Friday, February 15, 2013

Bringing Back the "Event" Status

When's the last time a release from Disney's legendary animation house was a big event? A film that was thrown out there as a big gun... A tough competitor in the cinema world... There was a time when a new Disney animated film was a big event... A massive event at that. The Little Mermaid more than launched this new status for the studio's output, after a few years of successful films that weren't necessarily "event pictures". Pictures that weren't as big as the Golden Age classics.

When I say event, I mean something like the size of Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. Even after The Lion King's record-breaking run, Pocahontas still managed to be a big hit. It grossed around the same amount of money as Beauty and the Beast. Despite what some will say about the post-Lion King Renaissance films, some of them were undoubtedly big at the box office. You could definitely call Mulan and Tarzan big hits. Sure, they didn't gross as much as the year's biggest films of their respective years or something like Aladdin, but they were still blockbusters nonetheless.

Now, that event status has been held by Pixar since the release of Toy Story. Every film of theirs was a hit, and the studio's critical track record (up until the release of Cars 2) was perfect. Audiences anticipated every coming Pixar film because the ones before a certain film delivered on all levels. Even if audiences or critics felt a bit let down by Monsters, Inc. or Cars, that didn't hurt films like Finding Nemo and Up. Almost every Pixar film since 1999 has opened with over $60 million at the domestic box office, impressive for a single studio let alone an animation company. Ratatouille is the sole exception, but that still opened with $47 million, great for an animated film back then. No 3D and no big competition outside of DreamWorks and Blue Sky. Even after the disappointment of Cars 2, Brave still managed to open big last summer. That shows that they have box office power, and they rightfully earned it making great films.

While Pixar deserves to be trusted as a studio who makes "event films", Disney needs to be seen that way as well. Why's that? Disney has been making good films for the past six years. Films that adults, children and everyone else can enjoy for decades to come - unlike misguided films such as Brother Bear, Home on the Range and Chicken Little. Ever since 2006, Walt Disney Animation Studios has quickly improved their output and produced modern-day classics like The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. However, I don't sense much love for these films from the company themselves; they may have been successful but they don't seem to come off as big events anymore. Just hits... That is all...

Let's look at Tangled for example. The film was first released in November of 2010. When did the first theatrical teaser show up? June. Just a few months before the film's debut. The teaser was awful, suggesting that Disney had no faith in the film's heart, story or better qualities. Disney went super-cynical with this film and made it look like an attempt to one-up one of the earlier DreamWorks films. In the process, they made a lot of animation fans worry. But what worked out in the end? The promotion was everywhere. Can't say the same about The Princess and the Frog. It was given a better release date with plenty of time to breathe, unlike the awful date Disney chose for Frog. The result? A film that took in nearly $600 million at the worldwide box office, their biggest hit since The Lion King. People also loved the film. All that aggressive marketing (no matter how bad the film looked) ensured a good-sized opening, and the word of mouth did its business from there.

With that film being a success, you'd think they'd milk it, right? Well you'll see Tangled in various promotions, and merchandise is all around. To someone who doesn't take interest in the animation industry, the film exists like The Lion King. A film that's well-known by your average moviegoer. But again, it wasn't marketed like an "event". It was marketed like another animated movie, the marketing only sold the film. It should've done more... It should've really hyped it up as a big event that will be treasured. The same goes for The Princess and the Frog and Wreck-It Ralph.

Wreck-It Ralph's marketing campaign was good. It was certainly effective. People went to go see the film. But the marketing didn't make it look like a big, grand entertainment event. Again, Disney should've made this look like a must-see film, not a "go see" "hit of the week" film. You'd think with the runaway success of Tangled, they'd go back to their 1990s marketing roots and trumpet the film as the next big classic from Disney. It was a hit no doubt, you could say it was a blockbuster... But it was essentially another successful animated movie that came and went. That's where competition factors in.

Between 1991 and 1998, no non-Disney animated feature film stood a chance against the Mouse at the domestic box office. $100 million back then was a real benchmark for an animated film, or a film in general. Disney only missed it once during this time, with Hercules, but that managed to gross $99 million so it was very close! Most of the big hit films grossed between $100-200 million, and your biggest blockbusters (or successes that came out of nowhere) grossed above $200 million. $300 million back then was sky-high. No film would cross $400 million at the domestic box office (in its first run) until Titanic came out in 1997. In short, anything above $120 million was darn good for an animated film. Disney had that top dog status, no one else did during the 1990s except Pixar.

Flash forward to this decade. DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Illumination and Sony Pictures Animation have films that normally gross over $120 million domestically. Disney would have to make films that gross over $250 million like Pixar's to reclaim the "top of the mountain" status. A lot of people saw Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, but a lot of people also saw The Lorax and Hotel Transylvania. It isn't the same anymore with all this competition. Disney films are essentially doing what other animated films, sometimes highly inferior ones, are doing. Plus, with films easily passing the $400 million benchmark each year, these films are seen as big hits... But not as earth-shattering blockbusters. Or events...

So box office and competition have done this, but marketing can break that. If Disney were willing to promote their next animated feature, Frozen, with a big aggressive marketing campaign that makes the film look awesome (unlike the self-conscious trailers and commercials for The Princess and the Frog or Tangled's intentionally misleading marketing), then they'd have a huge hit on their hand that audiences will be raving about. The film to go see amidst the competition. Think Lion King big. Disney can definitely relive those glory days, just because they happened twice doesn't mean they can't happen again.

