Monday, April 6, 2009

The Commercial Virtues of Art

There's an article in the Times today about how Pixar's new movie "Up" isn't generating the commercial buzz Disney wants. Marketers are upset that the protagonist, an old man who chases a dream of exploring South America, is not marketable. There's no female lead who can sell princess gowns. There's no stuffed doll. There's no Burger-King cup.

The fact that "Up" looks like it's going to be a fantastic, original movie doesn't matter much. Further, the article states, the annoying concern of Pixar's talent for making good movies instead of selling toys is making people doubt the value of Disney's expensive acquisition of Pixar, which positioned Pixar creative guru John Lasseter over the entire Disney animation apparatus.

Prior to the Pixar acquisition, Disney was floundering. It had fallen from "Lion King" highs to critical failures and box office mediocrities like "Home on the Range" and Dreamworks-esque disposables like "Chicken Little," which earned a metacritic rating of 48. Since Pixar's John Lasseter took over the Disney animation studio, the company has released "Meet the Robinsons"which earned a metacritic rating of 61 and "Bolt"which got a meta-rating of 67.

A significant improvement in film quality is a big deal for Disney. Better movies make for more beloved properties with more audience goodwill and better sequel potential that live longer on DVD. The 2004 Dreamworks film "Shark Tale" is the quintessential disposable animation product. Big celebrity voices, including Will Smith, Jack Black, Robert DeNiro and Angelina Jolie. it included rapid-fire pop culture gags that were instantly dated. Forgettable characters. It earned a solid box office, and then the thing dropped off the map. It was a weird antique by the time it came out on DVD, like the summer pop hit that's embarrassing by October. At Amazon, the DVD is now discounted to $7.49 and is ranked 1,176 in movies. Pixar's older "A Bug's Life," with almost no stars (top billing to Phyllis Diller and Dave Foley)is outselling the sharks even though it is still priced at a steep $19.99.

The clear lesson is that movies people love are going to have a better shelf-life. Disney has been raiding its own catalog for home video revenue periodically for years; DVD re-releases of "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Pinocchio" are still padding the company's bottom line.

The kids who saw "Shark Tale" in 2004 don't want to watch it again. Their parents don't want to show that movie to their younger kids. Nobody is going to tune in for that if it's run on network television. In ten years, when the kids who saw it in theaters are in college, they won't buy a re-issued DVD. They won't show that movie to their kids. It's a dead film.

"Wall-E" which was a source of anxiety because it contained too little chatter and no celebrity voices. It made many critics' ten-best lists, and it is going to be relevant for decades, which means it's going to be a continuing source of revenue for Disney. "Up" may not be as toy-ready as "Wall-E" but people are going to love it, and movies that people love continue to have value. People will buy that DVD. People will watch that on television. People will want to show it to kids who haven't been born yet.

The "Times" also published an article slobbering over the director of "Night at the Museum," and its upcoming sequel. This movie, which got a meta score of 48, is apparently beloved by almost nobody. Amazon has discounted the DVD of this 2007 summer movie to $10.99, and its sales rank is #660 in movies while Ratatouille, that year's Pixar release, is ranked 129th and is still selling for $20.

"Night" earned big box office and a sequel because it featured Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, popular stars who earns credibility by doing interesting films in between big, broad comedies. Parents knew that the film would be inoffensive for their children, and the museum setting even promised some vague wholesomeness, though the movie was not educational. Levy, the director, thinks he made a film that made everyone laugh. What he made was an inoffensive afternoon-filler that wasn't interesting enough for anyone to hate.

I can understand why studios and investors want more "Night at the Museum" and less "Up." The value of a beloved movie is extended over a longer term, and gets discounted when you convert it into net present value. The value of a blockbuster is recouped instantly in a big opening weekend that isn't strongly dependent on whether the film is any good.

There's also risk on any film project; a star-studded adaptation of the beloved book "The Golden Compass" exploded in the faces of the producers when the movie flopped. If a big film launches successfully, studios want to be sure to capitalize on a sure-fire sequel, which is why it was necessary to return to Ben Stiller's museum.

But there's certainly a lot to say for Pixar's model, which generates consistently stellar critical responses, blockbuster box office and strong DVD sales, even if every film isn't a merch bonanza like "Finding Nemo."

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