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Toon Tuesday : Disney tries to figure out why "Bolt" missed its box office target

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Toon Tuesday : Disney tries to figure out why "Bolt" missed its box office target

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This past weekend, "Bolt" -- for all intents & purposes -- ended its domestic box office run. With the kids now back in school after Christmas break, the potential US audience for this new Walt Disney Animation Studios production has moved on to other things. And while there will still obviously be some tickets sold to this Chris Williams & Byron Howard film in the coming weeks (plus -- of course -- all of the money that "Bolt" will eventually make overseas as well as DVD sales) ... Here in the good ol' USA, this new Disney dog has had his day.

Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

So was "Bolt" a good dog or a bad dog? Well, if you're going just by reviews, this new WDFA production was a very good dog indeed. Rotten Tomatoes gave this animated feature a 85% freshness rating. Which puts "Bolt" well ahead of Disney's last two animated films: 2005's "Chicken Little" (which only got a 37% freshness rating) and 2007's "Meet the Robinsons" (which got a freshness rating of 66%).

But if you're going by domestic box office take, "Bolt" isn't exactly the pick of the litter. "Chicken Little" actually out-grossed Disney's latest animated feature by over $25 million (i.e. $135.4 million versus the $109.9 that "Bolt" has earned domestically to date).

And then when you compare "Bolt" 's domestic box office take to the other animated features that were released in 2008 ...

Title Domestic box office take
WALL-E $223.3 million
Kung Fu Panda $215.4 million
Madagascar : Escape 2 Africa $177.0 million
Horton Hears a Who $154.5 million
Bolt $109.9 million

... this new Disney dog is 'way back in the pack. Currently occupying the No. 19 spot on Box Office Mojo's 2008 Domestic Grosses list, "Bolt" will be soon be knocked out down to the 20th position on this list by yet another dog-based movie, Fox's "Marley & Me" (which -- since its stateside release on Christmas Day -- has already earned over $106.6 million).

Okay. I know. Opening on the exact same day as "Twilight" undoubtedly hurt '"Bolt" domestically. From what some senior Mouse House officials have told me, going head-to-head with that box office phenomenon may have actually cost Disney's latest animated feature $15 - $20 million in ticket sales over its opening weekend.

Copyright 2008 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved

But what really bothers the suits back in Burbank is the huge monetary gap between what "Bolt" earned domestically and what "Panda," "Madagascar 2" and "Horton" pulled in during their stateside runs.

"Coming in second to Pixar, I can live with. They're the best in the business, after all. Besides, we own them. So all of that money still goes into our pocket," said one unnamed Disney Studio exec. "But to have 'Bolt' earn less than the latest Blue Sky & DreamWorks animated features? That's kind of tough to take."

Especially given the ambitious promotional campaign that Walt Disney Pictures put together for WDAS' latest project. Which even involved John Lasseter, who -- in a particularly memorable appearance on "The Bonnie Hunt Show" -- actually slide down a fire pole in an effort to get would-be moviegoers excited about "Bolt."

Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

But in the end, a significant portion of the audience that should have come out for Disney's latest animated feature opted to stay home instead. Whether it was because of bad weather or the lousy economy or just because these folks decided to wait 'til "Bolt" came out on DVD later this Spring ... Who can say?

Now where this gets interesting is -- when you talk with people who work on the Marketing side of the Mouse House about what happened with Disney's latest animated feature ... Well, these executives have some very definite opinions about why "Bolt" missed its domestic box office target. To wit:

Copyright 2003 Disney. All Rights Reserved

"It's those g**-d****ed Home Premieres. For the past 10 years, we flooded the market with those things and now we're paying the price for them. People just doesn't consider a new Disney animated feature to be all that special anymore. Our films are no longer an event the way the latest Pixar movie is or the newest DreamWorks movies are. We have to figure out how to make moviegoers excited about our pictures again, make Disney's animated features seem special again."

