Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Winter of Disney Studio's Discontent

I'm sure it looked good on the calendar: three sure-fire hits for the holiday movie season.  First, a 3-D animated Christmas film from award-winning director Robert Zemeckis, using the same motion capture technology that Zemeckis used to create "The Polar Express."  Instead of Tom Hanks performing multiple roles, it would now be Jim Carrey performing in "Disney's A Christmas Carol."  Next, a broad family comedy reuniting the director of the surprise blockbuster "Wild Hogs" with star John Travolta and adding Robin Williams for "Old Dogs."  Last, a triumphant and long-anticipated return to hand-drawn animation and classic fairytales, "The Princess and the Frog."  Now on the cusp of the new year, Disney instead has two disappointments and an outright bomb.  What happened?

"Disney's A Christmas Carol" -- First of all, I hate this title.  This will be addressed in a future post, but to me it's a branding shortcut that insults the audience.  When the film debuted to a less than stellar $30 million, some blamed the release date (first week of November) as being to early for a Christmas film.  But other Christmas-themed films have successfully debuted in that same time frame.  "Carol" showed some staying power and has grossed a respectable $135 million, but that's still less than "The Polar Express" made five years ago.  And for all the talk of dead-eye syndrome and the uncanny valley, "The Polar Express" is an original and charming story.  "A Christmas Carol" is, well, a tale as old as time.  Zemeckis keeps getting better at the motion capture animation and he makes excellent use of the 3-D environments, but his film lacks warmth and wit and charm.  It's simply a very competently told version of the story.  Without the 3-D gimmick there's not much of anything unique to recommend it.

"Old Dogs" -- I don't have much to say about this.  I have not seen the movie, but from the early trailers onward this looked like a lazy, tired, formulaic comedy that aimed squarely for mainstream audiences and apparently mainstream audiences completely saw through it.  The marketing conveyed nothing but uninspired gags, the movie title and poster were confusing (is this a "Beethoven" type of comedy about dogs?) and it's been over a decade since Robin Williams toplined a successful movie.  What were they thinking?  The movie has grossed about $46 million since it's debut a month ago and its box office run is essentially over.  A total dud.

"The Princess and the Frog" -- There was so much hope and promise bound up in this film, it may have been impossible for it to fully deliver.  But, realistic or not, this was supposed to be the beginning of the next golden age, the return of the great fairytale musicals of Disney's past such as "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," and the coronation of John Lasseter as savior of Disney animation.  Personally, I think they nailed it.  I loved it.  The animation is truly beautiful, the songs are charming, the vocal performances are perfect.  Most critics seem to agree.  Richard Corliss at Time called it the movie of the year (that may be a bit much, but okay).  But you know what?  Audiences aren't really buying it.  It's grossed $70 million to date, and it looks on track to finish in the range of Disney's other recent middling animation successes such as "Bolt" or "Chicken Little."  To be an unqualified success, this needed to be a Pixar-sized hit.

I don't know why the audience isn't showing up, but I have a kernel of a theory.  The uniqueness of the film is that it is Disney's first modern fairytale.  It is not set in a storybook world, it's set in 1920s New Orleans.  The net effect is that the film really plays like a richly layered valentine to the Big Easy.  The attention to detail is truly remarkable.  As a native son of the Bayou State I loved it, but I wonder if it also limits the broad appeal of the film.  In the upcoming weeks we'll learn if word-of-mouth will sustain the film to higher grosses, but right now the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" sequel has a clear a strangle hold on the family market.  The redeeming hope for "Princess and the Frog" is that it will prove itself on the consumer products side by reinvigorating the Disney Princess brand.  This would follow the pattern of "Cars," which continues to be a merchandise juggernaut after what was considered to be a disappointing box office run in 2006 (and it grossed over $460 million worldwide!).

What does this mean for the future?  Three thoughts: 1) Iger's decision to dismiss former studio chief Dick Cook continues to look justifiable.  2) John Lasseter has yet to produce a big hit outside of Pixar.  There's no question that "Princess and the Frog" is a high-quality product, but  Lasseter is supposed to re-build Walt Disney Animation Studios into a powerhouse on par with Pixar.  Lasseter's success with Pixar has given him broad influence not only over animation but also into merchandising and the theme parks.  If Disney animation continues to struggle, will his influence and reputation diminish?  3) Disney has signed high-profile deals with Zemeckis (through his ImageMovers production company) and with Steven Spielberg (though DreamWorks Pictures) to help fill their pipeline of filmed content.  The first product of those deals was a disappointment.  Will Disney come to regret these deals?  With product from Zemeckis, DreamWorks, Pixar, and soon Marvel, in addition to Disney live-action and Disney animation, will new studio boss Rich Ross have trouble positioning all of these productions successfully?  This calls to mind the problems Disney had with Walden Media regarding the Narnia franchise.  2010 will be an interesting transition for Walt Disney Studios as they release another ambitious and unproven slate of films.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Remembering Roy

