Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Rant: Disney's Marketing Department

Note: I'm no expert and this entire rant is opinion-based. If you're looking for exactness, don't read any further.

Disney's marketing department has been receiving considerable amounts of criticism for their failure to promote Andrew Stanton's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' epic science fiction novels, John Carter. What do I say? They deserve it, every last bit of it. While I don't approve of the folks who slammed the film, Andrew Stanton and the Mouse House in general, the marketing department really tripped up here. This, and along with other blunders, is what makes Disney's marketing department a target of criticism from folks such as myself, fans and the press. This colossal failure is also what hurts Disney in the long run along with their animation studio and other projects.

John Carter... It was once thought to be an epic science fiction blockbuster from the Mouse House, but it has now become the punchline of the press. It's already being forgotten by mainstream audiences, as the film has eked past $66 million at the domestic box office off of a $30 million debut. Word of mouth couldn't save it, it left audiences cold. While the reviews were on par with the likes of Tron: Legacy and higher than most summer blockbuster films that somehow gross $250 million when they don't deserve to, it still wasn't enough to save the film. It's doing respectable business overseas, but a $350 million final total won't make Disney executives happy. Lead actor Taylor Kitsch has been defending the film to the press, but we haven't heard from anyone else. Disney seems to be ashamed of the film itself.

What they should be ashamed of is how they marketed this film. Articles are everywhere, criticizing the marketing campaign. While some people were a little too mean-spirited towards the film and the Mouse House, Disney's marketing department does deserve the criticism it's getting. I firmly believed (along with many others) that the title change was what crippled Stanton's epic adaptation of Burroughs' influential classic from the start, along with the disappointing trailers and equally disappointing TV spots. In short, Disney's marketing department killed this film, and some of the people working for Disney are putting the blame on Andrew Stanton. (No, really!) Disney's marketing department crippled other films that could've been hits. This might sound insane, but something like Bolt could've easily taken in $200 million at the domestic box office, or $150 million at the least. No, that film only grossed $114 million domestically, a weak total when you stack it up next to other 2008 animated hits such as Blue Sky's Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! ($154 million), DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda ($215 million), Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa ($180 million), and Pixar's WALL-E. ($223 million) Instead, the marketing was lazy. The trailer was poorly put together, and the marketing pushed Miley Cyrus' name, whose character Penny isn't one of the lead characters. In fact, she's not even in it as much.

If Disney felt that this would help get the film popular, then they were dead wrong. Showing Cyrus' name probably scared off the people (such as myself) who hate "that" side of Disney. You know, the crass side of Disney that's all about Hannah Montana and the schlock on the Disney Channel. It didn't scare me off, what drove me away was the trailer. Also, I was still a bit bitter about the whole change from Chris Sanders' quirky American Dog idea into something more conventional. When I saw the film for the first time on Blu-ray (it was a blind buy, no less), I really enjoyed it. I wanted to turn back time and see the film in the theaters.

Bolt opened with $26 million at the domestic box office, which was an incredibly low opening weekend for a wide release animated film from a high profile studio. That was only a bit more than what Meet the Robinsons pulled in on its opening weekend back in 2007. Then something happened. It grew legs. Audiences clearly liked this film, but the low total said otherwise to Disney. Let's say the film was marketed properly, it would've made at least $35 million on its opening weekend. Let's just say it took in $40 million, then had the same word of mouth it did, it would've made over $170 million domestically. Maybe even more. Thanksgiving is a great time to release animated family films, but Disney blew it.

Disney blew it again with The Princess and the Frog. Instead of releasing the film sometime in November, before competition like Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and the "shitmunks" sequel, it would've scored a good-sized opening weekend. If they had marketed it like an event, and not some attempt to recreate the Disney Renaissance, then it would've had a bigger opening weekend than $24 million. (Even lower than Meet the Robinsons and Bolt!) With enough time to rake in cash before the heavy hitters came in, the film would've crossed $150 million domestically. But no, Disney released the critically panned comedy Old Dogs on the weekend Frog should've been released on. (Frog received a two theater-only release that weekend, the wide release was on December 11th) Old Dogs did poorly, and did it teach Disney a lesson? Sort of. Tangled was released on the Thanksgiving weekend, but against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 1. Still, the film's marketing was aggressive and in-your-face. This is why it opened with $48 million, got great word of mouth and worked its way up to $200 million despite the heavy competition. (With some fudging from Disney, of course) If Frog opened on that weekend back in 2009 with aggressive marketing behind it, it would've made around $35 million or more, and with legs, it would've been the hit it deserved to be!

