Disney taking a pass on one of the most profitable movies of 2009?
It feels like every time you turn around, someone at Disney is trying to blow up the old model of doing business and replacing it with a snazzy new paradigm. The news in the last few days has been about Disney's increasingly contentious battle with movie theater owners over shrinking the window between a film's theatrical release and its reappearance on DVD. But as I've written over and over in the past, Disney chief Bob Iger is also busy transforming his studio into a Brand Factory, where nearly every film that hits the theaters will have built-in brand awareness, just like a new Procter & Gamble detergent.
Vulture's new crack reporter Claude Brodesser-Akner has just put up an eye-popping new post reporting that Disney's brand mania has gotten so out of control that it has told the producers of "The Proposal," one of last year's most profitable films, that the studio has no interest in making a sequel. That's a serious shocker when you consider that the film, which cost just $40 million to make, grossed a whopping $315 million around the world. Even if you had to give Sandra Bullock a hefty raise to star in a sequel, you have to really want to get out of the movie star business to take a pass on raking in the shekels from a sequel with such built-in awareness and audience goodwill.
Disney's move away from "The Proposal" is sure to set off more shock waves in the Hollywood creative community, since if you're a top talent agent or manager or producer, this is yet another sign of economic Armageddon for the top-flight actors who keep WME and CAA afloat. It means that instead of giving a big payday to a top star, Disney is bent on making two kinds of movie star-free films, either the $200-million special-effects extravaganza (in which the effects and the familiar source material are the star) or the low-budget comedy or thriller that can be stocked with Disney Channel stars who are either already under contract or can be paid the kind of money Jerry Bruckheimer doles out to his interior decorator.
Brodessor-Akner nicely describes the Disney brand strategy this way: "To help pay for the whopping $10 billion Disney spent acquiring Pixar and Marvel in recent years, Iger decreed that as the world's largest licensor of consumer products, Disney needs its films not to merely succeed in theaters, but to sell gobs of spinoff merch, as well: In 2008, the company sold some $30 billion worth of licensed consumer products, and suffice to say, exactly none of that came from Sandra Bullock hand towels."
It's not as if Iger didn't spell out the strategy himself, telling a global media conference in December that the value of Disney, Pixar and soon-to-be Marvel pictures is "going to be a lot greater over time than any [value] we could create from a non-Disney branded, or non-Pixar or non-Marvel film. That is where we are headed."
Can you stock a studio like you'd stock a supermarket, with familiar brands replacing homemade products on the shelves? It's a grand experiment but one, I suspect, that isn't going to work out as smoothly as Iger expects. Though he's clearly savvy and future-oriented, Iger should hole up some weekend and read a few Hollywood history books. He'd discover a funny thing -- you can't take the risk out of the movie business, especially not with products with supposedly built-in mass appeal. Many of the most profitable movies ever made weren't pre-sold products or familiar brands, but quirky, unwanted ugly ducklings that were often made unwillingly by reluctant studio chiefs who only regained their enthusiasm for the pictures after they made a boatload of money.
"The Proposal" photo by Kerry Hayes/Touchstone Pictures
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