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Why For did Disney struggle to come up with a marketing campaign for Pixar's latest picture ? Because the Mouse wasn't originally supposed to release "Ratatouille"

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Why For did Disney struggle to come up with a marketing campaign for Pixar's latest picture ? Because the Mouse wasn't originally supposed to release "Ratatouille"

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Over the past six months, JHM has featured a number of stories that talked about the Walt Disney Company's concerns about "Ratatouille." How the marketing department at the studio has been struggling to find just the right way to promote this new Brad Bird film. (Don't believe me? Then check out these three wildly different takes on how to sell this animated feature. The stateside version of the "Ratatouille" poster tries to sell this CG movie as a slapstick adventure ...

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All Rights Reserved

... While one overseas poster for this Pixar picture plays up Remy & Luigini's unlikely friendship ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios
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... while still another international poster highlights the inherent romance of this movie's Parisian setting).

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios
All Rights Reserved

We've also talked about the Mouse's efforts to manage expectations for Pixar's latest production. So that if "Ratatouille" doesn't sell as many tickets as "Cars" did last summer over its opening weekend ... Well, the press won't then be able to use this film's underwhelming box office performance as an excuse to revisit the whole did-Disney-pay-too-much-for-Pixar question.

Still, looking back on Mickey's behavior, you have to ask yourself : If Disney executives had such little confidence in "Ratatouille" 's audience appeal, why did they then allow production of this movie to go forward? I mean, what's the point of greenlighting a motion picture that your marketing department doesn't know how to sell?

Well ... That's actually Disney's real problem with "Ratatouille." Company executives didn't greenlight this particular Pixar production. You see, "Ratatouille" was never intended to be released by Walt Disney Studios.

Strange but true, folks. Remember back in January of 2004 when Steve Jobs officially broke off talks with Mouse House officials about possibly extending Pixar's co-production deal with Disney Studios? Which meant that -- once "Cars" was delivered to Disney for what was then-supposed-to-be a November 2005 release date -- Pixar would then be a free agent. Free to cut a new distribution / production deal with any other company that they desired.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved

Of course, in order to do that, this Emeryville-based animation studio actually had to have a new film to show these studios. So that they could prove to these very powerful people that Pixar was still capable of producing hit motion pictures without Mickey's input. More importantly, without the Mouse's marketing might to help sell their movies to audiences worldwide.

So -- with this goal in mind (I.E. To come up with the best possible carrot-on-a-stick to dangle in front of all of the studios that were now vying to be Pixar's new distribution / production partner) -- that animation studio's management went through all of the projects that were already in their development pipeline ... and eventually settled on Jan Pinkava's "Rats!"

Mind you, there was method to Pixar's madness. Given that this proposed animated feature was set in Paris, "Rats!" was thought to have international appeal. Which (oddly enough) would be a key factor in the animation studio's upcoming negotiations. Given that Steve Jobs was looking to cut a deal with a corporation that -- just like Disney -- already had a strong global distribution system in place to help sell their films.

Then -- of course -- there was the twitting-Disney factor. After nearly a decade-and-a-half of making movies for the Mouse, what better way was there for Pixar to signal to the world that "That phase in our history is over" than by making a film that starred a rat?

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Anyway ... On paper, this seemed like a great idea. And based on the colorful settings & cute characters that Pixar's creative team had developed, "Rats!" did look like it had all the necessary ingredients to become the studio's first post-Disney success ... Except that Jan Pinkava could never quite seem to get the story of his film to jell.

By the late fall of 2004, the "Rats!" production team had put together a story reel to show Pixar management. And while individual elements of the film that Jan Pinkava planned on making were admittedly charming & quite entertaining, its narrative as a whole fell flat. You never really got caught up in Remy's quest to become one of the greatest chefs in France.

