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Monday Mouse Watch : “Carol” makes cash registers ring, while “Frog” ‘s financial future makes Disney animators jumpy

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Monday Mouse Watch : “Carol” makes cash registers ring, while “Frog” ‘s financial future makes Disney animators jumpy

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You’re going to read a lot of stories this morning about how Disney’s “A Christmas Carol” had a bad opening weekend. How – because this new Robert Zemeckis movie didn’t make $35 - $40 million during its first three days in domestic release – this rather expensive ImageMovers Digital production is now considered something of a disappointment.

Which – to be blunt – is bull.

You have to understand that one of the main reasons that Mickey said “Yes” when Robert initially proposed a performance capture version of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic is … Well, the Mouse’s accountants had seen how much “The Polar Express” had earned for Warner Bros. since that CG film was first released back in November of 2004. That – between “Polar Express” ‘s theatrical release & DVD sales, its annual re-release to IMAX theaters as well as its recent repurposing as a theme park attraction – this Steve Starkey production is now the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

Disney's Nightmare Before Christmas in Disney Digital 3D
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

So when it comes to Disney’s “A Christmas Carol,” the Company went into this project deliberately taking the long view. While others may focus on how this Zemeckis movie did over its opening weekend, those in the Michael Eisner building know that – by the time New Year’s Eve rolls around – this film will have racked up a rather impressive worldwide gross. More to the point, the Studio now has another perennial (Sort of like that Disney Digital 3D version of Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Which has become something of a holiday tradition at many theaters around the country. Popping up in limited release for those two weeks prior to Halloween) that it will soon be able to leverage across various platforms on a seasonal basis.

Trust me on this one, folks. Nobody at the Studio is losing sleep over the amount of money that “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” didn’t make over its opening weekend. Would they have preferred that this performance capture picture pulled in an additional $9 - $10 million during its first three days in domestic release? Absolutely. But when you take the long view (i.e. what this ImageMovers Digital production will earn for the Company over the next 3 to 5 years) … It’s still going to wind up being an amount that would have made Ebenezer Scrooge (at his absolute greediest) very happy.

Scrooge happily slides behind a car in Disney's A Christmas Carol
Disney's "A Christmas Carol." Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey)
Copyright 2009 ImageMovers Digital LLC. All Rights Reserved

Now contrast that with the current mood over at  Walt Disney Animation Studios. To be specific, among those folks who absolutely busted their butts this year to bring “The Princess & the Frog” in on time and under budget.

These WDAS employees are absolutely obsessed with numbers these days (EX: Several senior staffers reached out to me last week to make sure that I understood that the budget figure for this new Ron Clements / John Musker movie that had been quoted in last week’s Wall Street Journal article was wrong. That “The Princess and the Frog” hadn’t actually cost $150 million to produce. But – rather – only $105 million). Out of concern that – should Disney’s first hand-drawn animated feature in more than five years fail to meet initial box office projections, be perceived as an under-performer – the Studio might then see this as justification for not going forward with its planned revival of this particular form of animation.

The Prince Naveen and Princess Tiana together as frogs in a lily poind from Disney's Princess and the Frog animated feature
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Okay. I know. Given Walt Disney Studios’ heritage (As well as John Lasseter’s recent statement that “ … "I've always felt that the studio that should still be doing hand-drawn animation is the studio that started it all"), it seems highly unlikely that WDAS would ever completely abandon hand-drawn animation. But that said, studio insiders are still pointing to the proposed budget for WDAS’s 2011 release, “Winnie the Pooh.” Given that this new “Pooh” project reportedly has a price tag of only $35 million (i.e. a third of what “The Princess & the Frog” was allegedly made for) … Well, a tighter budget means a smaller payroll. Which means that far fewer animators will be hired to work for this particular production. Which is not great news at a time when many folks who specialize in hand-drawn animation are still struggling to find steady employment.