Roy Edward Disney, nephew of Walt Disney and son of Roy O. Disney, died today at the age of 79.  The LA Times has a thorough obit and photo gallery up, and the Walt Disney Company has put out a statement as well.  In short, this is a seismic loss for both the company and for Disney fans everywhere.  To many, Roy served as the conscience of the Walt Disney Company, a kind of Jiminy Cricket who vigilantly worked to protect the company's values and ensured that they would endure into the future.  He saved the Walt Disney Company from near-certain ruin twice, both times ousting the existing executive leadership to force a change in the company's strategic direction.  And he was particularly devoted to preserving the company's preeminent focus on animation.  He presided over the Disney's animation renaissance in the late 80s and early 90s as head of the animation division, and he personally shepherded through Fantasia 2000, a labor of love that fulfilled Walt's ambition to continue the Fantasia experiment.

Roy bore a striking resemblance to his uncle, which lent him an air of celebrity (particularly with hard core Disney fans) and served him well as he waged his battles to protect the company created by his uncle and his father, especially the very public battle he fought from 2003 to 2005 that resulted in the departure of CEO Michael Eisner.  With Roy's passing, it's unlikely that any other member of the Disney family will ever take such an active role in the company. 

Roy Disney got his start with the Disney company by working on the "True-Life Adventures" films.  It's bittersweet, then, that this year Disney returned to the tradition of those films under the new DisneyNature production banner.  And just last week, Disney made its much anticipated and triumphant return to traditional hand-drawn animation with the release of The Princess and the Frog.  And now, like his uncle and father, Roy E. Disney himself has become a part of the storied Disney legacy. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Delayed Gratification

On December 18, James Cameron's Avatar will come storming into movie theaters, claiming to be a 3-D digital sci-fi spectacle unlike anything we've ever seen.  Some folks on the web have expressed skepticism about that claim, but I'm still hopeful the movie will deliver something close to its very big promises. 

But, if I'm being really honest, I'm much more excited about the 3-D digital sci-fi spectacle that will be coming to theaters next Christmas.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Let's never forget. It all started with a mouse."

It's been a while since I've been able to post anything new, but I'd be remiss if I neglected to recognize that 81 years ago today, Steamboat Willie premiered at the Colony Theater in New York City, thus marking the "official" birthday of Mickey Mouse.  Happy birthday, Mickey.  You look better than mice half your age.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Connect Four

Well, there's really nothing connecting these four items, they are simply a few of the stories and blogs that have caught my attention this week that I wanted to comment on.

1) When I first read that the FCC was going to look at issuing new regulation regarding so-called "net neutrality" I planned to write a lengthy blog post on it.  But then I saw this posting over at and I decided that there is no use parroting what someone else has already said so well.  The fundamental question is this:  Do you really want to put the federal government in charge of the Internet?  Because that's what this is.  It's about giving the government the authority to decide the right way and the wrong way to manage the Internet, it's about allowing the government to pick winners and losers among Internet companies and service providers, and it's about the government limiting your choices as a consumer.  I don't understand how anyone could think this is a good idea.

2) Hollywood celebrities have taken on a new urgent cause with the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland and his pending extradition to the United States over 30 years after he fled the country.  Lest anyone feel sorry for this man, here is a stark reminder of exactly what he did to put him in his current situation.  Do not give this man your sympathy.  Hollywood knows no shame.

3) I hesitate to put too much stock in unproven, unattributed speculation, but this item suggesting that Disney may attempt future "Pirates of the Caribbean" films without Johnny Depp raises interesting issues given Depp's reported disappointment with the firing of Dick Cook.  As I've said before, Depp is to Pirates what Harrison Ford is to Indiana Jones.  It just won't work without him.  Remember when George Lucas launched the "Young Indiana Jones" tv series?  You probably don't.  It flopped.  I'm personally a big fan of that show, but audiences just weren't interested in Indy if Ford wasn't the guy on the screen.  Disney needs to understand that there is no chance that a big screen Pirates movie will succeed without Depp.  He appears to still be commited to number four.  Let's just take it one at a time and not get too far ahead of ourselves, okay?

