THB #172: The Lightyear Conundrum
June 28 will mark the 4th anniversary of Asad Ayaz becoming Disney’s president of marketing. The nomenclature is now Disney Studios Content’s president of marketing Asad Ayaz.
The job has become much, much smaller than it was when he signed on.
In 2018, when he took the job, there were 5 titles in the pipeline for the rest of the year, after 5 had already been released. Ant-Man & The Wasp opened to $76 million. Wreck It Ralph 2 opened to $56 million. The other 3, including Mary Poppins Returns, opened to under $25 million each.
In his first full year, 2019, there were 10 Disney movies on the schedule and 2 from Fox. Six of the titles opened to over $160m… 2 Marvel, 1 Star Wars, 3 animation sequels. Live-action Aladdin opened to $92 million, live-action Dumbo opened to $46 million and live-action Maleficent 2 opened to $37 million.
Deconstruct these results and you can’t really complain too much. But so much of the success was momentum created by all IP of the highest order. Literally, the only Disney film not to gross at least $110 million in 2019 was Penguins, a Disney Nature title.
The studio released only Onward in 2020, just as COVID took over (March 6). Three Fox releases would be thrown on the bonfire of experimentation that year.
By the end of 2020, the first Disney title was thrown onto Disney+ without a theatrical release, Soul.
The truth of 2020 was that $60 million domestic was the clear cap for any movie released that year. Tenet did a straight theatrical. Wonder Woman 1984 did a day-n-date for Christmas. Universal released The Croods 2 and mined it in theatrical (mostly drive-ins) and then pushed to streaming right before Christmas. So everyone really has to be given a pass for the year.
2021 - Disney tries a Raya & The Last Dragon release with day-n-date for $30 a pop, following Tom & Jerry (a HBO Max, day-n-date in February) to a weaker opening but slightly better total gross.
Disney then decided on a 3-release summer plan. But Cruella and Black Widow would both come out with the Raya $30 day-n-date option. In May, Cruella would suffer financially, compared to A Quiet Place II, doing about half the business. Black Widow was #1 for the summer, but still did about half of what Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange 2 did. More significantly, while the film’s domestic gross was similar to F9: The Fast Saga, the international was less than half the car franchise, though there was very little day-n-date digital availability overseas.
The last Disney chip that summer was Jungle Cruise, which came up short, opening to $35m domestic, and doing so poorly internationally that it ended up grossing less worldwide than much cheaper, much-less franchise ambitious, Cruella.
But Disney, to their credit, didn’t give up… completely. They teed up Fox’s extremely commercial Free Guy up on August 13 and the brand-new Marvel movie character film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings on September 3.
Free Guy would end up being the #5 film of the summer… though it would not be a stretch to say that it underperformed, by about half of what it should have done. And in early September, Shang-Chi became the #1 domestic grosser and the #2 worldwide grosser since the start of the pandemic.
So what did Disney do in response, as studios started having major successes in October and onward? 4 theatrical releases in 9 months, the 4th being this weekend. They also dumped 6 Fox titles… not a single one opening to $13 million or better.
Eternals opened to $4 million less domestically than Shang-Chi.
Encanto opened weak, to $27 million domestic.
Six months later, Dr Strange & The Multiverse of Madness opened strong, benefiting from the huge hit of Spider-Man in the winter, The Doctor’s Marvel status, and Wanda’s hit TV run last year.
Lightyear, the first Pixar theatrical release in over 2.5 years, didn’t bomb, but underperformed tracking on opening weekend… a rarity for family product. Usually, it undertracks, not overtracks.
So my first question is… if you don’t use it, do you lose it?
I don’t think the company, collectively - unfair just to blame Asad - has forgotten how to release anything but movies that sell themselves.
Encanto could have been at least 80% of Frozen… but it wasn’t. Under $100 million and onto Disney+. By the time kids found the soundtrack in a big way, it was a streaming title. Fail.
Turning Red was fun and smart and controversial and all about young women & girls… and they didn’t even try to release it. Fail.
The non-musical Strange World - coming this Thanksgiving - seems likely to get dumped to D+ after 4 weekends, as Encanto was. Time will tell.
Disney won’t fail in theatrical because they are barely releasing anything into theatrical… even after having consumed an entire movie studio, most of which has been dumped in the last 2 years too.
Will Disney spend the money and empower Ayaz to open anything other than the limited number of films that every marketing executive in the world could open?
He hasn’t led a single Fox title to an opening over $30 million. Eight of eleven under $10 million.
Before the Disney 2.5 year COVID drought, he had 6 of 10 films open over $100 million… but those were 2 Marvel, Star Wars, Frozen II, Toy Story 4, and the motion capture version of The Lion King. They were, literally, the only $100m openers that year.
So we know he can do that!
Or do we even know that at this point?
What happened to Lightyear? Every write I read seems to be looking anywhere but the marketing. But there is no real alternative answer. The movie isn’t as great as it should be. But opening weekend is not about the movie.
Critics forget that how they feel about a big commercial film means almost nothing. Word of mouth means a lot. Unless critics are all in or all out, they have less than 2% impact on box office and even when they almost all align, many films overcome negative reviews.