However, the reason I bring this up is because Disney might shift the "event film" focus to their new hot properties... Marvel and Lucasfilm.

Understandably, Disney wants to strike gold. They have two massive companies in their hand and they're going to milk that. That's fine, but I fear that Disney will put all the love and focus towards the upcoming Marvel films, the next Star Wars trilogy and the numerous Star Wars spin-off films that they have recently announced. Also, if they were to acquire another big company in the next couple of years, then expect the attention to go to that property as well. I feel that their animated films will just be ignored and given "enough" promotion just to ensure that it will break even at the box office. Disney should want more than that for their animated films - one of the very things their studio is based on.

From where I stand, Disney is all about Marvel at the moment. Monsters University's promotion has been slow, unusual for a Pixar film. It's only picked up speed now, with a new trailer and a couple of clips. Frozen probably won't appear until this summer, since Disney waited the till summer before both Tangled and Ralph in the years they came out to unveil trailers and promotional materials. Oz the Great and Powerful has gotten a suitable amount of marketing, The Lone Ranger is getting a lot because it cost them a fortune and it may bomb. I fear that this may continue into the next couple of years, since the Marvel Cinematic Universe is greatly expanding and Star Wars Episode VII is on the way.

Now I'm not against the Marvel and Star Wars expansion, I'm anticipating both. All the upcoming MCU films excite me, and I'm eager to see how the J. J. Abrams-helmed Episode VII will turn out. I'm all for that. I just hope that Disney doesn't give all the attention to those two things, whilst leaving their animated output in the dust. The animated films need love. They need to put them front and center, and ultimately have them be the big thing when they come out. I mean, it should be everywhere. I just fear that the new things Disney has latched onto will overshadow these animated films, and even Pixar's to some extent.

What's a marketing campaign that could hype up the current Disney animated films as events? Well, for starters, they should try very hard to help casual moviegoers tell when it's a Disney film. Tired of hearing people accidentally calling Bolt or Wreck-It Ralph Pixar movies? Well maybe Disney ought to do what Pixar does for their computer animated films.

Trailers for Wreck-It Ralph, for a recent example of course, should've done what the trailers for the 1980s and 1990s Disney films did: Remind audiences of Disney's achievements over the years. Pixar trailers normally say something like "From the creators of Finding Nemo". Why can't a trailer for a Disney animated film make mention of the studio's legacy?

Now look at that... This trailer not only briefly reminded audiences of Disney's past efforts, but it also did a better job at explaining the film's story, making time for jokes and making the film look exciting in less than two and a half minutes... We just don't get animated film trailers like that anymore...

What I'm saying is, what if a Wreck-It Ralph trailer began with a brief montage of the classics and even show the recent ones? Have an announcer or title cards saying, "For over 70 years..." and so on. Maybe they could even have the trailers say "From Walt Disney Animation Studios" instead of just saying "Disney".

Disney also won't put something like "From the creators of Tangled" in a trailer for something like Ralph, given the marketing department's paranoia over what young boys want to see. (Again, Disney, quit focusing on one particular fraction of your audience!) But if they took the time to showcase the best Disney classics in a trailer for every upcoming animated film, then there would be no problem and thus... No confusion. People will know it's Disney. Not Pixar.

In the 1990s, people knew when it was Disney, because the animated competition came and went. Plus Disney made it clear that it was by them. You knew it was Disney when you heard announcer Marc Eliot's voice excitedly hype up the film. The Disney logo was recognizable, while trailers for other animated films had the logos of their distributors (Fox, Warner Bros., Universal). Today, Disney's computer animated films are now swamped in a sea of successful computer animated productions. Again, they don't have that special position anymore.

But another problem with today's trailers and TV spots is that they go by so quick. Literally everything races by. Remember the days when TV spots would often end with the announcer slowly saying "Coming soon to a theater near you" and/or "check your local listings"? Nowadays: Film Title -> Rated PG -> Opens in Theaters Friday. All very quickly. It just isn't the same. Likewise, the trailers for these newer Disney films just say "Disney", and rather quickly too. That's not enough.

Aside from reminding audiences of Disney's past efforts, these trailers need to make these films look like serious, must-see events. My problem with a lot of trailers for animated films today is that they follow a routine: Jokes, bits on the story, jokes, action sequence, jokes... Trailers, even the ones for Pixar films, tend to focus heavily on comedy and less on the story. The best trailers for Disney (and Pixar) films today are the marvelous Japanese ones, which value story and heart over constant jokes. They use humor when it is needed. I can't say that about most trailers for Disney or Pixar films, and trailers for any animated film really. Disney needs to move away from that formula in order to separate their work from everyone else's. That way, it would be unique amongst the competition.

It would be nice to see Disney's recent and impressive output get the treatment it deserves. The likes of Frog, Tangled and Ralph are just as important as those Renaissance super-hits and the first Golden Age greats. This is coming from someone who also thinks that the not-so-popular Disney films deserve care. I mean, Disney needs to quit acting like The Rescuers or Treasure Planet don't really exist. But if any of their films deserve lots of love, it's their recent ones. These are the new classics coming out during a new Golden Age. They should be more than just hits. They should be more than just profitable little things for the company...

They should be events...

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