4) Finally, there's a couple of interesting looks at the business of big media.  A NY Times piece previews an upcoming book positing that media companies have embraced rapid growth in pursuit of short-term gains and trends while in fact losing long-term value.  The AOL-TimeWarner merger is the obvious example of this, but News Corp's purchase of MySpace is another example.  Disney has experienced their own headaches of this sort, notably the acquisitions of Infoseek and the Fox Family Channel.  Then there's this interesting speech given by Bill Mechanic, former studio chief at Fox who was also once an executive at Disney, regarding the state of the motion picture industry.  His remarks contain a certain amount of self-aggrandizing pats-on-the-back, but he articulates a pretty compelling grasp of the challenges that face the studios.  I can't help but think he would be an attractive candidate for Disney's new studio vacancy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Strange Tides

Two weeks ago today at the D23 Expo, Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook offered a star-studded, crowd-pleasing look at Disney's ambitious upcoming film slate, showcasing stars and celebrity filmmakers such as Johnny Depp, Miley Cyrus, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Tim Burton, Robert Zemeckis, Jerry Bruckheimer, Guillermo del Toro, and even the Muppets.  One week ago today, Cook was fired from the place he had worked for 38 years.

All the messy details have been widely reported, but suffice it to say that 1) Mr. Cook was completely blindsided and 2) he probably should have seen it coming.  For the last couple of years, the studio has released a steady stream disappointments and under-performers.  Some recent examples include "Bedtime Stories," "Race to Witch Mountain," "Confessions of a Shopaholic," "G-Force," and the 3D Jonas Brothers concert movie.  "Bolt," which was supposed to be the animation studio's return to quality and was well-reviewed, couldn't even match the box-office haul of the much maligned "Chicken Little."  Disney CEO Bob Iger has been so frustrated by the studio division that he called them out during a conference call with financial analysts. 

Since 2006, the only real bright spots for Disney have been been sequels to established franchises (Pirates and National Treasure), Pixar films, 2007's surprise hit "Wild Hogs," and this summer's Sandra Bullock comeback vehicle, "The Proposal."  Even some franchises have fallen short.  Disney killed their own golden goose when they botched the release of "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian;" and "High School Musical 3," the first film from Disney's crown jewel franchise to be released in theaters, could only muster $90 million in box office, far less than other recent movie musicals such as "Hairspray" and "Mamma Mia!".  Today marks the release of another likely high-profile bomb, the Bruce Willis sci-fi flick "Surrogates."  Never heard of it?  That's okay, it seems like Disney only started marketing it a couple of weeks ago, as if they expected it to fail.

Clearly, then, some changes were necessary.  The studio's recent strategy already seemed to concede that they couldn't figure out what they were doing wrong, and thus they were going to outsource alot of their filmmaking to other people and hope they could do better.  This has led to long-term relationships with other production companies and filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Jerry Bruckheimer, and now Guillermo del Toro.  This was also part of the motivation for Disney's acquisition of Marvel.

At this point, you may be thinking, "well no wonder they fired him," but there is still more to the story.  Cook is what you could call a Disney lifer.  He started his career running the monorail at Disneyland and gradually worked his way up into the studio and eventually became Chairman.  He was a company man who understood the Disney brand and culture.  On top of all that, he was well-respected in the industry and had tremendous relationships with Hollywood talent.  They guy got Johnny Depp to appear in character as Jack Sparrow on stage at the D23 Expo.  Do you think just anybody could do that?  He was there to announce with Cook that a new Pirates movie is slated for 2011.  After learning about Cook's departure, however (Cook called him personally), Depp said "There's a fissure, a crack in my enthusiasm at the moment," for a new sequel.  Whoops.  Spielberg was also reportedly shocked by Cook's firing, as Cook was a big part of the reason why Spielberg took DreamWorks to Disney.  Double whoops.

It's probably a bad idea to jeapordize Disney's relationship with the star of its most important film franchise and with the most powerful filmmaker in Hollywood, so Iger better have a handle on these and other talent relationships.  Disney has alot of encouraging projects in the pipline right now, and it would be a disaster if Cook's departure sank any of them (may I personally make a plea for the Muppets?  Please?).  Another wrinkle of the story is the out-of-the blue handling of the announcement, which seems very reminiscent of the kinds of things former studio chief Michael Eisner would do (which isn't the kind of comparison you want). 

For now, all eyes are on Iger.  Does he have a clear vision for the future of Walt Disney Studios?  What are his plans for Cook's replacement?  Will he pick a Disney insider or perhaps divide the role into multiple parts reporting to him (John Lasseter already works quasi-independently as head of Pixar and Walt Disney Feature Animation)?  To me, the most important thing is to maintain the uniqueness of the Disney brand.  Although there have been a few missteps, Cook did an admirable job of restoring the Disney label as a signifier of family-friendly quality.  I hope the future promises more of the same.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Living in Fantasyland

Last weekend, Disney conducted its first "D23 Expo," a fan convention intended to function as a kind of ComicCon for Disney nerds.  Basically, it's a big PR dog-and-pony show where the Mouse can push it's latest and greatest products to its most devoted customers.  And living up to it's promise, the D23 Expo presented an avalanche of information related to both the studio and the theme parks.  Today, I'll start by providing my thoughts on some of the news related to the theme parks, and then follow up in a future post about the studio news.