Recognizing that "Rats!" (at least in its current form) was not going to be the great carrot-on-a-stick that he had been hoping for, Steve Jobs bought himself a little time by pushing back "Cars" release date from November of 2005 to May of 2006. Jan & his "Rats!" story team were then sent back to their drawing boards with some very specific orders : Make the story stronger and make us really care about the characters' struggles.

In the late spring of 2005, Pinkava delivered his second set of story reels. Which -- while they had these beautifully designed characters & settings with lots of atmosphere -- Jan's movie still lacked narrative oomph. And given that "Rats!" was supposed to be the film that proved to the world that Pixar could succeed without Disney (More importantly, given that this was the project that was supposed to incite other studios to come sign a deal with this Emeryville-based operation) ... Something had to be done to fix this picture's problems. And fast.

(L to R) Brad Bird, Patton Oswalt and Brad Lewis at a "Ratatouille" recording session.
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Enter Brad Bird. Who -- at that time -- had just finished a promotional tour for the DVD version of "The Incredibles" and was getting ready to go on a well-deserved vacation. As Bird recounted to Bob Miller in an interview for the July issue of "Starlog" magazine:

" ... Two weeks before I was set to leave, they asked me to help the 'Ratatouille' people fix up the storyline. So I did that for two weeks, and I got them through the structure and about halfway through Act Three. Then I waved goodbye and said, 'So long, and good luck,' and went on my vacation. I was away for two days when I got phone calls from Steve Jobs, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, basically asking me if I would come back and take over the project."

And why was it so urgent that Brad come back and ride herd on "Rats!" ? Now turning to an interview that Bird just did with Steve Daly for "Entertainment Weekly" :

"[Jobs, Lasseter & Catmull] were in a tough spot at a very vulnerable time. They were potentially going to be on their own [if they broke away from Disney]. It was the first film -- the only film -- that was greenlit by Pixar alone, without anyone else having anything to do with it. It was an important film to get right."

(L to R) Brad Bird directs Peter O'Toole at "Ratatouille" recording session.
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So given the precarious situation that Pixar now found itself in (I.E. That "Rats!" had to work as a motion picture. Otherwise, Pixar's reputation as a hit-making machine might then get dinged. Which then would make it difficult for the Emeryville-based animation studio to get the best possible terms on its new production / distribution deal), Bird agreed to step in and take control of Pinkava's project.

And as if this situation wasn't already stressful enough, in an interview that Brad did yesterday with Susan King of the Los Angeles Times, the director recounted how ...

"I committed to keeping the animation start date, which is like the start date of principal photography, to hold to the original [opening] date."

... so that Pixar management could then go forward with their original plan. Which was to have their animation studio emerge as Disney's direct competition in the Summer of 2007. And then to have Pixar establish dominance over the rest of the CG field.

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Of course, the irony of all this is -- after all this behind-the-scenes drama about making sure that their studio's first post-Disney picture will be as strong as possible -- what does Pixar then do in January of 2006? It allows itself to be acquired by the Walt Disney Company for $7.4 billion.

And -- of course -- part of that agreement was that the Mouse would now have to distribute "Ratatouille," a film that its studio execs had not greenlit, that Disney's own creative team had had zero input on. Which perhaps explains why the Mouse's marketing staff has had such a tough time trying to come up with the proper way to promote "Ratatouille."

Now what's important to understand here is that -- ever since Oren Aviv (I.E. The former head of Buena Vista Pictures Marketing) became the new Creative Officer at Walt Disney Studios -- Mickey doesn't put movies into production that it doesn't already know how to sell. That's one of the main reason that Dick Cook (I.E. Chairman of Walt Disney Studios) significantly cut back on the number of films that the studio would produce each year. So that the Mouse could then concentrate all of its marketing might behind films that it already believes will be box office champions.

Which brings us back to "Ratatouille." More importantly to the promotional campaign that Disney hopes will help would-be moviegoers overcome any problems they may have with seeing rats in a kitchen. Whether or not they were ultimately successful will be determined this coming Monday morning when all of the weekend box office tallies finally come in. But given that -- earlier this week -- studio officials were quietly spreading the word that an opening weekend gross of $55 million (down from the $60 million that was originally projected) now seems very likely ... Well, that news doesn't exactly scream huge box office success. At least to me.

FRIDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE: Well, $55 million used to be what "Ratatouille" was initially projected to make over its opening weekend. Now newly revised tracking for this Brad Bird film has come out, which suggests that it is far more likely that Pixar's latest will only sell $48 - $51 million worth of tickets during its first three days in domestic release. While Nikki Finke over at Deadline Hollywood Daily is saying that "Ratatouille" may earn even less than that, with an opening weekend take of only $40 - $45 million.

If that happens ... Well, you can bet that Wall Street will weigh in come Monday morning. With all sorts of pundits pontificating about Disney's Pixar problem, wondering aloud whether this CG studio is now losing its magic touch.

Mark my words, folks. If "Ratatouille" 's opening weekend numbers are really that low, you're going to see lots of stories just like that next week. Not just here at JHM, but all over the place.

Now I know that I was among the first to point out the potential problems with Pixar's latest production. But it's not like I actually wished Brad Bird or John Lasseter any ill will. So please don't shoot the messenger, okay?

Anyway ... Let's get back to the original version of today's article now, okay? ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, the Mouse's marketing department also seems to be having some trouble getting a handle on how to properly promote Pixar's next release, "WALL * E." Several industry insiders that I've spoken with about the teaser trailer for this new Andrew Stanton film have already suggested that it might be a mistake for Disney to try and sell this particular Pixar project as a worthy successor for "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo." That this approach may raise would-be moviegoers' expectations so artificially high that the finished film might then have trouble delivering on that promise.

And then there's "Up," Pixar's 2009 release. Pete Docter's next project for the Emeryville-based animation studio which will star a 70-year-old man & an adolescent wilderness ranger who join forces to do battle with various beasts & villains. Which -- given its unique subject matter -- will obviously also be a bit of PR challenge for Mickey.

So is it any wonder that Disney's marketing staff are so looking forward to 2010 when "Toy Story 3" will finally arrive in theaters? Now that movie, the Mouse knows how to sell.

Anyway ... That's why Disney's PR department has been having such a tough time trying to get a handle on the proper way to promote "Ratatouille." Given that the studio was never supposed to be releasing this Brad Bird film in the first place ... Well, perhaps now you may have some sympathy for what the Mouse's marketing staff has been going through. As they struggled to find just the right way to sell Pixar's rat picture.

Your thoughts?

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  • Great article. But I've got an issue with something.. Isn't the Disney marketing department like one of the best in the world? Isn't one of the strongest elements of Walt Disney Co. that they're this big marketing machine, capable of ANYTHING?

    So why this difficulty? Have all the good marketeers, that made the company one of the best, been fired in the recent few years? I see the problem with marketing "Ratatouille", but hey, I only studied marketing for two years, and it isn't my job. But it is theirs. To me it sounds kinda weird, but okay.

    I think "Ratatouille" will have an opening weekend that will surpass $ 60 million. $62 million maybe. That doesn't smell like blockbuster to you? It does to me, I have to disagree with you on this one. $50 to $60 million seems respectable to me, if a movie can generate good legs. And this one will (it's Pixar damnit).

    (Oh, and you know what I take issue with? John Lasseter putting his name on EVERY SINGLE PROJECT as an "executive producer". Seriously. Get a life.)

  • Thanks for the insight, Jim.

    I'll admit Ratatouille is a hard hard movie to sell (I swear if it wasn't a Disney/Pixar film, I was not gonna watch it).  I do think Disney's marketing machine is the best in the world, and because Ratatouille is a hard sell and in this summer of blockbusters, if it breaks $150 million, it _should_ be considered a success by all involved (Pixar, Disney's marketing).  

