Monday, December 23, 2013
Freezing The King - A Rant
Yes, Frozen may actually freeze The Lion King… At the box office, that is…
Box Office Mojo's Ray Subers, in his write-up of this weekend's box office results, suggests that the new Walt Disney Animation Studios event could possibly make more than $300 million at the domestic box office.
You heard that right. $300 million…
This excites me and frustrates me at the same time.
Frozen may have a shot at being the first Disney Animation film to gross $300 million in North America, and it could also possibly be their highest-grossing of all time. The Lion King's "initial release" domestic take was a then-monolith $312 million. The 2002 IMAX re-release added another $15 million, the 2011 3D re-release added a shocking $94 million. Its total lifetime gross is $422 million, and there's no way Frozen will beat that. Of course, we don't expect it to. I don't count re-release totals when it comes to this. (i.e. The Rescuers was the biggest Disney animated film on initial release back in 1977, but of all-time counting re-issues? Nope.)
This weekend, the icy film lightly slipped a great 15% from its previous weekend. The film has grossed $192 million in nearly a month. The Christmas week will greatly add to it, and it'll have excellent legs afterwards. It's got the animation and family film world all to itself until The Lego Movie opens in February, because… Let's be honest here, The Nut Job ain't touching this film with a 39 1/2-foot pole.
The great thing about this is, it not only shows that Walt Disney Animation Studios is a worthy competitor at the box office (a few years ago, they weren't), but also a roost-ruler. Pixar currently sits on top alongside Illumination (though I have a feeling that outside of Despicable Me and Dr. Seuss, they'll be making good-sized hits at best), and occasionally DreamWorks. Very few animated films have topped $250 million at the domestic box office since 2010. Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 have raced past that mark, now it looks like Frozen will do the same. Yes, Disney is sitting up there with the giants… Finally…
But why am I also somewhat peeved about this? I should be all-out happy with this film's success, right? Right?
Well, I am happy - first and foremost - for the film itself and Walt Disney Animation Studios. They've deserved a $200M+ domestic hit since Bolt. But that's just it…
If you've seen my review of Frozen, you'll know that I am not gushing over the film. I didn't think it was a "great" movie, but a "very good" movie instead. I had problems with it, and at times I felt that it was very inconsistent and even a little undercooked. Considering the hell this project went through for nearly two decades, I guess we can all say that we should be happy that the film is decent at the least. This could've been a major league disaster, so I am thankful for it being good.
I can accept the fact that something like this went through a lot to get to the big screen, but I'm just not too keen on all the hyperbole. "Best Disney animated film since Lion King!" Stop that already, please take the time to watch films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch, Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie the Pooh and Wreck-It Ralph. If you did and still consider this the best since Lion King, fine. At least you have seen the films, but I get the feeling that a lot of people haven't, or only saw them once when they were ten and rejected them.
If Frozen hits $300 million domestically, it'll have scored a 4.5x multiplier, which is a notch higher than Frog and Tangled's multipliers. I bet you if both of those films opened with $66 million like this film did, they would've grossed around the same amount in the end. Problem is, Frog opened with $24 million, Tangled opened with $48 million. This film would've opened with around the latter's amount if the marketing department didn't wise up and give us that wonderful "First Time in Forever" trailer, heavily plug the soundtrack and make the film look good to people over the age of twelve.
Frozen's got the legs that Bolt, Frog and Tangled had. It's only outgrossing them by a wide margin because of the opening weekend gross, plus some added hyperbole. When you put it out there that it's supposedly the "best" since Lion King, obviously people will flock to see it.
Now I'm not angry that Frozen is outgrossing what I believe are superior films (such as Bolt, Frog, Tangled and Ralph), I'm just cautious because Disney suits may react to this success the wrong way. Executives tend to do this kind of thing. I can hear it now, actually.
"They like modern princess movies! They like Broadway-style musicals! Make more!"
Okay fine, you can make more. I am anticipating Giants, which is essentially the third "modernized fairy tale musical", the first two being Tangled and this of course. I'd be down with one every three years, it's not a bad template. Tangled's story is very different from Frozen's. If there are any similarities, then they are very small. Snow White and Cinderella aren't the same, but they happen to have princess leads, handsome princes, cute animals and are based on fairy tales. Storywise, they are very different.
But if Disney executives push Disney Animation to just stick to fairy tales, I won't be pleased. Fairy tales may be what Disney is best known for, but other classics like Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and heck, freakin' Lion King, prove that Disney is more than just fairy tales. They are also more than just snarky comedy-drama Broadway musicals.
