Is Disney Marketing Going a New Route?

Earlier, I had complained about how Disney mishandled a few of their 2015 and 2016 releases. To me, it seemed like their marketing department couldn’t handle so many big, tentpole, “event” pictures at once. For every Avengers: Age of Ultron and Inside Out, there would be a Tomorrowland and a Good Dinosaur. The Good Dinosaur flopping in the fall/winter of 2015 really was an eye-opener for me: Even Pixar wasn’t safe. Even their name alone couldn’t sell the feature in question. This year had the likes of Alice Through the Looking Glass and The BFG.

Most of these event movies each cost more than $150 million to make. While I can somewhat justify the Marvel and Star Wars films carrying these kinds of price tags, I can’t quite say the same about the rest of the company’s output. Last year saw a more conservative film in Pete’s Dragon, Disney put little marketing love into it, and it barely doubled its budget. Probably enough for Disney, as no write-down has been taken. Yet.

Next year sees a bevy of to-be-hits. We know that the three Marvel movies are locked, no two ways about it. The same goes for Star Wars – Episode VIII. Beauty and the Beast is probably a lock for $1 billion, $2 billion, $3 trillion… And… That’s it?

Now you may be thinking, “You’re forgetting the two Pixar films and Pirates of the Caribbean 5!” I’m not forgetting, I’m actually unsure of how those will do. Two of these pictures have taken interesting directions in terms of the marketing, which I want to dive into…

The Pirates of the Caribbean series isn’t quite the coin-generator it used to be… At the domestic box office. While the latest film in the series – 2011’s On Stranger Tides – had the lowest attendance (29 million tickets sold, every other installment each sold more than 44 million), it was a monster overseas. 3D being relatively new also helped, so the film was able to cross $1 billion in the end and ensure a fifth film. Originally pegged for the summer of 2015, the fifth Pirates film sailed rough seas. Despite Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) being at the helm of the picture, difficulties got it pushed all the way back to this coming summer. I think it shows that Disney is willing to delay things if it means “get the quality right”. They’ve shown this with various other films that are in their massive pipeline.

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When all is said and done, the budget for this thing will be $320 million. That means it will have to make around $800 million worldwide just to break even, so if overseas grosses don’t quite come to the rescue, this thing will have to pull ridiculous domestic numbers. Can it?

The teaser for the film is a bit cryptic and heavily emphasizes the new villain, Jack Sparrow is nowhere to be seen. Johnny Depp is no longer the guarantee he used to be, Disney learned that hard cold lesson with The Lone Ranger, and other studios learned it with films like Mortdecai and Dark Shadows. Alice Through the Looking Glass couldn’t be saved by Depp nor the mania that made the first film a gargantuan success. The teaser is rather unusual, but refreshing because of this…

As such, I didn’t hear many groans when it came out. Not much “what?! Another Pirates movie?!” sighs. By May 2017, it will have been six years since the last one came out, it almost feels like an eternity. Perhaps a comeback is welcome? I don’t know. The fact is, I’m sure Disney won’t want a big loss out of this, even if it is an entry in a franchise that’s arguably past its expiration date. Alice Through the Looking Glass, surprisingly, cost less than its predecessor. The loss wasn’t as catastrophic as it could’ve been. That’s not the case with Pirates, though.

Like the teaser for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, it doesn’t even have the title in it. Just the Pirates skull logo. The poster is also without a title. Perhaps this kind of marketing could re-acquaint audiences with the franchise, and keep it chugging. Perhaps the delay was to ensure a better quality movie that could have better legs at the box office? It’s no secret that all of the Pirates sequels were more frontloaded than anything. The original film opened with a modest $46 million back in the summer of 2003, and made 6 1/2x that! It climbed to $305 million here in the states.

The others, by contrast, opened super-high. Dead Man’s Chest made 3.1x its opening, while the other two made less than that. The 2 1/2x multiplier is common for frontloaded blockbusters, even acclaimed ones, but it shows that the first and second films were definitely the peak. It was diminishing domestic returns from there on out. Dead Men Tell No Tales sets squarely between Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Cars 3, the former is definitely going to be huge. Will Disney be able to balance the pirates and the automobiles? That remains to be seen.

Cars 3

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Cars isn’t well-liked by a good chunk of the Internet. It’s the proverbial red-headed stepchild of Pixar’s acclaimed animation library, but the domestic box office for the first film in the series showed that audiences didn’t think so. The second film opened with great numbers as well, but had the worst legs for a Pixar film and a multiplier that was very low for an animated movie. Cars 2 wound up with much less than its predecessor in the states, but worldwide it fared better due to the international setting. It was enough to cover the movie’s massive $200 million budget.

