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Monday Mouse Watch : Is Lasseter looking to tune up the way Disney markets its feature-length toons?

Monday Mouse Watch : Is Lasseter looking to tune up the way Disney markets its feature-length toons?

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As the folks at Walt Disney Studios will tell you, making a good movie is really only half the battle. You then have to find the proper way to promote your motion picture.

I bring this topic up today because of some interesting rumblings that have been coming out of the Burbank lot lately. It would appear that – in the wake of “Bolt” ‘s under-performance at the domestic box office last year – John Lasseter asked for a review of that motion picture’s marketing.

You see, it just didn’t make any sense to John that a film that was as well reviewed as “Bolt” would then fail to find a fairly sizable audience.  But – then again – given that the teaser poster for this WDAS release featured a stylized lightning bolt …


Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

… rather than the extremely cute dog, cat and hamster that Disney’s artists had created … Well, one has to wonder if this really was the smartest way to sell “Bolt.” Especially since the inspiration for this particular image seems to have drawn from a teaser poster Disney’s marketing department created for “Hercules” …


Copyright 1997 Disney. All Rights Reserved

… Which – let’s remember – didn’t exactly set the world on fire either when it was released to theaters back in June of 1997.

Given Disney’s Marketing department’s recent tendency to build promotional campaigns for the Studio’s animated features around supporting characters that test audiences have responded strongly to (Like Morcupine Porcupine from “Chicken Little” …


Copyright 2005 Disney. All Rights Reserved

And/or Tiny the T-Rex from “Meet the Robinsons”) …


Copyright 2007 Disney. All Rights Reserved

… rather than these film’s title characters … Well, Lasseter has reportedly begun to wonder if Disney’s marketing department really has what it takes anymore. Especially in the wake of the tepid response that “The Princess and the Frog” teaser trailer received last year.


Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Where – once again falling back on their same old tired bag of tricks – Mickey pushed a comical supporting character into the spotlight (in this case Ray, the Cajun lightning bug) and left Princess Tiana & Prince Naveen in the background.

Given how much is riding on “The Princess and the Frog” ‘s success (i.e. the revival of the Studio’s hand-drawn animation unit, that Tiana will be the first ever African-American Disney Princess, and – most important of all -- that the Company’s Consumer Products division is counting on this new set of characters to re-energize its $4-billion-a-year Disney Princess franchise), John has allegedly asked the Studio take a far more targeted, innovative approach for the promotion of this upcoming animated feature.


Actress Anika Noni, the voice of the title character in
"The Princess and the Frog," receives her very own Princess Tiana
doll at last month's American International Toy Fair in NYC.
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Which – on paper, anyway -- is what the Mouse’s Marketing department is now doing. At the American International Toy Fair last month, Disney Consumer Products screened a variety of clips which showed how spirited and resourceful Tiana was. Which would (in theory, anyway) prove that this character was the perfect Disney Princess for our politically correct age.

Meanwhile, this past weekend at WonderCon, Walt Disney Animation Studios held a promotional panel for “The Princess and the Frog.” Which – given the testosterone-heavy audiences that typically attends events like this – talked up the movie’s special effects by showcasing the sequence in this film where the evil Dr. Facilier uses black magic to turn Prince Naveen into a frog.


Copyright 2009 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved

But will this more targeted approach actually help “The Princess and the Frog” connect with its would-be target audience? I know that a number of Disney Marketing execs (who were already stressing about Fox's decision to move up "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakel" 's opening from March 19, 2010 to Christmas Day) began chugging  Maalox late last week when they learned that Warner Bros. would be pushing back the release date of Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” from November 1st to December 25th.

“And why should this news upset the Mouse's promotions department?,” you ask. In the wake of what happened with “Twilight” (i.e. that box office phenomenon opened on the exact same day as "Bolt" and then seriously ate into the would-be audience for this new animated feature), Disney's Marketing department has now become hyper-sensitive when it comes to the topic of release dates. And what with Warners moving this Robert Downey Jr. movie to Christmas Day ... Well, that's now just become another thing to worry about when it comes to “The Princess and the Frog.” Can this new hand-drawn Disney Princess film really stand up to a CG Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel as well as a new Sherlock Holmes flick starring Iron Man?


