Why is Disney Overemphasizing Frozen?
To anyone who is sick and tired of hearing the song “Let It Go” two years after Disney’s Frozen opened in theaters and wonders why Disney has not given its other recent animated films such as Big Hero 6 the same kind of theme park and merchandising attention, I would say, “Yes, they are overemphasizing Frozen.” If these same people wonder whether Disney’s focus on Frozen will negatively effect the Walt Disney Company or its other animated films in the future, this study is meant to put their minds at ease.
In short, Frozen has become a cultural phenomenon in America and Disney is ready to capitalize on that momentum, combining all of their hard learned lessons from the past decades. First this study will provide a brief history of Disney’s marketing strategies over the years and then explore the reasons why the Frozen franchise is seemingly taking over the world. Next, this study will address the effects of Frozen-mania on other Disney projects by comparing the response to Frozen (2013) to that of Big Hero 6 (2014). This study focuses on Big Hero 6 for this study because unlike Pixar’s most recent release, Inside Out (2015), Big Hero 6 has been through the full cycle of movie release markers including home release and Academy Award Season, which places the film in a clearer periphery to the history of Disney marketing in this article.
A Whole New World
The fact is, the Walt Disney Company revolutionized the way merchandising ties to a studio when a man named Herman Kamen was hired by Walt and Roy Disney in 1932. 1 Until then Walt saw merchandise as a way of promoting his Mickey cartoons, but Kamen had the vision to realize that the success of a cartoon will carry over into success at the store counter. The company channeled this power and was able to make higher quality cartoons with their expanded budget. 2 Walt then expanded his company into other mediums such as TV for their cross-promotional potential.
After Walt’s death, the animation wing of the Walt Disney Company struggled. Expensive movies such as the notorious The Black Cauldron (1985) could not make back their own budgets at the box office and animation was considered a dead art form. During these dark days, the Walt Disney Company stayed afloat through merchandise and theme park sales, as well as re-releases in theaters (and eventually the coming of age of VHS tapes). By the time The Little Mermaid (1989) premiered to wide acclaim, Disney was unprepared to profit from the film because no one imagined that an animated film would ever have that kind of financial success ever again! By the time The Little Mermaid was released on home video, the Company was a bit more prepared and The Little Mermaid merchandise accounted for one-third of sales in Disney Stores. 3
It wasn’t until Aladdin (1992) opened that Disney solidified strategies to handle the mega-success of their animated films. New campaigns included action figures, fast food toys, CDs, books, a new animated series on the Disney Channel, as well as Aladdin-themed transformations within Disney parks much like those seen in honor of Frozen complete with a parade in MGM Studios with a spitting camel and the Aladdin restaurant. 4 I’m sure I’m not the only one to recall a certain episode of Full House where Michelle releases the Genie and DJ sees Steve (who provide the voice for Aladdin) in an Aladdin costume proving that Disney still utilizes Walt’s strategies of cross-promotion. This time of unprecedented success in the Walt Disney Company is affectionately called the “Disney Renaissance.”
During the Company’s expansion that occurred during the Renaissance, the animation department was able to make more than one animated feature a year. There would be the Company’s main animated feature, which I shall refer to as its “flagship” and others which did not receive as much attention with movies such as The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) being given a limited release under the Touchtone label. The film did relatively well and was critically acclaimed, but it did not receive the same status as Aladdin did and was, therefore, not given the same amount of attention. (I will come back to this).
Meanwhile, Toy Story (1995) changed the way Disney viewed the potential of its secondary films as it performed better than Disney’s “flagship” movie Pocahontas did in 1995. The shift in attention from the animated musicals to the Pixar films is also reflective of a larger culture shift that occurred in the Company after Disney Renaissance CEO, Michael Eisner, resigned to be replaced by Bob Iger.
Whereas the culture of the Eisner-era was defined by a musical theatre culture and theatre veterans like Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Peter Schneider, the Iger-Era is defined by a focus on science and technology. 5 As the early 2000’s progressed, Pixar films performed better than Walt Disney Animated films, leading to Disney’s merger with Pixar. Pixar films became the new “flagships.” However, Frozen, like Toy Story, changed the game: in part, because of the flawless execution of marketing and promotion which incorporates many tactics from Disney’s past.
For the First Time In Forever
The Walt Disney company has mastered the art of target audience marketing since Beauty and the Beast was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. All of a sudden, there was not just the “TV ad for little girls” and “TV ad for little boys” approach, but there were trailers aired during prime time, targeting adults because the Oscar nomination granted credibility to an art form which had not been taken seriously until that point despite the Academy Awards that Disney films had won in the past. As Disney’s market grew, their target audience marketing became more nuanced. 6 The marketing for Frozen has benefited from years of evolution in this field and adapted the “slow reveal” strategy. The first theatrical trailer for the film featured Olaf, the snowman, performing hilarious gags with no music. This trailer is purposefully vague and uses “boy humor.” The second trailer featured adventure and finally the third featured plot points and music, but still implied that the male characters were the heroes/focus. 7 These theatrical trailers show the Company’s attempt to sell a film which is primarily about women to its 43%male demographic.