All of Pixar’s sequels have each cost $200 million to make. Originals normally hover somewhere around $180 million, which is still a lot! Cars 3, I reckon, will likely cost $200 million to make. This means that it has to make around $500 million to break even. Cars made $461 million worldwide back in 2006, without the aid of 3D, IMAX, or any additional bells and whistles. Cars didn’t quite appeal to overseas audiences, being an overtly American film and not something more universal like Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc. The spies around the globe plot of Cars 2 got the film past $562 million worldwide.

Cars 3 doesn’t seem to have any of that. It’s going back to America, back to the road, back to NASCAR-like racing. This might pose a problem for a film that has to collect over $500 million at the worldwide box office. (Now, it’s possible that Pixar takes it easy and budgets it at around $150 million, so it would have to take in $375 million worldwide.) Cars 2 opened higher than its predecessor, but its legs kept it from getting anywhere near the final North American tally that the original posted. Without 3D no less!

So now Cars 3 has shoes to fill. Like Pirates, it’s mega-budgeted and is also arguably an entry in a franchise that has outstayed its welcome. Or maybe it hasn’t… Disney theatrically released the DisneyToon-produced spin-offs Planes and Planes: Fire & Rescue, films that were meant to be direct-to-video releases. Planes, costing $50 million to make, opened with $22 million and finished up with $90 million domestically. Worldwide, it collected $239 million. Disney was very pleased with this. The sequel faltered domestically, but its worldwide gross was triple the budget… Disney for some reason didn’t consider this a success, and moved on from the spin-off series.

Audiences already know Lightning McQueen and company, so will they be back for thirds? Or are they tired of Cars?

Whatever they may feel, Disney successfully got people talking about the third film. And I mean *talking*…

People were shocked by both the teaser and the poster. “Lightning McQueen died!” “Wow, Cars got dark!”, this, that, this that… I didn’t see what they were seeing, all I saw was a trailer that chose to show what will probably be a very dramatic part of the movie. It would be like a teaser for Toy Story 3 opening with the incinerator sequence and fading out as they all hold hands. It would be like Inside Out‘s teaser ending with Joy in the memory dump, or a Good Dinosaur teaser being the scene where the rapids knock Arlo unconscious. Just a teaser starting smackdab in the middle of something bad happening, and ending there.

Like the Pirates marketing, the title of the film doesn’t appear on the poster or in the trailer. Whatever we might think of this teaser, it did something the Pirates teaser didn’t do. It was all over the place, all over social media, there was all this shock over how “dark” Cars got. This seemingly innocuous little series about talking cars, racing, and farting tow trucks. People “talked” about Cars 3, en masse. Did any piece of marketing for the first two films generate this kind of buzz, like, at all?

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It definitely feels like a case of the marketing people playing their cards right, and I suspect that Pixar intentionally wanted to jab at the Internet folk who normally blather about how Cars is worse than cancer. In Pirates‘, it also seems like an attempt to restore interest in a series.

Spider-Man: Homecoming opens after these two pictures, the trailer is far more conventional. The title’s there, the structure is pretty much what you’d expect. It didn’t go the Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 route. To be fair, that first “Coming Soon” teaser was billed as a sneak peek. The newest trailer, a more conventional one, is called the “Teaser”. Still, that “sneak peek” went out to theaters, and rolled before all the big blockbusters. It was still a bit of an unusual marketing move.

Pirates and autos bucked the trend with their teasers, will Disney marketing do the same with Coco? Thor: Ragnarok is likely going to get a traditional teaser, and it’s unknown what live-action film Disney is releasing on July 28, 2017. (Going by what I’ve seen and read, it’s going to be this tiny-budgeted film called Magic Camp. That’ll probably be Pete’s Dragoned.) Coco is Pixar’s first non-sequel movie since The Good Dinosaur, and that probably faces an uphill battle as well.

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Though Pixar refuses to call this new film a “musical”, Coco is a musically-tinged Day of the Dead adventure that will be opening between Thor: Ragnarok and Episode VIII. Now, The Good Dinosaur opened the Thanksgiving before The Force Awakens and flopped. Moana opened this Thanksgiving, we’re getting a Star Wars movie this weekend, Moana is already doing well. Disney marketed one right, while not giving much love to the other. Moana was easier for Disney to sell, being a big 90s-style Broadway-skewing musical “princess” story. The Good Dinosaur was a weird and minimalist frontier adventure that happened to star dinosaurs, when you think about it, it’s one of Pixar’s oddest movies yet. That is also not quite an easy sell, either, so they pretty much gave up on it.

Will they dump Coco, too? Or will they give that one care? If they do, will they go a different route with the marketing? Or give us the usual set of trailers and ads? Will they carry some of the new ways of marketing with them into what looks to be a hit-filled 2018?

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One thought on “Is Disney Marketing Going a New Route?

  1. Contempt for the source material was and is the reason I refuse to see UNPETE’S UNDRAGON, and now I refuse to see anything Bryce Dallas Howard is in ever. By seeing any remake, you just enable more remakes and fewer original ideas.

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