To be fair here, John Lasseter & Ed Catmull do seem sincere in their efforts to try & revive hand-drawn animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Which is why they’ve been leaning on with the folks in Marketing to make those limited engagements of “The Princess & the Frog” (which start in NY & LA on November 25th) seem like real events. Which (John & Ed are hoping) will then make would-be movie-goers that much more eager to see a new hand-drawn animated feature from Disney.

Disney's Princess and the Frog
here -- Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And at least when it comes to the Los Angeles version of “The Princess & the Frog” ‘s advance special engagement, the Mouse’s Marketing department seems to have succeeded. I mean, how many times do members of the general public get to go on the Burbank lot, see a new hand-drawn animated feature in a state-of-the-art theater and then spend the next few hours exploring a tricked-out soundstage? Where they can then learn to draw from a real animator and see original props & costumes from the Disney Archives ?

You’d think – given what’s going on with the economy these days (i.e. with last week’s report stating that unemployment in the U.S. has reached a 26 year high) – that the Studio would be having trouble moving those $50 Royal tickets to this “Ultimate Disney Experience.” Well, think again. As of right now, unless you’re looking for single seats, your only chance to get on the Disney lot to see “The Princess & the Frog” is to buy tickets to a 9:30 p.m. show-time. Because most of the other daily screenings are basically sold out already.

Louis the alligator from Disney's The Princess and the Frog
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, this isn’t quite the case when it comes to the East Coast version of “The Princess & the Frog” ‘s limited engagement. Tickets are still readily available for NYC’s “Ultimate Disney Experience.” During which audience members will first see a screening of this new hand-drawn animated film at the Ziegfeld Theatre on West 54th Street. Then they’ll schlep on over to the Roseland Ballroom on 52nd, where they can meet all of the Disney Princesses as well as climb, jump and swing their way through a Bayou Adventure play area.

So – just to recap here -- please ignore any gloom-and-doom articles that you may read this morning about “Disney’s Christmas Carol.” In the long run, that Robert Zemeckis film is going to do just fine by The Walt Disney Company.

Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen from Disney's The Princess and the Frog
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

On the other hand, if you’d like to make some middle-aged animators (many of who now have kids in college as well as mortgages that they still need to pay off) sleep a lot easier, please go buy a ticket to “The Princess & the Frog.”

Better yet, buy two.

Your thoughts?

I know, I know. We're stilljust less than three weeks out from Thanksgiving and people are already yammering about Christmas.

But that said ... If you'd like to show your appreciation for all the great stories that you've read at JimHillMedia over the past few years, then why not start out your next Amazon shopping spree by clicking on the banner above? That way, JHM gets a teeny tiny chunk of whatever you spend.

Happy Holidays!


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  • This article is a joke right?  Those execs are smoking something other than mistletoe if they think that lousy piece of junk is going to become a holiday classic just because they say so.  In order to become a holiday classic you require a few things:

    A) A GOOD movie that tells a story in a MAGICAL way.

    B) Not scaring the stuffing out of little kids (or appealing to constantly growing cult following like Nightmare before Christmas does)

    C) Not be the 10,000th remake of a story, especially one you've ALREADY DONE BETTER.

    If they really wanted to make moolah off the Christmas carol they should re-air the classic TV special with Mickey and Scrooge McDuck.  Zemeckis' drivel made me want a nap.

    Meanwhile, articles about people worrying about Princess's returns are going to look really funny in a month when that movie blasts into theaters.  Do you realize Disney can't keep Tiana merchandise on the shelves to save its life?  They ordered twice as many Tiana costumes as the other princess at WDW for Halloween and she STILL sold out before the holiday.  We're still waiting for the supplier to make more!

    Mark my words, the real holiday classic from Disney will have a kissing frog in it and will out-gross UP before all is said and done!

  • All that info. re: POTF's actual budget ($105 million) and the proposed Pooh (low)budget was bandied around on the Animation Guild's blog last week,  so that info. is not exactly exclusive "insider stuff", Jim.  (although I'm sure some of the anonymous posts on the Animation Guild blog were from people inside Disney Animation).  