The irony about the company's theme park presentation is that most all of the information presented had already been circulating around the Internet on various Disney blogs and other fansites.  The surprise then was in finding out which rumors would be confirmed and how many details would be revealed.

The first rumor to be addressed was the potential return of "Captain EO."  For those who don't recall, "Captain EO" was a 3D movie attraction that debuted in 1986 and ran until the mid-90s.  This sci-fi musical fantasy was produced by George Lucas, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starred Michael Jackson.  After Jackson's death, somebody had the bright idea to bring back the attraction to capitalize on the nostalgia wave and to provide a replacement for the well-worn "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" attraction.  This same person apparently forgot that Michael Jackson had a fairly controversial history with children and neglected to consider that perhaps some families might not find sitting in a darkened theater with the man to be all that appealing or appropriate.  On the opening day of the Expo, Disney CEO Bob Iger stated that the Captain EO revival was a no-go.  However, the good folks over at MiceAge have reported that test screenings have definitely taken place and that there is still some talk behind the scenes of bringing the attraction back for a limted run at Disneyland, possibly tied to some sort of charity to blunt the association with Jackson's past controversies.  Personally, I think they'll wait and see how the upcoming Michael Jackson concert film (directed by Disney vet Kenny Ortega) performs before making a final decision.  For die-hard Disney fans, the full attraction would be a compelling curio; if you've ever watched the short film online, however, it doesn't particularly hold up very well.

My Bottom Line: This is a bad idea.  Leave EO in the past and come up with something NEW to put in place of "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience."

Another attraction involving George Lucas also received attention at the Expo.  "Star Tours" is still a reliably popular attraction at the Disney parks in both California and Florida, but it first opened in 1989 and the once state-of-the-art motion simulator ride has become old hat.  Rumors about a makeover have percolated for years, with the most recent version speculating that Disneyland in Anaheim would get a new Star Tours while Walt Disney World in Orlando had decided they were too cheap for the upgrade.  At the Expo, however, Jay Rasulo, Chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, announced that "Star Tours II" would open in both parks in 2011.  The complete details are unknown, but the new iteration will be in 3D and will feature multiple locations from the Star Wars universe, most likely in a random fashion so that everytime you ride the attraction you get a new experience.  Rasulo also claimed that they would "do things with Star Tours that have never been done in any theme park attraction, at any theme park anywhere."

My Bottom Line: This announcement is long overdue and I hope the new ride lives up to this hype.  Honestly, the parks could benefit from more original attractions based on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, especially Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando.  And not simply little shows like the Jedi Training Academy, I mean real attractions.

Without question, though, the biggest theme park news from the Expo was the reveal of the new expansion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.  Remarkably, this news had also leaked onto the Internet in the weeks before the Expo, much to the chagrin of Disney.  But the official reveal still made an impact because of the scale of the new expansion, the level of detail released, and because fans of the Florida parks have been starved for the kind of new development and attention that more often seems to be lavished on the California parks. 

For those with any familiarity with the Magic Kingdom, the new Fantasyland, scheduled for completion in 2013, will now stretch all the way out to completely contain what is currently Mickey's ToonTown Fair, roughly doubling the current size of Fantasyland.  The new land will include uniquely themed, interactive, meet-and-greet areas dedicated to Cinderella, Belle, and Sleeping Beauty.  Each princess will have their own unique "mini-land."  To me, Belle's mini-land is the highlight here as it will include a new table-service dining location themed to the ballroom in "Beauty and the Beast" and a new counter-service dining location themed to Gaston's tavern.

The two elements of the expansion that have captured the most attention are the new Little Mermaid attraction and the overhaul of the Flying Dumbos.  A grand, elaborate new "dark ride" themed to "The Little Mermaid" is already scheduled to open at Disney's California Adventure in 2011.  It will now be replicated at the Magic Kingdom.  If you have no idea what I'm talking about, imagine a ride like Snow White's Scary Adventure or Peter Pan's Flight, but made more on the scale of rides like The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Carribean.  The concept art makes it look amazing.

The iconic Dumbo the Flying Elephant is one of the true must-do attractions at Walt Disney World, and yet it can be a miserable experience because of the painfully long line that always precedes it.  The expansion plan would move Dumbo out to where ToonTown is now, but would put TWO Dumbo spinners side by side, separated by a large circus tent that will contain a vaguely described collection of interactive games.  The most intriguing part of the new Dumbo is that there will be no physical line, per se.  I have no idea how it works, but the idea is that you play games until it's your turn to ride.  If they pull it off, it's the kind of outside the box surprise that fans love about Disney parks.

