

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Monday Mouse Watch: Will live action productions really help Pixar deal with its brand fatigue problem?

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I know, I know. Pixar diehards keep insisting that "Ratatouille" is this enormous success. That there's no possible way that anyone could ever be disappointed with the way this Brad Bird film has performed to date.

Well, if that's really the case, then someone should probably tell Brad that. For -- in many of the recent interviews that Bird has given while doing promotion for the international release of this new Pixar Animation Studios production -- the guy sounds pretty downbeat about the way "Ratatouille" has been received.

Don't believe me? Okay. Let's start with this quote from an interview that Brad did with the Herald Sun last month. Where this director reflects on how the entertainment press has been harping on the fact that "Ratatouille" didn't earn as much domestically as the Pixar pictures that proceeded it.

"Certainly, some times you get the feeling people aren't rooting for you any more within the industry. If it isn't the Second Coming of the Lord it's somehow a disappointment. I don't know what you do about that."

Or -- better yet -- how about Bird's explanation as to why "Ratatouille" didn't do as well as "Cars" did during its stateside release? In an interview that this acclaimed animation director did last week with Wally Hammond for Time Out London, Brad suggested that ...

"I think we, with ‘Ratatouille’, have been more than a victim of a lot of fuzzy animal films that came out before us that just have a bunch of jabbering, wise-cracking practically interchangeable animals. People will take one look at our talking rats and think: ‘Oh! It’s one of those.’. And it’s true, they’ve not showed up. Even though it comes from Pixar. We’ve had the greatest reaction ever from people who have gone to see it, but the reaction to seeing it we’ve found surprising. And I think it’s partially down to that rack of animal films."

Trust me, folks. If "Ratatouille" 's director is now out there admitting to the press that this picture didn't do as well domestically as it had initially been projected to do (i.e. that the enormous audiences that had originally been expected to turn out for this new Disney / Pixar release did " ... not show[ed] up") ... Well, perhaps now you can understand why Pixar's latest is considered to be something of a disappointment by the folks back in Burbank & Emeryville.

Not a huge disappointment, mind you. I mean, it's hard to be dismissive of a movie that was as well reviewed as "Ratatouille" was. And the $204 million that this Brad Bird film has earned domestically to date (coupled with the $245.8 million that Pixar's latest has pulled in so far over its overseas run) isn't exactly chump change. And given that the DVD version of "Ratatouille" is expected to be a particularly strong seller when it hits store shelves next month, it's not as if anyone in the executive suite is actually concerned that this project will eventually be able to recover all of its production & promotional costs.

 Copyright Disney / Chronicles Books. All Rights Reserved

But that said ... Even as this Emeryville-based animation studio gets ready to celebrate (via the November 1st release of Karen Paik's new book, "To Infinity and Beyond: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios" as well as the upcoming 14 city roll-out of Leslie Iwerk's new documentary, "The Pixar Story") over two decades of achievement ... There are some very powerful individuals in both Burbank & Emeryville who are reportedly growing concerned with what is now being referred to as Pixar's brand fatigue problem.

To explain: Though Disney's own survey work shows that most moviegoers in the U.S. still hold the Pixar name in very high esteem (In fact, until just recently, more people associated the Pixar name with quality & innovation than did Disney), the slow-but-steady erosion of this animation studio's domestic earnings over its last three pictures suggest that stateside audiences have begun taking Pixar for granted. That they no longer consider the release of a new feature from this animation studio to be a special event.

As one WDAS veteran explained it to me just last week:

"Pixar now finds itself in the exact same position that we were in back in the mid-to-late 1990s. Where we were putting out at least one new animated feature every year. And each film was then compared to the pictures that had proceeded it. And it wasn't enough that we made a movie that did well at the box office or received good reviews. If that film didn't make as much money as 'The Lion King' did ... Well, the press then labeled that picture a disappointment and said that it had failed to meet the studio's expectations.

And it was stories like that that then allowed all of those creative VPs to start messing with our movies. To start giving us notes about what needed to be changed on these pictures. Which characters had to be made more sympathetic. What scenes needed to be cut. Which -- in the end -- is what wound up making the films that Feature Animation was making back then even worse.

Thank goodness that John Lasseter & Ed Catmull have Steve Jobs in their corner. As long as Jobs has Bob Iger's ear, John & Ed don't ever have to worry about that sort of meddling. They can just go on making the sorts of movies that they want to make."

And according to what Pixar insiders have been telling me ... The people up in Emeryville don't really buy into this brand fatigue idea. Not yet, anyway.

The way they see it, the real reason that this animation studio has seen progressive smaller grosses for the domestic releases of its last three pictures is that ... Well, Pixar's now dealing with a better educated consumer.