Which you'd think -- given that "The Princess and the Frog" will be WDAS' first hand-drawn animated film since "Home on the Range" was released back in 2004 -- would really work in favor of Disney's Christmas 2009 release. But given that there's so much riding on "Princess" 's success (i.e. the revival of hand-drawn animation at Walt Disney Studios) coupled with the fact that "Enchanted" didn't do as well last year as Mouse House officials had hoped it would ... The folks who work in Disney's marketing department are really sweating right now when it comes to mounting just the right campaign for "The Princess and the Frog."

Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

I mean, when a movie like "Bolt" -- which got great reviews as well as solid promotional support from virtually every division of The Walt Disney Company -- still manages to under-perform, coming in 5th behind "WALL-E," "Kung Fu Panda," "Madagascar: Escape to Africa" and "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who" ... Well, what's it going to take to make Disney's new animated features seem special again? Make these films seem like new Pixar pictures? As in: movies that you have to see on their opening weekend in theaters?

Your thoughts?

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  • One big problem, which is not DISNEY's fault is that there is a glut of animated movies. There is only so much time and money to see so many. Plus, the fact that one can say they can wait to catch a movie  in a few months on pay-for-view, DVD, Netflix etc. Not everyone needs to see movies on a big screen to enjoy them obviously.

    It might not hurt if marketing can claim the fact that "in the age of computer animation and CGI that  this DISNEY movie was pain-stakingly hand-drawn, just like the classic DISNEY pics." That is a a weak point to play up but, they got to generate some kind of excitement.  

  • <em>People just doesn't consider a new Disney animated feature to be all that special anymore.</em>

    Bingo. Which is why Pixar had to be bought at an enormous price - just to get back into the race again. Note that Pixar continues to insist on their own brand, because pure Disney animation doesn't yet (again) stand for a premier animation product.  

    In the "miscellaneous" department, add that the "Tinkerbell" movie was DVD released only a month prior to Bolt, the Bolt concept was right out of "Toy Story", the "Twilight" effect on young female attendance and an ad campaign that didn't appeal (to me anyway).  Finally, and this is just a guess,  Disney has got the young girl audience locked up, but the boys went to see the kick a*s "Kung Fu Panda" and weren't that interested in a movie about a girl and her lost movie star dog.

  • I have to agree with the execs who said that people don't get that "wow" feeling over a new Disney movie any more in large part due to the direct to video market being massively oversaturated by their own company.  One super-high-quality film every year or year and a half was a great formula for them; heck, even taking a good long break from animating period probably helped the animation department's revival - remember how surprised and anxious to get back to the theater everyone was when they announced "The Little Mermaid"?  (The original, not "Little Mermaid 27: Ariel's Distant Cousin Goes to Band Camp" or whatever they are up to.)

    Admittedly though, one of Disney's downfalls is that they pretty consistantly still use their classic storytelling format, and after a while people get bored with that.  As much as I thought "Bolt" was a great film in general, I was still calling plot points, and in a couple of cases almost word for word dialogue, well before the scene occurred, where a film like Madagascar 2 kept throwing more twists.  Disney needs to break the mold a little more . . . maybe take a few hints from Miyazaki that there's a lot more great - and very DIFFERENT - stories out there that would make for great films that don't have to be the same old "misfit finds their place in the world" tale that gets told over and over and OVER.

  • For a lot of people, especially those families who used to flock to the latest Disney film on opening weekend, it's simply an economic decision. It's true that in the times of the Great Depression, Hollywood films were all the rage -- but there weren't as many ways to escape back then with cable TV, the Internet, etc.

    If marketing hasn't primed the pump and really excited the loyal 16- to 35-year-old demographic, well, a film may struggle at the box office. And if there's little positive word-of-mouth after opening weekend (and what tween/teen is going to talk up "Bolt" on his/her MySpace or FaceBook page?) then the studio probably can't do too much to boost the box office receipts. Did the "Cars" short help "Bolt" in any significant way?