And in 2014, the last phase of the new Fantasyland will debut -- Pixie Hollow.  This will be another richly themed mini-land where you can meet Tinker Bell and other fairies, but the description is left open-ended enough that there could potentially be more attractions added to this area in the future.

My Bottom Line:  Don't wimp out on us, Orlando!  For every wonderful refurbishment like the 2007 upgrade of The Haunted Mansion, there's a Space Mountain, where there were reportedly some grand plans discussed for revamping this classic ride this year but in the end the executives opted for a cheaper, easier route (we won't really know for sure what they did until the ride reopens later).  A similar tale surrounds Spaceship Earth at EPCOT, where fans have spent over a year since it's refurbishment and reopening debating whether the ending of the ride is actually finished or missing something due to a lack of funding.  This is an opportunity to blow us away.  I hope they actually go above and beyond what is depicted in the concept art.  Disney is clearly trying to keep up with the local competition, but that's a good thing.  It's been a long time since the folks at Walt Disney World have done something that truly blows you away.  They now have the opportunity to do that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Trailing the Trailers

Nell Minnow, the columnist for who first reported the MPAA's new rule change regarding the content of movie trailers, has provided a new update, including a response from the MPAA attempting to further defend the new policy.  The MPAA explained, in part, that under the new rule "the content of the trailer is appropriate for the audience viewing the trailer with the movie they have chosen to see," and that the MPAA has "received feedback from parents that content for some movies in a trailer with an "All Audiences" tag was misleading. This new change reflects the Advertising Administration's increased vigilance to target advertising to appropriate audiences."

I think I understand the MPAA's intent here.  Under the old rule, you could go see a "PG" movie and theoretically see a preview for a movie that was rated "PG-13" or "R" but it would be acceptable because the trailer was approved for "all audiences."  Under the new rule, it's intended that you would go see a "PG" movie and see only previews for similar "PG" movies.  I can appreciate that, but its still an imperfect approach. 

Will the MPAA now allow additional content for "appropriate" previews, including language and violence?  As Ms. Minnow argues, you could conceivably go see a movie rated "PG-13" for language and encounter a preview for a movie rated "PG-13" for violence. This could create create a wide range of standards between the old green-band and red-band trailers of the previous regime (perhaps the MPAA should adopt the now-discarded Homeland Security color coding?).  Again, the standards and sensitivities of the individual viewer (and parent) are so subjective. 

I still remember taking my pre-schoolers to see a Pixar film a couple of years ago where they were subjected to previews for the latest "Harry Potter" movie and the "Bratz" movie.  Those are arguably "appropriate" previews because children are the intended audience, but I didn't think they were appropriate for my little ones.

Ultimately, the choice of which previews get placed on movies is left up to the individual theater.  A true solution, then, would be for each theater to post (or provide upon request) a list of previews attached to each movie.  They already have to keep track of what trailers they are showing and typing it up on a neat little piece of paper is hardly a real burden.  Many parents would probably not take advantage of this information, but it would be a welcomed bit of customer service for those that would. 

The bigger problem, as Ms. Minnow points out, is the accessibility of trailers on the internet.  Anybody of any age can go online and watch any trailer.  Trailers can't be matched with "appropriate" content when they're indexed on  But is this really a good argument for the old trailer system versus the new one?  Even under the "all audiences" standard, previews left very little to the imagination in terms of the violence or sexual content that would be found in an upcoming movie.  And "red band" trailers which are supposed to be restricted online are easy to access anyway.  Regardless of how they are rated, kids have the ability to watch the movie trailers they want to watch (and much worse, too).

This brings me back to my original post on this subject:  there's no substitute for a good parent.  Not only should parents be responsible for monitoring their children's use of the Internet, they should be responsible for raising their kids in such a way that they can make appropriate choices for themselves about what to watch, and can process those things they do watch in a healthy way.  No action taken by the MPAA or the FTC is going to do that for you.

Monday, September 14, 2009


“I do think that, as I said last night, we have to get to the point where we can have a conversation about big, important issues that matter to the American people without vitriol, without name-calling, without the assumption of the worst in other people's motives.”

-President Obama, September 10, 2009 (emphasis added)

“Instead of honest debate, we've seen scare tactics. Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise. Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge….Some of people's concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost…. I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than to improve it. I won't stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in this plan, we will call you out.”

-President Obama, September 9, 2009


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

This blog has been approved for all audiences

The always volatile issue of ratings for media content is once again in the spotlight.  On August 13, Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian "Movieguide" website, called upon the MPAA to abandon it's "failed" ratings system for movies and replace it with an objective "Code of Decency."  Baehr laments so-called ratings creep that seems to stretch the limits of the "R" and "PG-13" ratings into arbitrary meaninglessness.  He even calls upon readers to sign an online petition that will be submitted to the Federal Trade Commission, presumably so they can investigate and regulate the matter.