Why am I concerned though?
Well, Disney Animation's next two films are not fairy tales nor are they musicals in a "classic Disney" sense. Big Hero 6 is about as anti-Renaissance-era Disney as you can get, ditto Zootopia. I'm glad they are, because I'm not keen on Disney sticking to a formula. Walt hated formulas, he wanted to be diverse. I believe Disney Animation should be that way, all of the time. Try something different, but still revisit what you tried before every once in a while because it is a top menu on the item.
But here's a big concern of mine…
What if Disney were to view Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph as the sort of Oliver & Company and Great Mouse Detectives of the last 5 years? Or "lesser" films that were successful but not huge (i.e. Hunchback, Hercules, etc.)?
When Disney was finally smashing the box office left and right with popular hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and so on, those two 1980s films - one was a profitable and critically well-liked film, the other was a modest success that got mixed reviews - fell to the wayside. The Great Mouse Detective is never promoted with a lot of fanfare whenever it comes around, ditto Oliver & Company.
The Great Mouse Detective may not be a sweeping musical event like Beauty and the Beast, and I do consider Beast to be a better film than Mouse Detective, but that doesn't mean the Sherlock Holmesian rodent romp should be treated like a red-headed stepchild. Yes, I believe Disney treats it like that to an extent, at least it's listed in the classics canon. The Great Mouse Detective in my book is a brisk, fun, breezy, simple adventure story with some very likable characters, a highly enjoyable villain and some incredibly entertaining sequences. A film more people should at least watch. It was also the first film directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who would give us some of Disney's most beloved films after that. However, it's not really promoted like other Disney films, its DVD and Blu-ray releases lack the attention and care given to the disc releases of something like Beast (now I'm not asking for a packed mega 2-disc set, though that would be nice), and it's just really kind of… Obscure. It isn't dated, it's not a product of its time. It's a Victorian-set sleuth story, that's kind of timeless if you ask me.
I'm not saying Disney should shove Basil of Baker Street, David Q. Dawson, Olivia Flaversham, Professor Ratigan and the rest of the cast down your throat, but come on! A little push, maybe some more prominence in merchandise and theme parks? Maybe that could attract… You know… Potential fans? Yes it's on Netflix, but that isn't enough if you ask me. It's more than just an "obscure Disney film that happens to be on Netflix." (Over a decade ago, something like Disney's House of Mouse was a good way to keep many characters in the minds of fans, casual viewers and whatnot.)
As for Oliver & Company, well… That's kind of tricky. Again, I don't think Disney should shun any of their animated classics, but Oliver & Company is a near-embarassment because it was really just amped up to be hip in 1988, to make a safe, quick buck. That it did. It was the highest grossing animated film on initial release at the time, and it just functioned as a way to keep Disney Animation trucking and to also show Don Bluth that he wasn't going to be the only one ruling the roost. That being said, it should not be forgotten. It's a footnote, and Disney should treat it as that. Not as an obscure "Ehhh we're scraping the bottom of the barrel so we have to put it out on Blu-ray" film.
Then there's the post-Lion King Renaissance-era films. Films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules seem to only be discovered by nostalgic 90s folks today, Mulan and Tarzan are in good standing since they were sizable hits back in the day, ditto something like Robin Hood - which was always doing fine in video sales in the 1980s and 1990s - or Pocahontas, though they could get a little more push from the Mouse. Maybe more prominence in merch and parks, that always helps. Maybe some of these films, like Mouse Detective, aren't animated Citizen Kanes. Maybe they may not be iconic, but that doesn't mean they should be neglected or seen as "lesser". You can make films like these, well, popular enough.
After Disney got the box office and critical power they had been waiting for in the early 1990s, they effectively shoved The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company out of sight. The latter, I can see why. Again, it was dated and just thrown together to make an easy buck. But why did the former have to get shut out? It wasn't dated or cobbled together, it was a genuinely enjoyable flick. Oh what? It didn't make a blockbuster total at the box office? Whatever. They should've used its modest success to its advantage, treat it like a little Sword in the Stone or Robin Hood. Something of the sort, a little profitable film that continues to do well and garner fans.
See, this is why I'm a bit worried about Disney possibly shutting out some of the last string of films. Bolt was a modest hit, as it did double its budget worldwide and sold well on DVD/Blu-ray. It got great reviews, too! Kind of like Great Mouse Detective, and Disney ignores that film even though it got good reviews and it has a sizable fan base.