So Tangled does extremely well, but the hand-drawn film doesn't, and now Disney's future in animation seems to be CGI-topia! If Frog didn't underperform, there would be a push for more hand-drawn projects. Not anymore, especially with Winnie the Pooh being the one of the least attended Disney animated films of all time. Apparently Disney is reverting back to their 2003 mindset: "It failed because it was hand-drawn!" No, Winnie the Pooh failed because there was hardly any effort put into the marketing and it was released against heavy-hitters in a box office bloodbath of a month. Now look, The Snow Queen is Frozen and it's going to be computer animated! Well, hopefully it's a good film or one that at least deviates from the style they used for Bolt and Tangled. If it's going to be a remake of Tangled, then I won't be happy.

See where I'm getting at? These animated films that are superior to their crop in the last fifteen years and something ambitious and enjoyable like John Carter have all done okay or horribly. If Disney's marketing department didn't make all of these blunders, these films would have been successful. John Carter's sequel is now doomed, but Disney is still going through with ambitious live action projects, like Paladin. The Lone Ranger is hitting theaters in May 2013. What about Walt Disney Animation Studios? Sure, we've got the risky Wreck-It Ralph coming out. We have no idea what Frozen will be like. All we know is that after Frozen, nothing is scheduled for 2014 or 2015. All we know is that a Mickey Mouse film is in the works and that King of the Elves is in development, as it has been in development since 2008! Anything else? What happened to Mort? Or better yet, how come we don't know about other projects that are in the works? What other ambitious projects are in the works at the Mouse House? Hardly any. Maybe in 2015, they'll surprise us all. Maybe they won't.

It's not the quality of the films, it's the marketing. Imagine if Disney's marketing department tripped up marketing another studio's film? Let's say they messed up marketing something like The Hunger Games, they would've thrown away a great opportunity. Imagine if John Carter was handled by someone like Warner Bros. or Paramount, perhaps it wouldn't have been the colossal box office disappointment that it is.

That said, Disney's marketing department is probably aware of the fact that the name "Disney" alone turns people off, especially in America. We live in a country where animation and all things Disney are called "kiddie stuff". We live in a country where classic animated films and icons are perceived as lame and kiddie. We live in a country where teen audiences won't be seen attending anything with the Disney name on it that's family friendly. It's not just in America, either, animation gets the same flack everywhere else, but in America, it is rampant. In order to get something like one of their recent animated films or something like John Carter to appeal to audiences, they need to have chops. Make these films look epic. Don't waste the trailers on failed jokes or just action. You got to find a way to lure audiences in, especially if you're putting some of your films up against heavy hitters. That's Disney's other big problem. Combining lackluster marketing with putting the films against obvious hits. (Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.)

Look at how Disney markets Pixar's films. They pour a lot of effort into marketing Pixar's films. Just look at the marketing for Toy Story 3 and Brave. Toy Story 3's marketing had the popularity of the first two films behind it, but they still put effort into it. Remember the viral marketing? The college cliffhanger screenings? They aggressively marketed it to everyone, from adults to teens to families. Brave has an excellent two-minute clip of the film being shown in theaters as a trailer, much like the trailer for The Lion King that was actually the entire "Circle of Life" scene. The marketing for Toy Story 3 and Brave made these films appeal to adults and teenagers. To everyone. Despite the "Disney is for kiddies" syndrome that people tend to suffer from, the marketing convinced them that these are events worth seeing. The only things that don't work are the trailers, but people know that Pixar delivers the goods, so the mediocre trailers never throw them off.

I can't say the same about the way they market their other films. John Carter? Three underwhelming trailers, an awful Super Bowl TV spot and TV spots that focused on action, action, action with no oomph. The recent animated films? A few trailers, not much marketing, unconvincing TV spots, and that's pretty much it. Most of these marketing materials are skewering kids anyway, while these films are designed for everyone to enjoy. Disney will keep getting the "Disney is for kids only" flack if they keep marketing their animated films this way. If their films did better, maybe animation wouldn't have such a hard time catching on in this country. If they can convince people that G and PG-rated animated films from another studio are worth seeing no matter how old they are, they can also do so for their own animated films.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Kyle. Very, very true. Keep up the good work.