But on August 31, the Federal Communications Commission went even further when it released a report to Congress on the effectiveness of parental control technologies which states that the FCC will begin an inquiry into the issue of a universal ratings system that would cover all media platforms, including television, video games, and wireless devices such as cell phones.  Because motion pictures are eventually distributed to televisions and portable devices, such a ratings system would necessarily apply to movies as well.  Members of Congress appear to be open to the idea.

The MPAA, for its part, decided to inadvertently throw some more fuel onto the fire with its unheralded decision to replace its previous green-band system for movie previews.  In short, the previous banner stating that "This preview has been approved for all audiences" has been replaced with "This preview has been approved for appropriate audiences," (emphasis added) which is just all kinds of confusing.

As a parent, I am sympathetic to the frustration here.  I know of people who took their youngsters to see "Land of the Lost" (rated PG-13) following the relatively sensible notion that it was a family film based on the Saturday morning show of their childhood.  What they got instead was Will Ferrell dropping f-bombs.  Quite an education for the kids!  And I myself have cringed at some of the previews that show before children's movies.  There was a period of time when I wouldn't even take my children into the theater until the movie was actually starting because the previews were so unpredictable.  And now my kids are old enough to send me text messages on their mother's phone and to get online to play with their Webkinz, and it just gives me the willies thinking about what lies ahead.

But do we really want to ask the government to solve this problem for us?  I think I can safely say that I have absolutely zero confidence that a federal bureaucracy is going to come up with a standard that matches my own values.  Is the President supposed to appoint a new Czar of Good Taste?  And what about the inevitable enforcement of such a new ratings system?  Are we going to see new civil penalties or criminal penalties?  Oh, I know, the government just wants to make sure parents have tools that they can use.  Uh, no thank you.  I don't want the government having any role to play in making moral judgments about what I choose to watch and what I choose to allow my children to watch.

And honestly, the intrusion is unnecessary.  The current ratings system is certainly flawed, but any new system would also have its flaws.  If nothing else, the current MPAA ratings system at least gives you an idea of who the intended audience is (it seems to mostly function as a marketing tool these days).  It's up to you to decide if you agree with their assessment.  Parents today have plenty of resources to help them discern whether new movies or other media are appropriate.  But it is incumbent upon parents to be proactive in their children's lives -- acting as the filter when kids are very young and teaching them to make wise choices as they grow older.  No amount of hand-holding from Big Brother is going to change the ultimate responsibility of being a parent.  Call me old fashioned, but I tend to think I can do a better job than the government when it comes to deciding what's best for my children.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Part II: The Spider, The Lamp, The Frog, and Bill Simmons

As discussed in yesterday's post, Disney has definitely tried to frame it's acquisition of Marvel by comparing it to the purchase of Pixar.  The comparison tells the right story for them.  Disney bought Pixar for what seemed like, to outside observers, a very steep price, and those same observers wondered if the unique culture of Pixar would be lost once it was assimilated into the giant Disney conglomerate.  Nobody is questioning the Pixar deal now.  Pixar continued to run itself independently up in Emeryville and Pixar has continued to crank out blockbusters that earn both money and critical acclaim while providing added value to other divisions of the company.  Disney wants you to think that the Marvel deal will function the same way.

Let's dig a little deeper.  Disney didn't exactly leave Pixar all alone.  The Pixar leadership team was tasked with revitalizing the entire Disney animation division, arguably the cornerstone of the entire company.  Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, became the President of Walt Disney Animation Studios.  And John Lasseter became Chief Creative Officer with broad influence over everything from animation, to the theme parks, to consumer products.  And let's not overlook that Steve Jobs became the largest Disney shareholder and a member of the board.  This all makes sense.  Pixar functioned in it's own unique environment but it created Disney product.  Pixar films and characters have always been co-branded with Disney and have always been a part of Disney.  In fact, many considered Pixar to be more like Disney than Disney itself.  This is not true of Marvel.  It's an entirely distinct brand that doesn't entirely blend well with the Disney image.  This is exactly what has both the Disney and Marvel fan communities so nervous.

Marvel, meet the Muppets.  The Muppets seemed like a no-brainer for Disney in 2004.  Michael Eisner and Jim Henson had already been negotiating a buyout of the Muppets before Henson's death in 1990.  The characters had been featured in theme parks through tv specials and the Muppet*Vision 3D attraction.  They were practically Disney characters already.  So what has happened in the five years since they were acquired?  Do you hear the crickets chirping?  There have been a couple so-so tv movies and specials, some random talk show appearances and the like.  But largely they've languished and become stale.  They've crossed over from relevant to nostalgic, which doesn't strike me as a good long term strategy.  Clearly, Disney couldn't figure out how to either fully integrate the Muppets into the Disney family or allow them to function separately.  Kermit is still an iconic character, and I'm hopeful Disney will turn things around.  There are a few signs of hope on the horizon.