    Taking a family of 4 to the local bijou -- even to a matinee -- will set you back more than the $15-$20 purchase price of the DVD, maybe even the $20-$30 price of a Blu-ray version of that film in 4 to 6 months. And, I'm afraid I beginning to enjoy watching a film in the "quiet and comfort" of my own home more than I do in a communal theatrical setting. And, lets face it, large screen TVS and home theater systems (along with upscaled DVDs or Blu-rays and descent sound systems) are far more common today than 3 to 5 years ago.

    In addition, the film-junkie in me responds to the behind-the-scene and bonus material that I don't get when I watch the film at the theater. Also, there are several places like "Red Box" where you can rent DVDs and Blu-Rays for $1 per day -- quick, convenient and very inexpensive.

    I'm still a loyal purchaser of Disney and other studios' Blu-Ray and DVDs, but outside of the animated films, special-effects laden blockbusters and classics, I'm renting more dramas, mid-level and arthouse hits than buying. I used to annually see 50-plus films in the theater; but I'd say the average the last couple of years is closer to 20-25 .

    "Bolt," while it did get pretty good reviews, etc., seemed a bit more kid-centric than entertainment for the broader "family." You can blame the direct-to-video titles for some of this, because I don't know very many adults who will sit down and watch "Lion King 1 1/2" as they would "The Lion King." I don't think tweens and teens were all that excited about "Bolt," in the same way were interested in  "Kung Fu Panda." Opening up on the same day as "Twilight" wasn't the smartest marketing move, either.

    Still, the bottom line should after DVD/Blu-Ray and licensing proceeds are included, and no one will be able to convince me that "Bolt" is a dog when it comes to adding to Disney's coffers. It's a good, entertaining film and one I'm looking forward to adding to my Blu-Ray collection. When Disney carps about a film's poor box office receipts ... when we in the public see the video games, the clothing, the plush and all the toys and we know the company is getting paid for all that licensing ... it comes across as corporate greed on an Eisnerian scale.

    Quite a few of the animated films made during Walt's time weren't box office hits out of the gate -- the company needed the international box office receipts, the licensing, even a re-release or two before some of them turned a profit. Maybe some of today's animated films won't be profitable until the DVD is released ... so what? I'd still bet that in the past 20 years, Disney's animated "failures" weren't nearly as draining on the company's reserves as some of its live-action "bombs."

    Pixar's films have had stuff for children, but have worked on the broader "family" level, with stuff very much geared to teens and adults. From what little I know about "Up," I can see grandparents taking their grandkids out for a very special bonding opportunity.

    I think "The Princess and the Frog" with its black princess and jazz-infused soundtrack might be a theatrical must-see, but Disney should be getting families excited about the film 6 months or a year before its release. It's time for a full "Wonderful World of Disney" episode behind the scenes look at the film and an early introduction of Disney's newest princess (maybe even rename her Michelle) in the theme parks.

  • Oh where do  begin?

    The company didn't stand behind it.

    There was no buzz.

    There was little to no merchandise.  (mnmears that point about licensing would work except nobody can find any shirts or toys to buy)

    And that "ambitious" marketing campaign completely missed the mark.

    Disney has just got to get out of the CGI business.  It's not their game.  Pixar is the big daddy of computer animation and Disney will always look like a small also-ran next to it and Dreamworks.  They gotta go whole hog into 2-D animation and not just "hype" it.  They should ANNOUNCE The Princess and the Frog like it's the most important cinematic event of the year.  I mean a FULL TRAILER during the Super Bowl after the kickoff with the most jaw dropping animation and best music they have.

    Remember during the nineties where the second most important part of watching a Disney movie was getting in before the trailers so you could see what's next?  Remember going to see Aladdin and sitting down and a trailer would start and you started hearing animal noises and didn't know what was going on and the full CIRCLE OF LIFE played on screen and blew your mind away.  The title at the end was burned into your mind and you had to remind yourself what movie you were about to watch because you were still excited about the trailer!  (I'm going to have to go watch Lion King now...)