Copyright 2008 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Which is why there's been talk of Mickey moving up "The Princess and the Frog" 's release date a few weeks. Which won't make Robert Zemeckis (i.e. the Academy Award winner behind ImageMovers Digital) happy. Given that his new performance capture picture for Disney, “A Christmas Carol” opens on November 6th.

"And how is the Mouse going to market that movie?," you query. Given that Jim Carrey will be playing seven different roles in this time-traveling holiday tale … Well, that’s just how Disney is going to promote “A Christmas Carol.” Not some much as yet another production of Charles Dickens’ much-loved story. But – rather – as a star vehicle for Mr. Carrey. Whose CG version of Mr. Scrooge will look something like this:


Copyright 2009 Disney / ImageMovers Digital. All Rights Reserved

Look for the first trailer for “A Christmas Carol” to hit theaters / the web sometime in April. And if that trailer fails to get significant buzz going for this ImageMovers Digital film, look for both Lasseter & Zemeckis to start leaning heavily on Bob Iger, Dick Cook and Oren Aviv. Insisting that something drastic be done about the way Disney Studios promotes its non-Pixar animated releases.

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  • "something drastic be done about the way Disney Studios promotes its non-Pixar animated releases"

    Probably want to review how Pixar films are marketed also. As fans and observers have pointed out on this and every other Disney message board, Disney Marketing didn't know how to market Ratatouille or Wall-E any better than WD Studio product.

    “ 'The Princess and the Frog' had December 25th all to itself."

    Whatever marketing guys said this need to be fired. Christmas Day usually averages four new film openings.  This year, Christmas Day falls on a Friday, the usual day for film openings, so there will probably be more than that. Sadly, for P&tF to make any box office impact, it should be released Thanksgiving or early December. If it stays Christmas Day, it's got two weeks to make money, then kids go back to school, and it's done. Otherwise, it would have a full month to gross.

  • Oh, Lord, let's hope you're right here, Jim.  Disney's marketing and publicity efforts for its movies are LOUSY.  They think that casting big names and putting them out for interviews on morning shows are the way to go.  They have bought into Dick Cook's mantra of "funny is money."  They've lost all sense of heart and soul.

    Disney is filled with people who don't appreciate, don't understand, don't care about what makes Disney truly unique.  I'm sure they'd all laugh if they were told to pick up a biography about Walt Disney and read about his history and his work, as if that's not relevant to them.  They are, basically, studio suits -- uncreative, uninspired, cookie-cutter both in mindset and approach.

    As curmudgeon notes, Disney had not a clue what to do with Ratatouille or Wall-E.  Where were the more expansive, more emotion-driven, more evocative "adult" approaches?  (Anyone remember Beauty dancing with Beast or the lovely Magic Lamp from the marketing of the early 1990s?)  Where were the "making of" pieces that inspired genuine interest in the process?  What about the non-star talent who could sell the movies based on story and character?  (Heck, Disney OWNS "Good Morning America" -- they don't need Travolta to sell a movie!)

    Here's the thing about Disney's marketing and publicity: It doesn't work.  Look at the grosses.  Look at "Prince Caspian" and this weekend's "Jonas Brothers."  Look at "Bolt" and "Meet the Robinsons."   They can't even get Touchstone movies to work anymore -- "Confessions of a Shopaholic" has not exactly set the box office on fire.  Disney can't even get word of mouth going ... and this is with a TV network, cable TV, theme parks, online sites, cruise lines and other built-in marketing tools at their disposal!