The challenge for Marvel, as I see it, is brand strategy.  Pixar was already perceived as a Disney brand, so there were no real problems there.  The Muppets should have been easy to integrate into the Disney brand, but so far the record is mixed.  Marvel will be an even greater challenge.  It's important to let Marvel function as an independent business division so they can continue on the terrific creative success they've enjoyed in recent years, drawing upon the many resources Disney offers whenever they add value.  But how do you present it?  I don't think you want to make it "Disney/Marvel" they way they did with "Disney/Pixar".  You can't just drop this guy, or this guy, or her into the Magic Kingdom next to Mickey and Cinderella.

Marvel, meet ESPN.   ESPN was another siginificant acquisition that occured when Disney bought Cap/Cities in 1996.  It brings in billions of dollars of revenue for Disney and it's hard to overstate just how important it is to the company.  But for the most part, you would never know it's Disney.  They definitely take advantage of certain cross-promotional opportunities and synergies of that sort, but it generally functions separately as a completely distinct brand.  I think this could be the model for Disney to use with Marvel going forward.  By allowing Marvel to function completely separately while leveraging the resources of the entire company when it can maximize value, Disney will be able to preserve, protect, and maintain the brand identity of both Mickey and Spidey.


In detailing all of Disney's current efforts to appeal to the "boy market," I neglected to mention their newest attempt at a franchise, due next summer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Mouse and the Spider

Sometimes you see a news story so big, you just have to start a blog and write about it.  That was my immediate response yesterday upon reading that Disney is going to purchase Marvel for about $4 billion.  The news sent shockwaves through both the Disney Geek and Comic Book Geek fan communities, with reactions running the full gamut from optimistic, to skeptical, to downright hostile.  Will we get cool new theme park rides?  Will characters like Wolverine lose their edge to fit the Disney brand?  Isn't Marvel already spread around to different movie studios?  That's a small sample of the kind of questions getting asked.  I'll offer my own two cents without completely regurgitating some of the opinions I've read in other places.

In short, this move is all about boys.  If you're a girl, Disney has got you covered.  There is no shortage of princesses and fairies for young girls, and as they get older they have Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and the Jonas Brothers waiting for them.  Even some of the core Disney characters like Winnie the Pooh tend to appeal more to girls than to boys once you move beyond pre-school age.  Some Disney fans think that Disney has put so much emphasis on girls that if you didn't know any better you'd think the theme parks were just big princess playlands.  So where are the boys? 

Disney chief Bob Iger apparently agreed with the criticism and sought to do something big and bold about it.  But was he right?  Disney had already been making some moves to shore up their appeal to boys.  Pixar's "Cars" has been a huge success with boys, so much so that a sequel is planned for 2011 and a whole new "Cars Land" is being build at Disney's California Adventure park and will open in 2012.  Buzz Lightyear and Woody have a strong appeal to boys and soon they'll be front and center as Disney re-releases "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" this fall in 3D to get audiences ready for "Toy Story 3" next summer.

Ah, "but those are for little boys," you're saying.  Ten-year-olds don't care much about Lightning McQueen.  Maybe not.  But what about pirates?  Not the Peter Pan stuff, but undead skeletons and sea monsters and Johnny Depp?  They like those pirates, right?  Disney has another one of those in development and undoubtedly has plans to keep "Pirates of the Carribean" as an "evergreen" franchise.  There's also a new Tron movie set for release next year, and new franchise possibilities on the horizon as the studio develops films based on both John Carter of Mars and the Lone Ranger.  That looks to me like alot of stuff focused on boys.

So why Marvel?  Because Spider-Man and Iron Man and the X-Men are a sure thing.  All of these other properties that Disney is developing are risky.  Will anyone really care about "Tron Legacy," a sequel to a film that flopped 27 years ago? (For the record, I care a great deal.)  Has anyone beyond the hardcore fans even heard of John Carter of Mars?  Can the Lone Ranger be made relevant and exciting for today's audiences?  Disney hopes the answer to all of those questions is "YES!", but they don't really know.  And Pirates?  I honestly think that franchise relies on Johnny Depp the same way that Indiana Jones relies on Harrison Ford.  And while I personally enjoyed last summer's new Indy adventure, I just don't think a sixty-something Jack Sparrow is going to work.

