Monday, April 22, 2013

Animation, Action and Marketing: A Response

I’ve been checking out a new blog by a fellow Disney fan/blogger named Jim Miles. He has written about Disney and the film industry several times before, but now he has this new blog where he frequently posts articles about the subjects he is interested in, mainly the film industry and the arts. In a piece he wrote back when DreamWorks’ newest release The Croods took in a healthy $43 million on its opening weekend, he offered a few lessons explaining how animation unfortunately has to be marketed in North America and what type of animation adult audiences will respond to.

He compares the box office of the film to DreamWorks’ previous film, the well-made but unfortunately unsuccessful Rise of the Guardians. I’ve dissected the marketing for this film and attempted to figure out why it underperformed, and it mostly boils down to the fact that the marketing department advertised this film as a fairly serious, epic action-packed adventure about the childhood legends such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Sandman and the Tooth Fairy. The reason he compares the two is because Guardians got better reception than The Croods and it should’ve been a hit since it was holiday-themed and featured images we are all very familiar with.

In the process of finding out why it did poorly in comparison the very successful Croods (which is currently on its way up to $500 million at the worldwide box office), Miles took a look at two action-oriented animated films from the last decade that were mostly marketed as straight action films: Fox's Titan A.E. and Disney's Treasure Planet. Then he gave a few reasons why Guardians and those other films did poorly. The first lesson...

1. While animation appeals to a wide audience, its primary market is either the children’s market or the family market. That’s not to say that adults and teens don’t want to see animation. They love The Lion King and How to Train Your Dragon, but they go to these films to see something that matches their expectation of animation. They go to Spieldberg’s Lincoln to see a serious drama. They go to The Avengers for action. They go to animation for comedy and warm fuzzies.

Animation has been stereotyped as a medium for children first and foremost since the 1960s when kid-oriented Saturday morning cartoons oozed out of every pore in the American television animation industry. At the same time, the theatrical animation studios' product was suited for general audiences as their work had been that way since the Golden Age, which was coming to its end by this time. In the 1970s, you had some adults-only animation doing well here and there, but that would be something of a fad.

What Miles brings up is true, adults nowadays don't expect anything other than a cutesy warm family-friendly romp when it comes to an animated film. This mostly explains why family-friendly animated films rake in the bucks, while ones that are decidedly less "warm and fuzzy" or not family-friendly don't do so well. If Spielberg's Lincoln was an animated film, who knows how it would've done. Audiences today aren't used to other kinds of animated storytelling in theaters because all of the big studios feed them family fare.

Family fare isn't a bad thing, I've explained this many times before. I'm glad that Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks are offering top of the line films for the whole family. Pixar's films in particular pack a punch and never talk down to the audiences, Disney is generally great with this too nowadays while DreamWorks can a bit a hit-or-miss. The other big studios simply follow suit, rather than being bold or trying something risky and new. You'll get something like that once in a while with Paramount's Rango, but risky animation is a no-no for these studios.

In short, Miles is right about most people's expectation of what an animated film should be: G to PG, family-friendly and not really tackling genres that live action films normally do. Who knows how audiences would react to an animated thriller that was similar to Inception, or an animated drama that resembled something like Lincoln or anything of the sort. The way animation is advertised and presented in North America has closed many minds, as many are unaware of what heights the medium can achieve. This leads to the next reason he listed...

2. Action doesn’t sell animation. Ever. Never ever. It never sells animation. Why? Look at Lesson #1. If it looks too dark, parents keep their kids away. And for adults, animation simply isn’t live-action. If you are a 22-year old guy looking to drag his date to a movie she doesn’t want to see, is it going to be the one with animated explosions or the one with live-action-looking explosions?

Adults are fine with live action films that are action-packed, there are many left and right that come out each year. Many action-oriented animated films, however, haven't done so well. The two examples he picks, however, did poorly at the box office for other reasons.

Yes, it's true that Titan A.E. and Treasure Planet were action-packed films in a sea of cutesy comedies or generally non-action packed romps. But both of those films failed because they were marketed as action films... For teenagers. Teenagers are an audience that you should never go for when it comes to marketing animation. Titan A.E.'s box office performance proved to be a cautionary tale for the animation industry, one that executives idiotically ignored. Treasure Planet was no different, as the marketing focused heavily on the spectacle, but not much on Jim Hawkins' personality. Instead the marketing focused on his solar surfing. I saw the trailers when I was roughly 9 years old, even I was unimpressed at the time. 9-year-old me thought Disney was trying too hard to be cool, and that said a lot because I was a huge Disney fan back then. (I never outgrew them, I always knew from the beginning that Disney wasn't "kiddie stuff".)