    Hopefully Lasseter and Cook will do something about this.  Put some folks in marketing and publicity who actually understand Disney, know what makes it work, understand how to sell a film based on the movie rather than celebrity, and can focus on creatvity and innovation ... not just the "same old same old."  Of course, making a huge, sweeping change like that would take a lot of guts.  Dunno if these guys have it in them.  A lot of highly paid people would need to be shown the door, and that would cost the company.

    Then again, when it comes to possibly making $10, $20, $50 or $100 million more at the domestic box office by selling a movie SMARTLY in today's environment (which requires a much more creative, hands-on, different approach) than in years past, such an effort could pay off handsomely.  But Disney's going to have to look beyond the same cast of characters who have been marketing its movies for years, to look beyond the confines of L.A. and Hollywood for replacements, and to genuinely be able to analyze its mistakes and cop to them.

    But there's no doubt about it: Something is very, very wrong with the way things have been going.

  • Oh, and ... that "Princess and the Frog" logo looks suspiciously like a recycled "Hunchback of Notre Dame" logo from 1996!

  • Can't agree with curmedgeon more.  Whoever picked Christmas Day should simply be fired or laid off.  This is just getting silly.  How bad does marketing have to get before top officials in marketing start losing their heads?  Bolt had zero buzz.  Wall-E had it's hype stolen by the Joker.  Narnia was blasted by Iron Man.  How can a company make so much money off a movie with talking dogs but can't hype the two best animated films of the year?  Excuse me, how can THIS company do that?  Princess should be pushed back to Valentine's Day weekend and treated like the EVENT that it is and marketing should throw their focus group data in the trash can because that's exactly how much it's worth on an animated picture.

  • I still don't understand why they're not marketing this more fervently to the African American demographic. Most of the black folks I show this--correction, so far ALL of the black folks I've shown this trailer to have never seen it before and the women especially are moved to the point of tears. Literal tears!

    But each time I show it, it's like this is the first time they've ever heard of it. That's a mistake. African American's are especially proud of their culture in this day and age thanks to our president, and touting the first African American Disney Princess in choice advertising locations would stir a word of mouth campaign like they wouldn't believe.

  • It's great they did these panels at the Toy Fair and WonderCon, were they smart enough to video them, why aren't the clips they showed available online.  I was dismayed last year when I tried to find the WALL-E video shorts with the magnet, vacuum, hoola hoop, etc. on PIXAR's website  and couldn't.  Viewers & consumers shouldn't have to hunt for these things on the web, they need to be made readily available everywhere.  Propagate them, why  should I have to go to Disney.com to see the videos and sometimes not even then, why don't they have their own "channel" on youtube just like disneyparks does.  They need to make some of the extras that make it onto the special edition dvds with the directors, and animators interviews about the characters and story and the behind the scenes making of vignettes/featurettes available on the web before the movie is released, like similar to the ones that can be found on www.disneyanimation.com.  They should also bring out some of the big guns like Lasseter and Catmull for the press as part of a panel to talk about the story since they are such a large part of the influence now that they are the creative vision at animation, especially with this being the return to hand-drawn tradition.  There's the online buzz for "Up" by those of us who follow such things, but what else have you really seen for it out there for the mass population and thats just around the corner in the theaters during another summer season with very strong competition.  Wake-up marketing, you can't just depend on the Movie Surfers on the Disney Channel anymore that serves just your core audience.  You need to come up with some more viral type of campaigns so there is more of stuff like Digital Jedi showing ten people who show it to ten more and so on.  Put out a different video every other week building to once a week, then seven days a week building to the release.  They can do it for Hannah and the Jonases they can do it for animation too.  General overall movie marketing has become shorter in duration because the american people's attention span and memory has become so small, but look how well that has done, not.  Hope the P&tF teaser is appearing in front of "Madea Goes to Jail" too and should also be on BET.  

  • Remember the days when Disney was so proud of the work they were doing that the trailers of their films consisted of the first 3 minutes of the film, or a whole musical number.  I miss those days.  Get your act together Disney!