But that brings up a good point.  What about Star Wars and Indiana Jones?  Those two franchises are the gold standard for boys and Disney has a pretty long-standing relationship with Lucasfilm that has allowed it to aggresively exploit those franchises in the theme parks.  And yet they've never really been able to extend it beyond the theme parks.  When Lucas unveiled the new "Clone Wars" animated series, it would have been a natual fit for Disney.  They were already re-launching their ToonDisney cable channel as the all-boy, all-the-time DisneyXD channel.  They could have built the whole thing around "Clone Wars" and cross-marketed the heck out of it on Disney Channel, ESPN, and ABC.  It would have created new opportunities for the theme parks, too.  But the show instead went to TimeWarner's CartoonNetwork and has been a huge hit.  How did they miss this opportunity?  I have no idea, but I'm guessing Lucas had some pretty steep demands that Disney just wasn't willing to meet.

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention a personal sore spot:  Narnia.  In 2005, Disney launched what promised to be the start of a strong new literary/fantasy franchise that could be their Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.  It would, one would think, also appeal strongly to boys (and girls, too).  In fact, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" became one of Disney's all-time highest grossing films.  It was a huge success and another great franchise was up and running.  But then something went wrong.  The sequel, "Prince Caspian," was originally scheduled for the Holiday 2007 window but was pushed to summer 2008 because Walden Media, which actually owns the rights to the franchise and had a co-licensing agreement with Disney, didn't want the film competing with another one of their co-productions.  This created an almost too-long 2.5 year gap between the films.  In contrast, the Harry Potter films have generally run on a pretty tight 18-month cycle to preserve both their young audience and their young actors.  To make matters worse, Disney launched the film with one of the worst marketing campaigns ever, basically pushing actor Ben Barnes as if he were a new Jonas Brother and minimizing the film's connection to the previous blockbuster.  And finally, the film's release date was sandwiched between Marvel's "Iron Man" and the new "Indiana Jones" and it got squeezed.  I've digressed for too long, but a really good movie got lost and it under-performed.  Disney couldn't reach agreement with Walden Media on moving forward and now Fox will be releasing "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" next Christmas.  Franchise dead.

The point here, and I do have one, is that Disney has no true ownership of either the Lucasfilm or Narnia properties.  Buying Marvel then solves their two big challenges: 1) it provides a reliable franchise with proven appeal to boys, and 2) it gives Disney complete control over that franchise.

Problems solved, right?  Well, there are still concerns.  Disney doesn't get to take off running with their shiny new toy.  As has been well-reported, Marvel has extensive licensing agreements that Disney will have to honor.  Paramount has five more films to release.  Fox still has the X-Men/Wolverine franchise and other characters like the Fantastic Four and Daredevil.  Universal still has the Hulk.  And Sony has the biggest character of all with Spider-Man, and you can bet they have no plan to relinquish him until they absolutely have to.  On the theme park front, Universal Studios has the Marvel characters both here and abroad.  Disney will still get the licensing fees for all of this, but that's about it.  So no new big movies, no new theme park rides, what does Disney get?  Well, I imagine the consumer products division is pretty darn happy.  And DisneyXD has already been running Marvel cartoons almost 24-7 so that gets easier.  And I wouldn't be surprised if the film studio looks for an untapped character that they can quickly develop into a tent-pole movie.  I'm also curious about the fine print of the theme park deal.  Who has the theme park rights to the films that have been released?  Could Disney, for example, incorporate elements of "Iron Man" into the Great Movie Ride?

Iger has been quick to compare this acquisition to his acquisition of Pixar in 2006.  That comparison works to a point.  I sure hope Iger gives Marvel the same kind of autonomy to keep doing what they've been doing well just like he did with Pixar.  But Pixar, although it functioned creatively as separate and apart from Disney, was always branded as Disney.  "Finding Nemo" was always a Disney movie.  Mike and Sully were always perceived as Disney characters.  Does Marvel fit the Disney brand?  I think this is going to be the riskiest part of the new venture, and I don't have an easy answer.  The company will have to manage these characters very carefully with regard to how they are used with the Disney brand name.  You obviously wouldn't release a "Punisher" movie under the Disney label, but what about Spider-Man?  He's the kid-friendliest character in the Marvel stable, but even those movies have a certain level of violence you wouldn't necessarily associate with Disney.  The ABC and ESPN labels have co-existed relatively well with Disney, so there's no reason to think they can't make it work with Marvel; but they should maintain, at least initially, a separation between the Marvel and Disney names.

Iger is taking the long view here, and it may take many years before we really see all the benefits and possibilities come to fruition.  But $4 billion is a lot of money.  As a fan of both Disney and Marvel, I hope this new partnership turns out more like the Pixar purchase and not Disney's disastrous purchase of the Fox Family Channel.  Well, that's enough of my ramblings for today. If you've read this far, thanks.  As Stan Lee would say, Excelsior!