Meet The Robinsons will probably get the shaft, big time. Wasn't a box office hit, got okay reviews at best, and is seemingly already forgotten. It's seen as a sort of slightly salvaged mess, one Lasseter could not save, etc. (I beg to differ, but…)
The Princess and the Frog and Tangled are safe, being familiar princess films and merchandising monsters.
Winnie the Pooh might not have been seen by many, but the character is now and forever. It's pretty much safe.
Wreck-It Ralph, box office-wise, is above the Oliver & Company spot. It wasn't a modest success, it was a success. Doubled its budget, sold well on home video, merchandise sold well. Out of the other films, that one is the least likely to be pushed aside. But the video game angle could hurt it, as some inside the company may view it as dated… Like Oliver & Company. Unlike that movie though, it was well-received, it took home a few awards as well! It's kind of in the middle.
But back to Frozen, now that I got the "forgetting thing" out of the way.
Another big concern of mine is this…
How will Disney approach future animated features now that a familiar tale has become their biggest hit since The Lion King?
Disney's marketing department has shown that they can't always market a film correctly, which is true of pretty much every other big studio. For instance, this year Warner Bros. totally botched the marketing for Pacific Rim, making something unique look like just another dull summer blockbuster or "Transformers with giant monsters". Fox couldn't make DreamWorks' Turbo look like anything but a silly kiddie film with its been-there done-that trailers and ads. Last summer, Paramount sold DreamWorks' Rise of the Guardians as an action-packed film, something quasi-cool for action-loving teens, and the movie blew up in their faces. In the process they left out the whimsy and imaginative tone that would've attracted other demographics.
… and so on… Disney has had a history of bad marketing outside of animated films: John Carter, The Lone Ranger, Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer's Apprentice…
But… Bolt and Frog's marketing (done by the previous team, not the current one that was established in 2009 after Rich Ross took over) was inexcusably poor, Tangled's was too cynical. Yes, it gave the film its good-sized opening weekend gross, but it did alienate adults and fans in the process. Ralph's marketing also shut out adults, with its emphasis on "Hero's Doody" jokes and less emphasis on the story. Frozen's campaign smartly emphasized the story, music and characters (albeit at the last minute) which in turn got more adults to show up. Sorry Scott Mendelson of Forbes, but I feel that your defense of the kid-centric marketing is way off.
Had Ralph or Tangled's campaigns did what Frozen did in the end, they would've performed similarly to this new picture.
Now that the studio has a huge hit under its belt, the marketing needs to keep things going. Good marketing sells a movie, no matter how good or bad the movie is. Disney Animation, of all things, just needs to be sold properly to audiences. Big Hero 6 needs to be an event, Zootopia needs to be an event, Giants, Moana, all the future projects. All of them. They need to be events! They need to look appealing to moviegoers. The studio is firing on all cylinders and are delivering top notch stories with great characters, lovely animation and a diverse batch of settings, themes and narratives.
Let's hope that Disney emphasizes the future films' qualities in the trailers, ads and marketing materials instead of just slacking off, instead opting to be cliche and pelt the audiences with jokes, jokes and more jokes - like trailers for every other big-release animated movie out there. Big Hero 6 isn't a big musical fairy tale like Frozen, but so what? The Incredibles was an animated superhero film and that was big, Marvel movies are in, superheroes are in. Period. Strike the iron while it's hot! Big Hero 6 could very well nestle itself in the top five highest grossing Disney animated features league. Zootopia is a talking animals film, but that doesn't matter, make it look awesome to the general public! Show how cool the animals-only world of the film will be! Don't market it like Ice Age 12 or whatever, it's more than that!
The goal is to show audiences that Disney Animation isn't just about fairy tales, once upon a time stories, musicals and cutesy talking animal romps. Disney Animation can tackle anything, they can do a space opera, a mystery thriller, an epic fantasy, a small-scale drama… Anything! Audiences may think Disney can or "should only" do fairy tales, no. They can do more, Pixar wins because of this. Diversity rules in the end, and Disney can get other audiences to go see their animated films by tackling new genres. In turn, their audience will grow and grow. They can sit right alongside Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. No wait, they already do!
I'm not saying Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Giants, Moana and the rest should all be $300 million+ blockbusters… That's unreasonable to expect. Pixar couldn't do it, The Incredibles didn't come close to Finding Nemo's huge $339 million gross. (The press went all "What went wrong?", especially when Cars' opening weekend was a little below The Incredibles' opening weekend.) But I all want them to do very good, so they keep the studio going and also get the public to accept new kinds of stories from Disney, so no one goes "But Disney should only do fairy tales! That's what they do best!"