According to one 15-year Pixar vet put it to me this past Friday:

"Everybody knows now that -- three to four months after our movies debut in theaters -- that they then go on sale on DVD. So what's the point of paying upwards of $50 - $60 to take your family out to see a single showing of the newest Pixar picture? When -- if you can just wait a few months -- you can then own that very same movie outright for just $15 - $20? Which your kids can then watch over & over again at home?

That's what happened with 'Ratatouille.' It wasn't that people didn't go to Brad's movie this past summer because they thought it was going to be bad. Far from it. We've got tons of surveys in hand that show that people were really looking forward to seeing 'Ratatouille.' But because of a number of factors that Disney & Pixar didn't have any control over -- ticket prices, gas prices, a very competitive summer at the multiplex -- a lot of people just didn't go out to the theater to see this movie. They opted instead to wait for the 'Ratatouille' DVD.

 Copyright 2007 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Looking ahead, I can anticipate that we'll probably have the exact same problem with 'WALL * E.' That that picture will also get great reviews and do well domestically for a few weeks due to good word-of-mouth. But in spite of that, a certain portion of that picture's domestic audience -- no matter how great the reviews are, how good the word-of-mouth is -- will still opt to wait for the DVD.

Of course, that could change if we can figure out how to market 'WALL * E' as an event. As a movie that you have to see on the big screen.

But -- to be honest -- we don't like using gimmicks like IMAX 3D in order to sell our movies. We believe that our pictures should be strong enough to stand on their own. That the stories that we tell, that the characters that we create should be enough all by themselves to compel people to come out and see our newest films while they're still in theaters."

Mind you, this isn't to say that Pixar Animation Studios isn't willing to experiment. That the folks up in Emeryville won't ever tinker with their highly successful formula. Take -- for example -- that live-action project that Pixar currently has in development,"John Carter of Mars." This is the first installment of a proposed trilogy of films that will be based on Edgar Rice Burrough's 11-volume Barsoom series and will feature plenty of CG.

The main reason that Pixar put "John Carter of Mars" into development is that they're looking to expand the studio's production parameters. In much the same way that Walt Disney used films like "Song of the South" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" in order to prove to the world that the Mouse Factory could do more than continually crank out cartoons.

This is how the folks at Pixar will supposedly address their perceived brand fatigue problem. Not through tricks & gimmicks. But by deliberately stepping away from just producing CG animated features & shorts. By using the same storytelling craft & skill that they applied toward the creation of "Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" and then using it to bring to life what Edgar Rice Burrough's unique vision of the planet Mars -- with its 10-legged dogs and 8-legged horses -- is like.

So there you have it, folks. Pixar hopes to re-energize domestic ticket sales by creating an effects filled live action film that is literally set out-of-this-world.

So what do you think? Will this gambit really be enough to help Pixar with its alleged brand fatigue problems? Or should the folks up in Emeryville just resign themselves to the fact that an ever-increasing portion of the U.S. audience is going to opt out of the movie-theater-going experience and instead wait for the DVD?

Your thoughts?

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  • Thanks for a more balanced article than your previous Pixar-bashing ones. (Wonder if it has anything to do with someone from Pixar instead of Disney actually talking to you.) Though Wall-E sounds wonderful to me and I'll be there on the first day, I also can't wait to see what Pixar does with the new live/CGI projects.

  • Very good article, and raised some good points on both sides.

    Both of those live action films sound very promising, especially 1906.

  • Yes, I think that Pixar needs to expand into live action. I think it's a very smart move. I hope that the Pixar folks don't ever swallow the "brand fatigue" thing. That's a bunch of baloney in my opinion. Not every film is gonna have a "Finding Nemo" result. Remember that Disney lost money on all the big films after "Snow White." (Due to circumstances beyond their control) That's life...so move on.

    Now as for getting people out to the theatres, I admit that I'm one who waits for the DVD. But not for reasons one may expect. I usually don't like going to the theatre. I used to be a projectionist too! One of my fellow workers was shot and killesd at the theatre by a guy they had thrown out of the theatre warlier in the day.  I hate the rudeness of people in theatres so I usually stay away from them.

  • Floyd Norman: If you are reading todays postings; I just want to congradulate you on being honored as a "Disney Legend." I saw your picture in a local newspaper and you sure looked like you had a great time. I hope all of your family was able to be present.

