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When it comes to turning toons into toys, it's not all fun & games

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When it comes to turning toons into toys, it's not all fun & games

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Kathy R. wrote in to say:

Thanks for reviving Jim Hill Media’s  Why For column. I’ve got some retail-related questions that I’m hoping you can answer.

Earlier this week, I stopped by my local Disney Store to pre-order my copy of the “Bolt" DVD. And while I was in the store, I looked at all of the “Bolt” toys that they’ve got on display. Which got me thinking: How does Disney do this? Get all of these playthings out onto store shelves just as “Bolt” was hitting theaters? Who co-ordinates this effort? How long does it typically take?

I hope that you can answer my questions.

Dear Kathy R.

Hmmn. That is an interesting set of questions. So – in order to get you some definitive answers – I spoke with Mary Beech, the Vice President & General Manager of Global Studio Franchise Development for Disney Consumer Products. And she was nice enough to walk me through the procedure that DCP follows in order to turn a new Disney animated feature into toys, apparel, etc.

Mary Beech, VP & GM of Global Film
Franchises, Disney Consumer Products

“It’s actually a pretty involved process,” Mary explained. “24 months out, Disney Consumer Products executives and our key creatives sit down with the filmmakers and then see a pitch for that production. At that time, we’re introduced to who the main characters in this movie are and what the overall theme of this film will be. From there, we then begin brainstorming with the directors and the film’s lead animators about how to properly translate all of these characters and their story into DCP’s 5 lines of business: Toys, Fashion and Home, Food, Heath and Beauty & Stationary and Publishing.”

Mind you, Disney Consumer Products didn’t always enjoy this sort of early access. Beech credits John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Officer at both Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, for really kicking open the doors for DCP. Giving them an actual part to play in the production process.

“John really gets what Disney Consumer Products does. He understands that the products that we create actually extend the Studios' storytelling,” Mary continued. “Kids see our movies. They then buy our toys and play with them. Which means that they’re now living our stories at home. Which is why it’s crucial that the products that we create actually live up to these stories. That they always be on model and have character accuracy.”

 John Lasseter's Office
Judging by his office, it's clear that John Lasseter really takes toys seriously.
Copyright Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Which can sometimes be a challenge, given how volatile the process of producing a full length animated feature will often be. Which is why it’s important that Disney Consumer Products now has a rep on site at the Studios. Who meets every other week with each film’s producers so that they can then be kept abreast of any story changes and/or character design changes that may have happened.

“By working this closely with the film-makers, we can stay right on top of these productions. We can also develop a comprehensive style guide for each & every film,” Beech said. “Which we then make available to our master licensors. So that they can deliver a finished product which will be on model, that will accurately depict each character.”

Of course, these increased levels of cooperation at the Studio do come at a cost. Lasseter now holds Disney Consumer Products to a higher standard. Particularly when it comes to toys, John insists that each item be visually appealing as well as have enormous play value.

Princess Tiana Doll
Voice actress Anika Noni Rose tears up when she gets her first look at the Princess Tiana  fashion doll
at this year's Toy American International Toy Fair.Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

“Thankfully, we have lots of great partners who are also concerned about these very same issues,” Mary stated. “Take – for example – that Princess Tiana fashion doll that Mattel showcased at Toy Fair last month. They did a terrific job of matching Tiana’s likeness. But more importantly, Mattel created a doll that kids will really enjoy playing with.“

Now as to these toys’ delivery schedule … DCP typically likes to have product that’s tied to the release of a particular motion picture out on store shelves at least six weeks prior to the arrival of that film in theaters. However, in the case of “The Princess and the Frog,” because DCP execs anticipates that a lot of little girls will want to dress as Princess Tiana this Halloween, you should expect to see some TPATF products at your local mall as early as September. Some 10 weeks out from this film’s recently-pushed-up November 25th release date.

From a rough sketch pinned up to some animator’s wall to the finished product rolling off of an assembly line somewhere, turning toons into toys really is a fascinating procedure. When asked about what her favorite part of the process is, Beech admitted that she just loves taking the product samples by WDAS for the lead animators to inspect.

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

“These guys have spent months drawing a character that – up until now – has only existed on paper,” she smiled. “And then you get to walk into their office and hand them the plush version of that character. Only then do they realize that this character is going to live on long after they finish working on this film.

As for her least favorite part of the job … Mary admitted that it’s sometimes tough to be working on projects that she can’t really talk with her friends or family about. Take – for example – what’s she’s doing right now. Which is working on the product lines that are related to the Company’s releases for the latter part of 2010. Which – if you’re working the math here – means that Ms. Beech is right in the middle of dealing with the toy lines that will take their inspiration from “Toy Story 3.”

I’ll say this much: Mary really knows how to keep a secret. Though I peppered this poor woman with dozens of questions, she wouldn’t spill the beans about any of Disney / Pixar’s releases for 2010. The closest she would come to betraying the Company’s confidence was admitting that – because Ms. Beech talks a little bit about her job at home – her 5 year-old now really, really, REALLY wants to see “The Princess and The Frog.”

Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Anyway … That’s the Reader’s Digest version of how Disney Consumer Products gets all those toys to market just ahead of the films that they’re tied to. Mind you, I deliberately left out a few steps in this process. The 3D modelers. How DCP locks down the look of each product seven months out.  But at least now you have some sense of how truly involved this procedure is.

Long story short, Kathy R., it’s not all fun & games when it comes to how all those “Bolt” toys actually made it into your local Disney Store.

That’s it for this week’s Why For, folks. Remember, if you want to see your own Disney-related questions answered as part of this JHM column, please send them along to [email protected]

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