    I mean, look at Surf's Up and TMNT.  Good reviews for Surf's Up still has it floundering at the box office.  TMNT is a franchise and virtually had no competition and it bombed.  Considering Meet the Robinsons barely squeaked by the $100 mil mark (did they?), I'd say $150 million from Rat would be a decent pull.

    Not by Wall Street's or the DisneyToon lovin' suits' standards of course, but those people miss the point when it comes to quality.

  • I too can understand the potential problems with marketing this movie, but I seriously doubt that it has anything at all to do with who green lit the movie.

  • Its understandable that a unique and different movie would be harder to sell than an established franchise - but I mean...come on.  These people are in marketing to market - it's their job to think creatively, think about what they're selling, and come up with solutions.  Perhaps they've gotten to complacent selling rehashed stories and endless sequels?

    Granted I suppose it's fair to note that it's slightly more difficult to advertise a movie you didn't put into production; but it's no excuse for awful advertising campaign.  From my perspective, the fine folks down in Disney's marketing department simply can't market their films...regardless of who put it into production.  Anyone remember Meet the Robinson's ad campaign? But that film and this one's marketing push rely far too heavily on dancing characters (Ratatouille and Meet The Robinson's promos are chalked FULL of characters flying across the screen dancing) - and flashy sight gags then actually telling us what the films are about. Defaulting on only "Oh, it's hard to advertise!" to justify their attempts.

  • That is true.  The Meet the Robinson's marketing campaign didn't do the movie any justice.

  • I gotta admit, this article sure is believable. Ratatouille was made at a very turbulent time in their relations, and with Pixar's direction appearing to be more towards more mature content (real mature, not South Park "mature"... ugh), while still staying family friendly, it makes the films tougher to sell. I can't wait to see Ratatouille, but it's not the type of movie that I can see having a lot of useful sound bytes to draw people in.

  • Maybe Pixar needs to create its own marketing campaign if the Disney marketeers don't feel up for the job. Their methods for advertising their animated films have gotten pretty stale.

  • (Well, I actually liked the trailers and ads for "Meet the Robinsons" more than I liked the movie.)

  • Ahhh, Disney's poor marketing department. I feel so sorry for the staff there. Whine, whine, whine.

    Yes, damn it, Disney is supposed to be the best at marketing films -- but unlike Pixar (a studio that takes pride in throwing itself in the deep end of the pool with every single project and not resting on its laurels) ... the marketers want cookie-cutter ease.

    Spend this amount of money on TV, this amount on print, this amount on new media, get a little synergy working here. It's so formulaic. I'm not surprised that they're SO looking forward to "Toy Story 3," they know how to market that film. Of course, with its built-in audience, it won't require a brain trust or any HARD but fun work. For Wall*E and Up, rise to the challenge.

    Now, yes, Disney came on board late in the game with "Ratatouille,"  ... but jeez, do a little brainstorming and blue-sky thinking. I have several ideas running through my brain right now and will gladly consult for a fee.

    The people at Disney MAY have flubbed this one -- but thanks to the national sneaks, glowing reviews and positive word of mouth  -- it might not matter.

    I'm still willing to bet that "Ratatouille" will top $200 million in North America (because this film has LEGS) and $325 million worldwide.

  • Having different approaches to marketing for different markets doesn't necessarily mean the marketing departments have been struggling, I think.

    It is pretty well known that audiences in different parts of the world respond differently to movies and performances in general. I've heard about bands performing in Japan that were used to screaming and singing during their concerts only to be greeted by silence in Japan. They thought they had bombed, only to learn later that silence after a perfomance is a sign of respect for the performer.

    The Ratatouille trailers for the Asian market have been completely different than the (US) domestic ones - I think taking local sensibilities into account isn't necessarily the same thing as struggling to come up with the right marketing.

    Just my $0.03 (adjusted for inflation)

  • I don't see the marketing team having as much trouble with Wall*E or Up.  You have to admit, it would be hard to convince food chains to start putting rats in their happy meals.  

