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Monday Mouse Watch: Unconventional promotion really paid off for “Up”

Monday Mouse Watch: Unconventional promotion really paid off for “Up”

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It’s been kind of interesting watching the Pixar fan community react to Rich Greenfield’s recent mea culpa in regards to “Up.”

Back in April, Greenfield (who’s this Wall Street analyst that keeps tabs on The Walt Disney Company for Pali Research) expressed concerns about this Pete Docter film. Saying that “ … We doubt younger boys will be that excited by (”Up” ‘s) main character,” Rich expressed concerns that this Pixar movie might under-perform domestically. Which is why he suggested that investors sell off their Disney shares.

Well, three months later, “Up” has earned – to date -- $273.5 million during its initial domestic run. Which now puts this Pete Docter movie in the No. 2 spot for Pixar’s top stateside earners. Just ahead of the $261.4 million that “The Incredibles” pulled in when it was released domestically back in November of 2004 but still behind the $339.7 million worth of tickets that “Finding Nemo” sold during its stateside run in May of 2003.

Finding Nemo Poster
Copyright 2003 Disney Pixar. All Rights Reserved

To his credit (And – trust me, folks – I know how just tough it can be when you have to eat crow in regards to Pixar box office projections), Greenfield – in his most recent Pali Research report – did admit that he was “dead wrong” in regards to “Up.” Which (predictably) led to Pixar fan sites posting pieces that featured headlines like “Dumb analyst who feared ‘Up’ failure eats humble pie.”

But here’s the thing: If you asked higher-ups within The Walt Disney Company a year ago how they felt about “Up” … Well, they’d have told you – while they personally loved this new Pete Docter film – they weren’t entirely sure how “Up” would do domestically. You see, its unconventional subject matter made this movie a real marketing challenge.

And given that this particular Pixar production was the first to be released in Disney Digital 3D, it was crucial that “Up” do well during its initial stateside run. Which is why the Mouse really struggled to come up with just the right way to promote this motion picture.

Disney's Up Teaser Poster
Copyright 2008 Disney Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Don’t believe me? Then let’s listen to what Donald Evans (i.e. the senior vice president of Marketing for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios) had to say to the crowd that attended “Up” 's first screening. Which was held in the Aetna Theatre at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Ct. back on May 9th. According to Donald, even finding just the right image for “Up” ‘s poster proved to be a real challenge.

“We initially shied away from the idea that we’d use balloons as the image to sell ‘Up,’ “ Evans explained. “Our concern was that balloons would make this movie seem too juvenile. Only after the ‘Up’ teaser trailer – where the house is being lifted past the camera by all those balloons – got such a huge reaction did we realize that most people, regardless of their age, associate balloons with happy times. Birthdays, etc.”

But given “Up” ‘s unconventional leading man (i.e. 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen), Disney’s marketing department eventually decided that they had to take an equally unconventional approach to getting the word out about this new Pixar film. Which is why – for the first time ever – rather than just showing isolated scenes of “Up,” the Mouse opted to screen fully half of this movie for New York Comic-Con and WonderCon attendees in February.

Disneys Upisode Title Card
Copyright 2009 Disney Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Then – building on the success of those “Meet WALL-E” vignettes that aired on the Disney Channel & ABC back in 2008 (which really helped build audience awareness of the characters for that Andrew Stanton film) – Pixar created a series ofUpisodes.” Which introduced viewers to Karl & Russell. More importantly, these vignettes deliberately showed this 78-year-old retiree and that 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer in a colorful jungle setting doing comical things.

“It sometimes frustrates the filmmakers when we build our trailers and teasers around gags,” Evans admitted. “But it’s been proven that laughs will get people into theaters. Mind you, it’s the characters, the emotion and the story that will then get them to come back and see a movie a second time. But to get an audience there the first time, you need to have some big laughs in your trailer.”

Of course, one distinct advantage that The Walt Disney Company has over its competition is the Disney Channel.

The Disney Channel Logo
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

“We like to think of the Disney Channel as our secret weapon,” Donald continued. “We regularly use the Disney Channel as a way to introduce characters and key concepts for upcoming films to a very desirable demographic months ahead of time.”

Which why –  when “Princess Protection Program” debuted on that cable channel late last month – the studio’s PR department made sure to load up that new Disney Channel Original with lots of promotional featurettes for “The Princess and the Frog.” Doing what they could to get the word out about that new John Musker & Ron Clements movie months ahead of its November 25, 2009 release date. 