Interestingly enough, the marketing strategy for Big Hero 6 was similar featuring a vague “boy humor” first trailer where Hiro attempts to put armor on the large Baymax to no avail. The second trailer featured action with the “Man in the Kabuki Mask” and the third focused on the brotherly relationship between Hiro and Tadashi and plot points involving the group of friends that becomes superheroes. Seeing as how Big Hero 6 received the same marketing beginnings as Frozen, one might wonder why Frozen seems to still be the focus of Disney energies. Firstly, it is worth noting that Frozen and Big Hero 6 are two completely different genres: Frozen is a musical and Big Hero 6 is a superhero movie based on Marvel comic source material. Musicals get sequels, theme park shows, eventual Broadway shows, books, t-shirts, action figure, and accessories while superhero movies get comics, spin-offs, t-shirts, action figures, and possible TV shows. As you can see, there are some similarities in merchandising, but Frozen has some advantages in addition to better box office performance 8 which would explain the reasons why Disney is more likely to focus on Frozen as its “flagship.”
One major advantage that Frozen has over a movie like Big Hero 6 is the fact that Frozen is a musical. Following the tradition of Broadway megamusicals of the 1980’s, Disney would release singles from their musicals before the première of the film to garner interest. Just like Aladdin, Pocahontas, and other musical movies of the Renaissance, Disney released the single “Let It Go” before Frozen opened in theaters. The release of music allows for much more varied marketing opportunities including Idina Menzel’s performance of the song on talk shows and live at the Oscars. In this age of YouTube, every single adorable post of a young child singing the song was free advertisement for Disney, and the vast presence that the film had on social media tells Disney just how popular the movie is.
One might wonder, however, why other recently released Disney animated musicals such as The Princess and the Frog (2008) and Tangled (2010) did not turn into the huge blockbuster that Frozen did. I would argue that part of this gap is due to the fact that Frozen opened in a post-Glee America, where musicals are “cooler” than they were a decade ago, especially if they encompass themes of difference. “Let It Go” has become more than just a Disney song, it has become a political statement which has been written about by several commentators. 9 According to an article in Forbes Magazine, Marty Brochstein, senior VP at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association is quoted as saying, “This is one of those cases where the content won. It was not so much about marketing, it’s just really a story that resonates, particularly with young girls.” 10 Meanwhile, the musicality of the film also spawns karaoke CDs, singalongs, Disney On Ice Shows, and Disney World performances.
Another advantage that Frozen has is the fact that it is winter-themed and is featured during Disney Word’s holiday party in the Christmas/Hanukkah season as well as being featured in the Norway pavilion in Epcot. 11 Meanwhile, Big Hero 6 has no such songs, political messages, or social media presence. While the meet-and-greet for Hiro and Baymax was popular in Disney World it was cancelled because of technical problems with the Baymax suit. Frozen, on the other hand, remains perfectly suited to the culture of Walt Disney theme parks and merchandising.
All Hail the Pumpkin King
For those fans of Big Hero 6 who fear that this film will disappear into obscurity, I say, “Remember Nightmare Before Christmas.” It is Disney’s talent at reading into trends that has made an obscure film like Nightmare into a Disney World staple with loads of merchandise in stores and seasonal shows and attractions. Over the years, Nightmare has received a cult following and its acceptance into the Disney mainstream signifies a cultural shift in America in which the “strange” is embraced, much in the same way that Frozen‘s themes of “otherness” are part of its strength. Another film from the early 90’s which did not make a huge splash upon its release is Hocus Pocus (1993) which also gained a cult following over the years and is now featured in Disney World’s Halloween show with whispers of a sequel in the works. Therefore, if a movie like Big Hero 6 is being eclipsed by the success of Frozen, there is always the possibility that Hiro and Baymax will make a comeback in the future if its content proves worthy. In the meantime, the revenue generated by Frozen will help to fund high-quality animated “flagship” films in the future and more secondary films with the potential to become classics. As of now, the challenge that Frozen poses to the Walt Disney Company is to create more meaningful works which impact generations of fans dedicated to the Disney mythology.
- Griffin, Sean. Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out. New York, London: New York University Press. 2000. pg 185. ↩
- ibid., 186 ↩
- Hill, Jim. “Disney Looks to Avoid the Mistakes That It Made With ‘The Little Mermaid’ as It Expands Its ‘Frozen’ Empire.” The Huffington Post. Sept. 17, 2014. Web. Sept. 29. 2015. ↩
- Griffin, 187 ↩
- Taylor, James C. “How Broadway Helped Animate Disney’s Comeback.” Los Angeles Times. April 3, 2010. Web. Sept. 29, 2015. ↩
- Griffin, 187 ↩
- Davis, Scott. “What Marketers Should Learn From Disney’s ‘Frozen.'” Forbes Magazine. Jan 15, 2014. Web. Sept. 29, 2015. ↩
- Frozen earned $400 million domestically while Big Hero 6 earned about $222 million, www.boxofficemojo.com ↩
- Kermode, Mark. “Why Frozen’s Let It Go is more than a Disney hit – it’s an adolescent apéritif.” The Guardian. April 10, 2014. Web. Sept. 29, 2015., Peterson, Kierran. “Disney’s Frozen and the ‘gay agenda'” BBC News (Washington D.C.). March 10, 2014. Web. Sept. 29, 2015. ↩
- Bulik, Beth Snyder. “How Disney Has Managed to Keep Frozen Red Hot.” Forbes Magazine. Sept. 3, 2014. Web. Sept 29, 2015. ↩
- The Frozen-themed attractions in Norway include an exhibit in Stave Church dedicated the historical and cultural research that went into the film and the closing of the ride Maelstrom to make way for the new ride Frozen Ever After. ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.