  • The 3D effect of the snow falling "in the theater" was the best part of the movie.

  • Quite frankly, I liked "Astro Boy" better than I liked "Christmas Carol". When it comes to heart, visual beauty, and story, the little human-like robot beat the robotic humans all to heck.

    I did like the snowflake effect though. It reminded me of "Meet The Robinsons", which I also saw in 3D; at one point it looked like it was raining inside the theatre. Cool. Disney ought to use the effect in a future attraction at the parks.

    Wall Street doesn't seem too impressed with CC's take. One analyst is cutting down the worth of Disney stock drastically:

    "In a note to investors, Deutsche Bank's Doug Mitchelson estimated Disney will take a $50 million write-down based on the film's opening weekend and $200 million budget. He cut his earnings forecast for the company's fiscal fourth quarter to 2 cents per share from 40 cents per share. Disney reports earnings for the three months ended in September on Thursday.

    Mitchelson said the good news is that the write-off will be taken at the end of the fiscal year, leaving a clean slate for 2010.

    The weak release caps "a very disappointing year for Disney's film division," Mitchelson wrote. He cited a $50 million write-down for "G-Force" and the poorly timed release of "Confessions of a Shopaholic," a film about big spending that came out "in the midst of the recession."

    Mitchelson said he expects a stronger 2010 with the planned release of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Toy Story 3."

    Go, Alice. Go Buzz. Get that stock back up!

  • I'm not in the business of counting other people's money, I'm just a humble theatregoer, whose opinion of of a film isn't swayed by how big the budget was,or what the estimated gross is going to be. Disney can blanket the country with as many press releases their spin machines can generate, and it may get a few extra butts in the seats, but once the film in in the theatres, it pretty much has to stand on it's own. Well, it's out, the verdict is in. The film is a dog. Even if it finally makes its money back over time, it will still be a bad movie. Fire the people responcible and move on.

    On the other hand , barring some horrible miscalcultion from FA's story department, PATF is shaping up to be a huge hit for Disney. I think the studio's marketeers seriously underestimate their core audience.

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

  • So because people didn't turn out in droves to see a Christmas film on the first weekend of November, the movie sucks.  You'll excuse me if I don't buy that.

    Roger Ebert, with whose reviews I often find myself agreeing, rather liked the film, and it's falling only just short of a "Fresh" rating on the tomatometer.

  • No, the movie sucks because I watched it and say it sucks!  I don't armchair movies based on gross returns, I put my money down and then get ticked at myself for wasting it.  

    And falling "Just short of a fresh rating on the tomatometer" may not make it a bad movie but it ertainly doesn't make it a holiday classic that people will be returning to for years either and that was what Jim was saying.

  • To build off the previous comment, Nightmare Before Christmas has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Elf - which might be the closest thing to a modern holiday perennial we have - has an 83%.

    Polar Express, the other Zemeckis holiday movie, has a 56%.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the other Jim Carrey holiday movie, has a 54%.  I think those are both telling about what kind of movie the new version of A Christmas Carol is.

    The 55% rating A Christmas Carol scored isn't necessarily BAD, but this isn't the kind of movie people will be rushing to see for years to come.  It's going to be relegated to basic cable, probably ABC Family over any of Disney's more prominent stations.  It's going to sell quietly on DVD.  It might even gradually make its money back or earn a reputation somehow as an interesting versions of the story.

    I don't, however, see it as a success.

    On another note, I'm not sure which executive decided it was a good idea to release this movie at the beginning of November.  I don't care if that release date has a "built in" two month shelf life.  I don't know anyone who's ready for Christmas moves yet, and by the time it IS Christmas people are going to be burned out on this movie because it's been advertised everywhere since October.  Well before Halloween.

  • It was bumped up to the start of November because Zemeckis was (rightfully) worried that Disney would devote its attention to Princess and the Frog.  Now Disney will HAVE to in order to break even this quarter!  The real question is which exec was boneheaded enough to have TWO animated movies come out at the end of the year?

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