Long story short: Taking an unorthodox approach to promoting “Up” (EX: Sending those two “Up” themed cluster balloon teams out around the country to create unique photo ops that could then be used to help promote this new Pixar film) actually did pay off. For a brief six day period there (i.e. Saturday, June 27th through Thursday, July 2nd), “Up” was the top grossing domestic release for 2009. Until “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and its CG robots blew right by Carl & Co.

Transformers Poster
Copyright 2009 Paramount / Dreamworks. All Rights Reserved

As to how “Up” will do over the rest of its domestic run … Given that the Disney Digital 3D version of this Pete Docter movie has already chased out of most multiplexes by the arrival of other 3D films like the previously mentioned “Transformers” sequel as well as “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” “Up” obviously isn’t reaching the same box office heights that it did back in May & June.

But that said, studio insiders insist that there’s still plenty of helium left in those balloons that Carl tied to his house. Which is why we shouldn’t be all that surprised that – by Labor Day – “Up” has added an additional $25 million or so to its domestic box office totals.

In fact, there are those in Burbank that are saying that this Pete Docter film stands a very good chance of floating past the $300 million domestic threshold. Which would then put Karl, Russell, Dug and Kevin in very rarified company.

Pirates Teaser Poster
Copyright 2003 Disney. All Rights Reserved

You see, only five other Walt Disney Pictures releases have ever made more than $300 million during their initial stateside runs. And those films are “Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man's Chest” ($423.3 million), “Finding Nemo” ($339.7 million), “The Lion King” ($328.5 million), “Pirates of the Caribbean - At World's End ” ($309.4 million) and “Pirates of the Caribbean - The Curse of the Black Pearl” ($305.4 million).

And beyond that lies whatever “Up” will earn during its international release … Which – these days – is where Pixar films traditionally earn most of their money. Which is one of the main reasons that the Mouse opted to debut this Pete Docter film at the Cannes International Film Festival. More to the point, it’s why Pixar will have such a huge presence at this year’s Venice Film Festival. With five of that animation studio’s founding directors receiving Golden Lion awards.

So I guess what I’m saying here is don’t be too hard on Rich Greenfield of Pali Research. Given what Disney’s PR department was doing back in the late winter / early spring, it was clear that “Up” was a picture that the studio was somewhat concerned about. But what Pali hadn’t counted on was that Disney’s unconventional promotional approach would actually pay off.

Your thoughts?

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  • I think we've heard this song before: If it grosses well, it's because of the marketing and PR. If that were true, then all Disney films would regularly do gangbuster business.

    It's probably closer to: Once again, a Pixar film succeeds in spite of the Disney marketing and PR.

  • I note that you refer several times to the box office figure as being stateside. You should know that domestic box office includes all of North America, which means ticket sales from Canadian theaters are also part of the domestic numbers.

  • Your story was featured in DisMarks! Here is the link to vote it up and promote it: http://dismarks.com/Media/Unconventional_Promotion_Really_Paid_Off_for_UP

  • Maybe it's also a fact that Disney marketing hadn't really done all that much when the analyst was making his predictions.  All marketing departments seem to be waiting longer and until closer to the movie's release date before they actually start their campaigns.  So if analysts, predictors and guessers insist on trying to make their calls too far ahead of time, they won't have a true feeling of the 'buzz' that surrounds a flick until it's almost open.  Have  a happy!

  • I have learned to trust Pixar.

    Every time I first hear about a new Pixar movie, I think it sounds LAME.

    But EVERY time they have surprised me, except the Incredibles. I didn't initially like Incredibles, but it grew on me (I think my very young kids had an influence on me since they didn't like it until they were a little older).

    I thought Monsters Inc, Cars, WallE, Ratatollie (OK, I was partly right on this one) and UP were going to be TOTALLY lame, but Pixar has surprised me every time.

    Pixar has been allowed to do their own thing and has been allowed to pursue their creativity and I think that audiences can see that and respond to that. It's not "movies by committee".

  • This talk of a "$300 million club" is rather silly, considering that Lion King actually made $554,524,300 in 2009 dollars (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/adjusted.htm).  Shrek 2 is the only animated feature that came close to dinging that figure since then, and it's unlikely that any animated film will ever get near it for quite some time.

  • Thanks for the article Jim. I've been waiting for your analysis and appreciate your point of view.

    I remember there were ads for "Up" in the hotel elevators at last year's Comics Con, so they've been hitting the marketing trail hard for this one for nearly a year.

    Personally, I think the Pixar rep for making great movies and the movie itself has more to do with it's success, but I'm sure the marketing execs would disagree.

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