    My point is, Disney has got to stop acting like they want to be one of the cool kids and remember that they're the GRANDDADDY of animation and you do NOT mess with the granddaddy.  They're been here longer then you have.  Their stuff is better then your's and will be remembered WAY longer then you can hope for.  They don't have to be one of the cool kids, they're already the guys the cool kids hope to become!

    (Incidentally, because it just has to be said, I'm wondering if Jim thought about telling those execs they need to hold back the whining and maybe put a pin in it?)

  • Here's a suggestion... don't pin your marketing hopes on a guest appearance on "The Bonnie Hunt Show"!...  What is that show anyway?  A terrestrial broadcast TV afternoon talker?  A sit-com?  I don't even know.


  • Disney sucks at marketing.  They have no clue how to market ANYTHING. I haven't seen an ad for anything from Disney in YEARS that got me excited.  And I'm a built in consumer.  I want to go anyway.  Bolt had lame trailers. Nothing in the trailers made the movie seem cool. The design for Bolt was lame. John Travolta and Miley Cyrus were terrible choices. Travolta is a terrific actor, but voice acting is better left to real voice actors, or comedians who can really bring somthing.  Remember how great Tim Allen and Tom Hanks were in Toy Story?  Tim Allen was sensational as a deluded toy. Which is similar to Bolt.  Who cares about Miley Cyrus if you aren't going to make Bolt a MUSICAL!!!! THAT is what Disney does best. Animated MUSICALS. Go back and do those. Then you can cast Miley Cyrus and all those High School Musical folks. And get some HUMOR.  It's sad that the best part of Bolt was a HAMSTER.  Madagascar was full of fun characters.  Same for Kung Fu Panda.  And you knew it was going to be fun from the trailer.  Bolt was a better movie, but it need so much punch.  And then a marketing campaign that wasn't lame.  I have to say that the preliminary art for this when it was a Chris Sanders film was SOOOOOOO much more interesting.

  • I'm honestly having a bit of a chuckle at the expense of the Disney Studio exec who finds it "hard to take" that "Bolt" lagged behind animated features from studios other than Pixar.  High opinion of yourselves much?  The theatrical animation market is a very different place than it was in the days when Disney ruled animation and virtually no other studio could even get a foothold.  Pixar may well be tops when it comes to art and story, but they don't dominate the box office to the exclusion of all others.  Other studios have been able to carve out identities for themselves and effectively compete, leading to a less than $10 million gap between "WALL-E" and its closest competitor "Kung-Fu Panda."  As the other exec says, Disney's identity has become diluted, focusing more on quantity than quality.  A Disney movie has become something you can pick up at the store on a whim to keep the kids occupied for an afternoon, rather than a highly anticipated family event.  "Madagascar 2" was a sequel, "Horton Hears a Who" is based on a well-known children's book, and from everything I hear "Kung-Fu Panda" may be the best film Dreamworks has ever made.  One step Disney may need to take before continuing on is choking down a big old slice of humble pie and realizing that things are different now and the studio has work to do in order to prove itself to audiences again.

    So what to do when it comes time to promote "Ths Princess and the Frog"?  Play to the strengths Disney used to have.  Remind people of the classics from Disney's glory days.  It worked to help promote something totally different with "Lilo and Stitch" and it worked to some degree when promoting "Enchanted."  Speaking of "Enchanted," I wouldn't worry too much about the less than hoped box office performance of that film.  "Enchanted" was a light parody of a kind of film that hadn't really been seen in theaters for over a decade, coming years behind "Shrek."  This time, audience will be getting the real thing.  Embrace the 2D.  Embrace the fair tale.  These are the things that make Disney unique now.  Do that and stay away from direct-to-DVD, and maybe Disney will start to be associated with quality again.

  • Disney Animation, as had been said here a few times, needs to find its identity once again. Pixar is known for breaking the mold, goin outside of the expected. Dreamworks is known for topical, entertainment with alot of pop culture references. Blue Sky is safe family-style animation, nothing too outlandish and safe. Disney is ????? Hand-drawn - no not any more. Musicals? -no. Fairy tales? Kiddie pics? that seems to be what they are thought of at this point.