One animated action film, however, defied all odds... The Incredibles. Now, the film was a big action film, one of the best - animated or not. But how did Disney market this Pixar spectacle? They marketed it with comedy and made it look fun.

The teaser trailer for The Incredibles was prepared for Finding Nemo, over a year and a half away from its theatrical debut. This teaser, like all Pixar teasers, contained footage that was created special for it. Again, this teaser first showed up before Finding Nemo. Finding... Freakin'... NemoFinding Nemo pulled in a then-shocked $70 million on its opening weekend back in 2003. That adjusts to $92 million today! Over 56 million people saw the film in theaters in 2003, and they saw this very trailer before the film...

I gotta ask, why did the uploader call it an "Unreleased Trailer"?

Now that's how you do a teaser! Pixar probably knew from the beginning that this wasn't going to be an easy sell, especially since it was coming off of a string of very appealing films with anthropomorphic casts. So what did Disney's marketing machine do? They made it look appealing! I remember this teaser got big laughs in the theater, I remember seeing it before Finding Nemo and before Shrek 2 in May 2004. That film opened with a then-massive $108 million, over 71 million people saw that in the theater.

The next batch of trailers focused on action, but at the same time, they made the film look appealing without making it look "edgy". Plus, the first teaser had already appealed. The problem with the trailers for Titan A.E. and Treasure Planet is that they try to have an attitude, a self-conscious attitude at that. It's like the marketers were simply being told what to do from a focus group... Which was likely the case! I can hear it now, actually: "Teens like explosions! Not cutesy fluff! No cute animals bursting out into song! More action! Rock music! Attitude! Mopey determined protagonists!" Disney's marketing department avoided that for the Incredibles campaign. They aimed for everyone, not teens. Methinks Pixar probably had a hand in that campaign, because it was a good one!

Here we had an animated action film coming out under the Disney name, right after big action flicks and visually amazing superhero films like Spider-Man 2. Oh, and it carried a PG rating as well. The result? A winner! The film took in $70 million on its opening weekend, more than what Titan A.E. and Treasure Planet did in their entire domestic runs put together! You can use action to sell an animated action film, but you have to do it right. Also, Pixar's goodwill helped this film do well. However, if Disney did the same for Treasure Planet, with trailers that focused on the characters and less on "attitude", that could've something of a success as well. I don't know, maybe a gross of over $100 million? Atlantis managed to hit $84 million despite being marketed as a teen-oriented action flick that did not appeal to families.

3. Kids latch on to characters and stories. Studios with successful animated films are good at promoting characters and story. Whether it was Disney promoting John Smith with Pocahontas or Dory in Finding Nemo, trailers and commercials for successful animated films promote characters and story. This is how these films make a connection with young audiences. And if the characters are interesting and charming enough, they connect with an older audience.

This is also very true. A lot of animated films do well because the characters appeal to the family audiences. All of them seem likable from the trailers, rather than the ones from films like Titan A.E. and Treasure Planet. Miles also wonders how Titan A.E. would've done if the marketing focused on the characters and their personalities more, ditto Treasure Planet. What if those films had trailers that made you want to root for these characters long before you purchase the ticket.

Likewise, Rise of the Guardians' trailers didn't really focus on the characters or the more whimsical side of the film. They mostly played up the darkness and action sequences, along with the stuff that would seem "cool" or "awesome". The concept was already a hard sell from the start, the marketing made it even less appealing. Many people wrote the film off as ridiculous, and consequently, a lot of people did not show up on opening weekend. Rise of the Guardians would've easily cleared $150 million at the domestic box office had it opened with more than $40 million. The Croods just passed that threshold thanks to that opening plus the film's built-in appeal.