    Am I the only one looking forward to Ratatouille, Wall*E, Up, and even Rapunzel and Frog Princess more than I am to Toy Story 3?  I am just sequeled-out.

    As for Meet the Robinsons, I actually liked the movie more because of the ads.  The ads didn't make it seem all that interesting so I went into that thinking the worst (went just so the kids could enjoy a 3D movie), and came out pleasantly surprised.  Thanks Disney marketing for making it look worse than it was.

  • empoor said: "(Oh, and you know what I take issue with? John Lasseter putting his name on EVERY SINGLE PROJECT as an "executive producer". Seriously. Get a life.)"

    He is an executive producer because that was his job.  He was a Co-Founder and an Executive Vice President of Creative prior to the merger.  Now he's the chief creative officer.  All projects run through him.  Walt Disney did the same thing.  What's the big deal?


    This is the same thing that happened to the Toy Story 2 "B" team.  Look what happened there.

    The last time I checked, Pixar movies were director driven with little to no input from Disney.  The Toy Story we love today was created after they stopped listening to Disney.  The Disney marketing department has little to no influence in the creation of the Pixar movies including characters and stories.  Why would they be in the beginning process of Ratatouille?

    I'm just checking because I thought I fell asleep and woke up in an alternate dimension.

  • Disney isn't doing a good job with marketing. The ads for "Meet the Robinsons" totally didn't give the movie justice. As for "Ratatouille", I don't like the way they're making it look like a slapstick movie. Yet, I guess most Americans are use to seeing slapstick filled animated features, even if its not much of a comedy.

    I'm getting worried about "WALL-E". I'm hoping that the marketing for the movie will not dumb down the film, because the film sounds genius.

  • TechGuy said:

    "He is an executive producer because that was his job.  He was a Co-Founder and an Executive Vice President of Creative prior to the merger.  Now he's the chief creative officer.  All projects run through him.  Walt Disney did the same thing.  What's the big deal?"

    Being exec. vice-president of creative/chief creative officer/etc. isn't the same as being executive producer on *every single movie*. It isn't common use, to me it says "look at me", even though "executive producer" isn't that high on the producer scale. And just because it's Lasseter people don't think about it, but what if Jeffrey Katzenberg had made himself executive producer on all of Disney movies, including like "Beauty and the Beast" etc.? Than it would have been an issue. But hey, it's not the most important thing in the world, I just said it because it annoys me.

  • I don't like it when Disney tries to "convince" us a movie is something that it is not. Case in point ...  Bridge to Terrabithia. My kids watched the DVD this week and complained that it was "not about Terrabithia" at all. Unfortunately ... that movie is soooooo much more than what my kids were led to believe that they quite frankly weren't ready for it and didn't "like" it because of it.

    Ratatouille should be marketed for what it is ... and nothing more or less. I don't know why Disney needs to fill ads and trailers with all of the silly parts of their movies just to play them up against the likes of Happy feet, Surfs Up, Over The Hedge, IceAge, etc. Rat is so completely more than the rest of these types of movies have been.

    What will make or break this movie in the end is the word of mouth it will recieve when people start seeing it. Same thing that happened to Nemo. Of course it wouldn't have hurt to CHANGE the release date ... or month.

    As far as the numbers ... forget opening box office.... i'm saving my $10 right now for Transformers on monday.... and I figure about 90% of everyone else is too.

    This does not mean that I am going to forget about Ratatouille. Even though I know that Transformers is going to blow my socks off... I fully expect my favorite movie of the year to be Ratatouille as far as being consistant, quality entertainment.

    Rat will not do as well as Cars in the US alone.... and that is going to be a fact. So I don't see how on earth anyone should seriously gage a movie by box office alone without looking at the big picture. And for the next several weeks ... the BIG picture is going to be Transformers.

    Cut the movie some slack .... if Gone With The Wind were coming out for the first time oposite Transformers .... it wouldn't stand a chance.

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