Friday, September 24, 2010

Tow Mater vs. Someone You Never Heard Of

Two posts ago I talked a little bit about Duffy the Disney Marketing Bear, and how his marketing campaign seems to be borrowing from the Transformers/He-Man/GI-Joe playbook from the ‘80s that used commercials disguised as entertainment to sell toys to kids. Now, I’m going to tackle a somewhat-related topic: how Licensed Characters have taken over Disney theme park attractions, and why it’s kind of our fault.

Pretend for a minute that you’re a movie studio executive, and that you’re asked to give $200 million of your studio’s money to someone that many film critics consider to be one of the worst directors in the business. The proposed script for the movie reads like it was written by a super-caffeinated person who has only a passing familiarity with linear thought. It features two prominent characters who are obviously racist caricatures, a small, annoying character who vigorously humps the leg of the female lead, and a main character who spends most of his time running away from explosions while shouting scintillating dialogue like “Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa!” and “Wait-wait-wait! No-no-no-no!” Now, if you have any common sense at all you will laugh in this director’s face and ask him if this is some kind of April Fools’ prank, and maybe even inquire as to what kind of complete idiot he thinks you are. And you would probably get fired, because the director is Michael Bay, many of the characters in question are giant robots, and the movie is Transformers 2, which turned a budget of $200 million into a worldwide box office gross of over $800 million, and that doesn’t count the profits from merchandise and DVD sales.

Yes, Transformers 2 may have been universally reviled by critics and ripped apart on the Internet, but it was a huge hit with the average  moviegoing public. You probably won’t admit it out loud, but you probably went to see it. I know I did. In fact, if the last decade or so has taught us anything, it’s that movies based on recognizable and beloved licensed characters are virtually guaranteed to make money, no matter how bad they are. Theme park attractions are a lot like movies, when you think about it. Both cost many millions of dollars to make and must appeal to a broad audience. So, since the general public love its licensed characters, what are you going to do if you’re Disney and you own a huge stable of them? Obviously, every time you need to create a new attraction or rehab and existing one, you’re going to cram a licensed character in there! After all, the people have voted with their wallets; it’s what they want. And if you’ve made a habit of going to see movies featuring licensed characters, then you’ve voted with your wallet, too.

Ah, but why must Disney always simply do whatever the rest of the entertainment industry is doing? Why can’t they dare to be different, blaze new trails? It worked out pretty well for them in the past, after all. I’ll be taking up that topic in a post next week. Thanks for reading!


  1. Didn't see any of the Transformers movies (save for the part they were showing on the news as they filmed the most recent of them on the streets of Chicago), but I would probably admit to it if I had.

    But your point is interesting. And it's true that if you need to do something big, you try to minimize the risk by choosing something that your customers already love.

    So while you can understand why they do things the way they do, it doesn't stop anyone from wishing they tried to be more original (?) in their theme parks - like they sometimes were at the beginning...

  2. I, for one, saw Transformers (the first) and that was quite enough for me. Resisting the marketing machine and skipping awful-looking summer tentpole movies like Transformers 2 is one of the great joys in life. It's a pity my curiosity got the better of me for the first installment-dreadful film.

    As for Disney, it's a shame they don't look to the history of their own parks and realize that original attractions have been driving the business since the beginning. From the Matterhorn to Expedition Everest, from Jungle Cruise to Soarin', originals prove to be exciting, inventive, and massively popular.

    When people think of the Disney Theme Parks, do they really think of Stich's Supersonic Celebration? Sure they think of Mickey and the gang, and sure they think of the castles (all culled from past Disney films), but beyond those obvious examples, it seems to me that most iconic landmarks and trademarks of Disney Parks are unique to--and created for--those parks.

    Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Spaceship Earth, even the Monorail and the resort hotels. These are legendary in their own right and stand for Disney in the public consciousness.

    It seems to me that either the executives are gripped with fear or the imagineers are severely lacking in creativity--or both. The fact is that the Disney Parks are juggernauts, filled with licensed characters already. People will come, regardless of whether the next new attraction features Simba or WALL-E. And if it doesn't, it will offer people something exciting and different, something that can fire their imaginations instead of simply rolling out the familiar. Something, dare I say, magical?


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