    Blessings and best wishes to you and your family,

    Warren Crandall

  • A well written article Jim, although I can't help but point out the irony that you inadvertently contribute to that negative press about Pixar's grosses despite your intentions.  I still think that a lot of the blame for Ratatouille's grosses should fall back on Disney Marketing because they seemed to be advertising it as just another "furry animal" movie.  My sister loves Pixar movies and even she as reluctant to see it at first because it was just another talking critter movie.  I was talking with a guest about it and WALL-E the other day and she was telling me how excited her son was watching the new trailer because it seemed like Pixar was making a movie with their trademark magic in it and how Ratatouille didn't seem to have it from the trailers.  I gotta admit she had a point.  Finding Nemo had some of the best trailers ever and Ratatouille just well...  didn't.  And no I don't blame the story for that.  If marketing can't sell a movie as brilliant as Ratatouille then they shouldn't be in the business.  And maybe if Disney treated its movies with a little more synergy...  I mean how is it that the Food and Wine festival only has the Ratatouille display in the front of Epcot and we can't find the characters inside?  France?  Helllllo?  Doesn't take a genius.  Maybe if Ratatouille came out now instead of the Gameplan the company would see some REAL event marketing instead of throwing it up against a movie based on a line of TOYS!

  • Good article, though Jim, or anyone really, isn't IMAX a good thing? I mean it isn't like a sales gimmick or anything is it? I'd think that having a sci-fi CGI movie would warrant an IMAX release with all the effects and such.

  • I think the comment made about people just waiting for the DVD is very justified. While I would never miss a Pixar movie in the theatre I was perfectly happy to wait for both Chicken Little and Robinsons to be released on DVD, and this year took the same approach and with Shrek 3, Die Hard 4, Pirates 3 and many of the big releases. Sometimes it's a matter of can i get the the cinema to see the movie (I did plan on seeing Pirates 3 but it just never happenned), but sometimes it is just a matter of thinking it'll be out on DVD in a couple of months, I'll just wait for that.

    That said, Ratatouille was finally released here int he UK on Friday, we went to the 11am showing at our local Saturday morning and the place was almost full; that's got to be a good sign. We went to the same early morning showing of the Simpsons the day after it's release and the theatre was pretty much empty. So hopefully thats a sign that the Rat will be getting a very strong box office here.

  • Jim's grosses for Ratatouille are a bit dated.

    From Variety (10/16)


    "Ratatouille" opened solidly in the U.K. with $9.8 million at 400 and stayed strong in its German soph sesh, declining just 22% to $6 million -- in each case, taking in more than the combined grosses of all other pics in the top 10. The Mouse waited until the fall to take advantage of the disappearance of summer tentpoles and opted to position the pic to take advantage of school holidays in the U.K.

    "Ratatouille" also won via holdovers in Austria, Denmark, Greece, Norway and Switzerland as the foreign cume hit $271.4 million.


    As the film pushes towards $500 million on $150 million production budget (via boxofficemojo.com), I'm thinking a lot of studios out there would be pretty happy with that kind of "disappointment".

  • Well, there you have it Jim.

    With Spyres post giving you the current updated foreign box-office receipts, "Ratatouille"s total world-wide gross is at least $475 million (and still counting!)

    Hey, wait a minute...Didn't Cars only make $461 million worldwide?

    Can we finally stop talking about this downward trend?

    Jim, you must have known that "Ratatouille" was opening in several foreign markets this past weekend, adding to it's total worldwide gross...and you must also know that it's opening next weekend in Italy, adding to it even more ...but that wouldn't have helped you make your point of a slow-but-steady-erosion or a downward trend, would it?

  • Will they still be called Pixar Animation Studios when they release live-action films?

  • I think you see more and more of the "home theater" impact in the US, and moreso with family films, where the ankle biters miss some of the movie to go to the bathroom, refill their tub of popcorn, etc.

    The other way I see it as an American phenomenon is in the worldwide grosses. Most family films now make 60 -65% of their box office oversees, as opposed to the US. Fewer Americans are visiting the multiplexes for the family-style film.

  • I am waiting for the DVD. Though I love to see Pixar animation on the big screen, I figured this film might have the same impact on my TV as it would on the over-inflated cinema experience. There is much truth about the speculated DVD reasoning.

  • First off, I can't understand why people are giving Disney marketing a hard time on this one. I'd say they actually made some great decisions on how to market a movie that Brad Bird admitted would be hard to market.

    I have a feeling that when Bee Movie comes out, we'll see what the public really thinks about Pixar's brand name appeal. As good as Bee Movie looks, I don't see it getting close to any of Pixar's movie grosses.

  • http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117973938.html?categoryId=1278&cs=1

  • The DVD thing is partly true, but there are two things that come to my mind.  One is this is the excuse Disney made when their last 2-D movies came out - that DVDs were hurting their sales.  Second, that's true with all movies these days.  And it was true about the first Pixar movies, but people go out to see those special movies they want to see on the big screen.  People went to see Pixar movies when they were event movies.  Cars and Rat. just haven't felt like event movies (I loved them both, but they weren't movies I HAD to see in the theater).

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