This kind of thing was attempted last decade, but corporate meddling and mismanagement ran that plan into the ground. Dinosaur was killed by the decision to make the dinosaurs talk in hip slang. Emperor's New Groove cost too much because it evolved out of another movie that was already costly enough, it looked bad from the previews and the actually good movie had to rely on word of mouth to make its money… And it still bombed. Atlantis was not allowed to be the cool epic action film it could've been, ditto Treasure Planet plus the marketing made it look like "Disney Extreme Sports… In Spaaaaaaaaace!" Brother Bear and Home on the Range were aimed at kids first, which alienated everyone else. It's quite telling that the derivative, cynical, Shrek-chasing Chicken Little did better than all these films. It's also quite telling that a good film like Lilo & Stitch outgrossed these films.
I see this new era as a revival of that failed plan, but this time, there's no David Stainton or executives having too much control over the product. If Wreck-It Ralph was made in 2002 during the Eisner-Stainton era, it would've tanked, because its screenplay would've been dumbed down, its better ideas would've hit the cutting room floor and the marketing would've made it look terrible. Nope, Wreck-It Ralph was a hit because the screenplay played to adults and kids - it didn't pander to them, bad ideas hit the cutting room floor and the marketing made it look good enough.
Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, Dean Wellins' "Space Race" film, King of the Elves and several others are risky and different like Dinosaur, The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis, Treasure Planet and Sweating Bullets (yes, Bullets became Home on the Range, but that early incarnation of Disney's failed Western had lots of potential). The difference is, these films are going to be allowed to be good movies… And what they want to be. That's all thanks to the awful, horrible devils that are John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, plus the great writers and animators who bring these stories to life.
Attendance and grosses are two different things…
The Lion King's initial $312 million domestic total translates to roughly 74 million tickets today. If Frozen finishes up with $300 million, it'll have sold less than 40 million tickets. Still a big amount of tickets, but…
Grosses don't mean everything. People still saw films like Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. People have discovered the likes of Bolt and Frog on video, television or other ways. Frozen may make a lot, but Disney better not reserve a throne for that film whilst telling the canine, the frogs and the video game wrecker to take a hike. They already did that to the hunchback, the super-strong hero and several others.
So hopefully the success of Frozen doesn't continue Disney's rather unfair trend of picking and choosing, and hopefully it doesn't drive Disney to go about selling their future animated films the wrong way. They should use the success of Frozen and the films before it to their advantage. Even though Bolt and Frog didn't outgross Chicken Little, they still outgrossed films like Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home on the Range. Chicken Little was lucky, because in 2005, if you were CGI and had a DreamWorks-y attitude, you were a hit. Today? Not so much.
Since Bolt and Frog outgrossed the non-fad films from the studio during the 2000-2005 period (minus you know who, of course), they could be used to demonstrate a growing momentum. It's kind of similar to how Disney used the grosses of Oliver, Mermaid and Beast to prove that Disney Animation was getting bigger and bigger. Bolt and Frog could be them saying: "Look. We're slowly winning back the audiences we lost." Now add in the success of Tangled and Ralph, they'll show: "Look! We got even bigger with those two!" Then Frozen can be their capper, their Aladdin/Lion King smash: "We're back in action now!"
This in turn could really hype up the next string of films, it could drive the marketing department to want to keep the gravy train going. The Renaissance fell after The Lion King because we started getting films like Pocahontas; films that were messes, byproducts of misguided intentions clashing and executive meddling. The declining quality of films got good amounts of people to stay away, not marketing. The marketing still gave it their all when readying films like Hunchback, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan to at least help the films make their money back. Guess what? The films did good at the box office! Hunchback, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan were by all means "hit films" back in the day. Lion King was that rare, once-in-a-lifetime freak success that also hit the summit of the momentum mountain. Did they really think that Pocahontas would repeat that? Or Aladdin's then-enormous $217 million gross? It doesn't work that way. The ignorant higher ups scoffed at the post-Lion King films just because they didn't make Aladdin or Lion King numbers despite being very profitable and selling like mad on home video afterwards. Boo-frickity-hoo…
The quality is consistent with these new films, thanks to the studio's current environment. No formulas, no repeating, no annoyances in the films that drive audiences away. No focus groups telling them what to do, no executives taking their cool ideas and watering them down for toddlers. The current Disney brass better know this, and they better take advantage. A new Renaissance is upon the studio, one that could last a very, very long time.
Time to go big or go home.
In fact… That should be Big Hero 6's tagline. "This Fall… Go BIG or go home!"