It seems that Blue Sky's upcoming Epic may not go over well either. Like Guardians and the other films (ironically, it's based on a book by William Joyce, who also wrote the books Guardians is based on), it looks like it's heavy on action and thrills, but there's not much on the characters themselves or anything else. Two of the main protagonists are teens, the others seem distant. The marketing is using Aziz Ansari's annoying hip-talking slug to help the picture appeal to kids and teens, but it's sure to make adults roll their eyes. That schtick got annoying back in the 1990s. Disney Animation's upcoming Big Hero 6 is a big action superhero film with teenaged protagonists... That'll certainly be a test for them, but if they go the Incredibles route with it, they can have a hit on their hands. How Epic will do at this rate is unpredictable, as the marketing has been selling it as a teen-oriented film. It have a feeling it may backfire on Blue Sky and Fox, but if it goes over badly, it may be another example of why you can't market animation for teenagers or as shallow action-heavy films.

4. These ad campaigns make a go for the teenaged and adult movie-going crowd. Adults love animation. But their entry into it is through a child’s eyes. When it comes to adult audiences and animation, they say, “Show me the funny!” Humor is what sells these movies to adults. They come for the humor, but they stay for the emotion (Finding Nemo), the heart (How to Train Your Dragon), and the intellect (The Lion King).

This one goes back to the first lesson, but it is sadly true. Adults and teenagers tend to approach animated films with a sort of "I'm a kid again" attitude. You know it pains me when adults say that they only go to see animated films to please the "kid inside of them" or whatever. They sadly don't see these films as... Well... Films! They see them as diversions, just ways for them to relive their childhood. Of course, animation fans and myself go to see animated films because we know they are films, not mindless kiddie flicks. We know that artists and writers poured their souls into a lot of them. Others, however, don't know this.

This is a good reason why it's hard for adult-oriented animation to take off in America to begin with. While adults have no problem accepting an animated TV show like South Park or something on Adult Swim, they seem to have a hard time accepting a feature-length animated film designed for them. People expect animated films to be cute and humorous, which is why something like an action film or something with a rating higher than PG will have a hard time performing well. A recent example of a non-family animated film doing poorly was Shane Acker's post-apocalyptic 9. With its drab color scheme, its setting and its strange-looking characters, it was not going to be an easy sell. What did the marketers do? They focused on action and very little on the characters themselves. I remember the commercials condescendingly said, "This isn't your little brother's animated film". Yep, Titan A.E. all over again! The film bombed hard at the box office, and sadly, it wasn't a very good film. You won't see films like that too often.

These lessons lead me to ask... How can we make non-family friendly animated films appeal to adults so that they'll go and see them? Good marketing is a start, but what if a new upcoming adult-oriented animated film didn't have much funny stuff? Or heart? Or characters you care about? What if something like a Michael Bay film was animated? It would flop, because the audience for those kinds of films (teens) wouldn't want to see it since it's animated, it has no heart for adult audiences and it's shallow with mindless action. It's okay if a live action film does it, the teens will eat it up! But not an animated one. But what if an adult oriented animated film did have heart? Would the lack of family-friendly cutesy stuff hurt it? Or would it help it?

I've been waiting for the day where an American animation studio will make a smart, engaging adult-oriented animated film. One that gets a PG-13 or R, but one that isn't shallow or for summer blockbuster-craving teenagers. One that's made from the heart, but is strictly for older audiences. Would that do well with good marketing behind it that makes it look good? Maybe, maybe not... But it would be a risk worth taking.

I recommend that you check out Jim Miles' blog, The Back Lot. For his Disney-related tweets, follow his JimonFilm account. What's your take on his article and his lessons for big studios when it comes to marketing animated films? Would you like to see studios at least trying with a legitimately good adult-oriented animated film or a good action-packed animated film?

Sound off below!


  1. I think everything that's being said here is right. How you market an animated film is a very important element for its success. Rise of the Guardians was a very good film (better than The Croods) but poor marketing was a major factor on why it bombed at the BO. Same thing with Treasure Planet.

    I think that other film that was victim of poor marketing was The Princess and the Frog. Disney wanted to show an independent, strong and confident woman but in all trailers and posters, Tiana was shown in a "princess gown" and the title change (it was first called "The Frog Prince") didn't help either. Many people that watched the trailers thought it was a "princess" film and many boys were turned off by that. While it wasn't a BO bomb, I think that with a better marketing campaign, the film could've been more successful.

  2. Thank you so much for your discussion, Kyle. I value your perspective, and I always enjoy seeing intelligent discussions on animation. It's hard watching favorite films crash and burn, isn't it, particularly when there is a market for it.

    Munir, I would agree on your assessment on The Princess and the Frog. Great film, but the title should have been The Frog Prince.

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