  • They need to resurrect the classic, "Three years ago, we brought you under the sea... Two years ago we brought you to an enchanted castle..." format of teaser trailers to give this film some context...

    "...THIS IS THE RETURN OF HAND DRAWN ANIMATION!" Show Snow White, Dumbo, etc.

    Why not actually utilize ABC (not just the Disney Channel) and market this film to ADULTS watching ABC's top programming? One thing that hit me back in the days of "Meet the Robinsons" was, "Remember when Disney films had big pop hits from the films that got airplay?"  Beauty and the Beast and A Whole New World had pop versions that were huge hits on the radio, MTV, VH1, etc...

    That is what needs to be brought back.  Bring these films back BEYOND the realm of the Disney Channel and the Hannah Montana crowd and maybe they can gain their relevance once again.  

  • Yeah, this is a disaster waiting to happen, a film on its way to failure.  I really don't care much about the ethnicity of the main character: be it native american, european, Brazilian, Eskimo, African, etc.  I go to the movies because I want to see a compelling story, interesting characters, and a beautifully presented film.  So far the marketing campaign for this movie has emphasized:

    (1) "Disney's first African-American princess."  Well, besides the obvious, that this should be a major point of shame, that it took Disney almost 80 years of feature animation to create an African-American main character, the way Disney is presenting this make the film sound it will be extremely P.C. fare (i.e. pedantic).  Also, this line makes the studio seems like it is more concerned about revitalizing the consumer line of princess merch than delivering a great theater experience.

    (2) "Disney's return to hand-drawn animation."  Though I'm a huge fan of hand-drawn animation, the constant attention to this calls to attention that (a) Disney's last few attempts of re-branding their animation division have failed (What was "Chicken Little" if not a Dreamworks wanna-be?), (b) there were a lot of hand-drawn dogs before Disney shut shuttered its feature hand-drawn efforts ("Home on the Range," anyone?), (c) the company is kind of saying, Come on down to the multiplex to see if Disney feature animation can get it right this time, after about a decade of failures.

    Here's what I think would help sell the film: emphasis on intriguing characters, compelling plot that is suitable for adults and children, visual beauty, and a return to the days when the movie mattered more than the merch.  Mix that all into a 30-second spot, and the company might get some where.  

    And really, enough with the first African-American princess.  This is 2009.  This is embarrassing and smacks of tokenism.  If anyone is interested in the ethnicity of the princess, I'm sure they'll figure it out fairly quickly while watching clips from the film.

  • I agree that Disney should be marketing this film more.  ABC definitely should be an outlet- have commercials, have a Making Of documentary (remember those?!?).  Yes, I think that the voice actors should be guests on talk shows, but Disney needs to do more.  

    I was excited when I read what Jim wrote, about how the movie *may* get released sooner.  At the same time, though, I don't want the production to get rushed just to get more box office money.  Don't sacrifice quality, Disney!  I like the idea of it coming out on Valentine's Day (what Tuckenie said)- not only would there potentially be less competition, many schools have a February vacation, which would be the perfect time for families to see the movie!

  • Ditto with englishboy. The Disney non Pixar animation brand is in the Mouska potty and needs a consistent string of good films to retrieve it. Bolt was a great start. Let's hope Frog Princess is good enough to be the next step up.

    Certainly promotion is part of the equation, but it's going to have to work extra for a while just to break even.

  • Love what everyone's saying: really no need to add more. As excited as I am about the return of 2D, I realize what's going to sell this movie is story, song, and character. I still remember seeing the trailers for The Lion King, Pocohontas, Mulan, etc. 10-15 years later! My reaction to something like Brother Bear was tepid at best. So it obviously isn't just the format. I also worry about all this talk about the "Princess" line and merchandise. I read that there's an early scene that depicts Tiana as a toddler, and I can't help but wonder if that scene is included simply to sell the Tiana Toddler doll...which has already been revealed here on Jim Hill.

  • it's stupid

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