But what the studio sells to the potential ticket buyers is almost everything. Trailers and ads. Lovely to have it supported by the press - much of which will support it no matter how good or bad they think it is - but it’s about marketing.
So what do you do with a movie like Lightyear?
This is the trailer stream…
They add more and more detail as the trailers progress. But, regardless of how well it ultimately works in the film, they never really give us a theme for the film. And amazingly enough, the actual key to this movie is a lot like the surprise smash that is Top Gun Maverick.
Buzz is a screw-up because his macho arrogance gets in his way (even if he is also nice to and accepting of women who have power).
SPOILER, I GUESS…
The heart of the movie is that he fails, stranding hundreds of colleagues because he can’t do what should not be able to be done. While he obsesses on saving them, the 100s of geniuses are back on the planet making a great life for themselves. After he is confronted with himself from another time period, also insanely in his own head, he grows and comes to understand that he doesn’t need to save everyone all the time to be loved and to love himself.
There is a total of ZERO of this in the marketing.
We get pure action hero, even as they add other characters.
And we get some hints, but no clarity on things like him being in the future instead of where he started. Good info, but does it excite?
SOX is a pleasure. So we get a little more of him in each trailer.
The old lady with a rough voice who can blow things up. Why? Is there an emotional connection? No.
Does the Taika Waititi character mean anything in these ads? No.
Again… this is sooooo Top Gun! It’s all about Buzz. How does Buzz feel? Can Buzz come back? Why does everyone get much older than Buzz much faster than Buzz? (That last one is actually answered in more detail than Top Gun Maverick.)
Have you ever seen a bigger self-play in a movie since “Luke, I am your father” than…
You are fighting yourself, Buzz!
Seriously, all I could think about for the last 30 minutes of the film was why they didn’t hire Josh Brolin to play Buzz. Or at least Robert Redford to play Zorg!
I know I am not head of marketing at Disney. I am not qualified. But this is basic.
What was the come-on for Captain Marvel? Bad ass female pilot who becomes a badder ass woman who can fly.
What was the come-on for Iron Man? Genius with a bad heart who saves himself and then makes himself a smart-ass hero.
What was the come-on for Shang-Chi? North By Northwest… why are they chasing me? I will become a hero as I figure it out.
What was the come-on for Lightyear? He’s a swaggering pilot with some mission we have no real idea about and he fights robots and has a robot cat and some weird friends.
There was nothing to hang onto.
Look at the trailer for this impossible sell of a few years ago…
Emotion… emotion… emotion.
They don’t really get into the world of the mind in the 2nd trailer. You get a few hints. But you don’t have to… if you find the thing that people can connect to and push it.
For Lightyear, knock Buzz down… and then build him up… his hero’s journey is about letting other people be the heroes of their lives. You can sell that to a bigger audience.
Honestly, opening to $51 million, given that the campaign leaned almost exclusively on a relationship with a character who isn’t actually the character we know, is actually pretty impressive. Hmmm…
Disney has one more bite of the summer apple in 2.5 weeks, Thor: Love & Thunder.
Searchlight’s See How They Run in September.
20th Century holdover, David Russell’s Amsterdam in November.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever a week later (11/11).
The animated Strange World is now scheduled for November 23… which sounds a lot like the mismanaged trajectory of Encanto, just waiting to happen again.
Avatar: The Way of Water on December 16.
Five Disney releases - 3 Marvel - and Fox’s Avatar 2 in 2022 is their entire fully committed annual output.
So my second big question… is Disney still in the theatrical business aside from films that they assume will sell themselves with solid, unexceptional marketing work?
I think they have left the business of selling any movie that requires anything other than a really big name and a picture (or 5) of a big head(s).
2023 has a current total potential of 13 movies. 20th Century has 1 new original and a sequel. 3 Marvel. Indiana Jones 5. 1 From LucasFilm. The Haunted Mansion, The Little Mermaid, Snow White, and Cruella 2 from the parks division… ha ha-ish. 1 Pixar, 1 Disney Animation.
We are far from knowing whether all, half, or some other number of these titles will end up with a clean theatrical. If recent history is to be trusted, we will see the 3 Marvels in theatrical… Indiana Jones… 2 of the 4 “park” movies.. and one of the 2 animated movies. Seven releases. No line on the Fox titles… they could go direct-to-airplane the way Disney is going now.
In my experience of 25 years watching this closely, I believe in momentum. Studios have great periods and weak periods. Every one. The heroes of the industry skip a down cycle and have 2 up cycles before having a down cycle.
Disney has no momentum. The CEO nee’ consumer marketing guy, thinks he can sell every item on its own. And there is a certain part of the puzzle where that is true. But there is a momentum, not just in measuring success, but within the organization. It’s very hard to start and stop and start and stop.
I do recall genius moments when a marketing department was left without movies to market for a long period… like Paramount launching Paranormal Activity when their fall was most cleared out for corporate reasons. They had a ton of time to be creative with a very low budget movie and they hit a home run. That does happen.
But it’s not the norm. Success feeds success. Or as they say about the Lotto., “you gotta be in it to win it. “