    Thjey have a chance to break out of that, The Walt Disney Pictures logo does not hurt National Treature, Pirates, Bedtime Stories, etc. But in animation, it is kiddie pics. My 10 year old son enjoyed Bolt, but he didn't go running off to his friends telling him he saw it. He did tell them about Bedtime Stories, though.

    Pixar has an identity. Lasster, et al, need to find one for Disney animation.

  • There was absolutely no buzz about the film. I helped work on the film and when I went home for the holidays no one outside my immediate family had even heard about the film. My sister-in-law with twin 4 year old girls hadn't heard about it. My wife's former boss with 4 kids ages 4-16 hadn't heard about it. My best friend's parents hadn't heard about it. The father-in-law of a Pixar employee that I met hadn't heard of it. My Grandma told some family friends about it but they thought it was called "Volt". Between my wife's family and my family which includes 18 adults and 5 children only my parents have gone to see the movie, AND I WORKED ON IT! I guess I didn't do a very good job marketing it either.

    Everyone who has gone to see the movie has loved it. It is the highest reviewed movie currently in the theaters. It has an A- CinemaScore. It is one of the three animated movies to be nominated for a Golden Globe. The fact is that Disney marketing put more effort into marketing the Wall-E and Tinkerbell DVDs than it did to marketing Bolt.

  • I have been thinking that the marketing campaign for "The Princess and the Frog" should emphasize the new movie's connection to princess films of the past, show that it is extending the tradition started by Snow White.  Bring that nostalgia in, and most importantly, convince the little girls that this is a movie they've got to see.  =)

  • Oh and for heaven's sake, get Mark Elliot to do the trailer.  =)

  • Regarding Bolt, there was a specific moment when I decided to wait until the DVD release. It was when watching a trailer and they talk about a TV show dog that thinks he has special powers, only to discover that he really doesn't. I immeadiately thought: Why would I want to see another version of 101 Dalmation II. (Jim did mention this) I will, however, but the DVD. I don't like the theater experience too much. In my own case, I have worked in a theater as a projectionist. Been there, done that. (I will say that I had intended to see "Bolt" in a theater, but that story line did it for me)

    However, I am genuinely excited about The Princess and The Frog and I will see     that in when it's in theaters. Sometimes I do make exceptions.

  • Disney promotes everything as a comedy these days. Even the teaser for "Princess and the Frog" was supposed to generate chuckles but the truth is, their jokes aren't very funny. Sometimes amusing, but trying to imitate Dreamwork's formula is an embarrassment for them. "Bolt" was well reviewed, but having seen the other aforementioned animated films, it doesn't stand out as one of the year's best nor anything to rival any of their golden age projects.

    Reading Tuckenie's post, I got chills. I remember seeing a work-in-progress trailer for "Pocahontas" before "The Lion King" what, 15 years ago now? I remember that TO THIS DAY! I doubt any of us could recall a trailer for "Chicken Little" or "Meet the Robinsons" that long from now.

    Scrap the CGI-attempts, leave it to Pixar. Scrap the tongue-in-cheek humor and leave it to Dreamworks. Focus on the art, the music, the storytelling, and the characters. That is by far more memorable than watching a princess arguing with a frog or a hampster in a ball.

    Can't wait for "Princess and the Frog" and I hope it's everything I expect it to be. If it isn't, then it's going to be a long time before Disney reclaims their leadership title, if they ever do.

  • From what I understand, Bolt had issues for a long time, ever since Chris Sanders was moved off of the project.  Some movies can benefit by having a visionary with awesome story telling skills jump into a project like this (see: Brad Bird, Ratatouille)   Disney chose to take the "safe" route by making the story and characters fairly generic.

    It wasn't a bad movie, but it wasn't anything special.   In this case, as with many other fairly well made but poorly received films, the artists put a lot into what they are working on, and can come out with some really fine stuff that stands well on its own, but as a whole, the movie lacks a confident foundation to stand on.  And that's when the masses become disinterested.

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