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Disney Has an ‘Avatar’ Problem

In 2010, the Walt Disney Company released “Alice in Wonderland” starring Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowski, Anne Hathaway, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, and Stephen Fry. With an estimated budget of $200 million, Alice went on to make over $1 billion worldwide. It was a hit that many attributed to Depp’s lovable Mad Hatter and the newness of the 3D technology.

Six years later, Disney released “Alice through the Looking Glass” as a sequel focusing on Depp’s Hatter and his family. With an estimated $170 million budget and the addition of Sacha Baron Cohen, the film flopped, making less than $300 million worldwide.  Whether this was due to the allegations leveled at Depp by Amanda Heard the week of the film’s opening, Depp’s inability to be a main character when playing an eccentric (see “Mortdecai” and possibly “The Lone Ranger,” which was more about Depp’s Tonto than Armie Hammer’s titular character), or the mundanity of 3D technology that was novel when the first film released, the six years between the two films, or the meandering story line of the film itself, “Through the Looking Glass” couldn’t hold a candle to the original.

Now, in a “hold my (non-alcoholic) beer” moment, Disney’s going to commit the same mistake with four films and a theme park at stake. “Avatar” was released the winter of 2009 and became the biggest grossing movie of all time with $2.8 billion worldwide. (As of this writing, “Avengers: Endgame” may or may not take the top spot.) Disney collaborated with Cameron and added an Avatar-themed land to its Animal Kingdom. It has purchased 20th Century Fox and now owns the rights to the Avatar intellectual properties.

In 2009, 3D was a true novelty, and “Avatar” capitalized on the effect with its beautiful scenery and amazing alien landscape. The movie faced scant competition from “The Princess and the Frog” and “The Blind Side” its first weekend. The next weekend, it faced Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes”, and after that it dominated the film competition until February’s “Dear John.” The story itself is a retelling of the story of Native Americans if they had actually decided to destroy the explorers that came to the New World. It’s not exceptionally original with its quasi-back to nature message and its ignoring of real history.

“Avatar 2” is scheduled to be released in 2021, 12 years after the first film. While “Avatar” made a lot of money, it’s not a beloved film. Its main appeal was in the new world’s Cameron was able to bring to life. The story was trite and untrue. “Avatar 2” won’t be able to capitalize on a pent-up desire for its characters or world (like Star Wars), and it won’t be able to rely on a stable of characters people have to come to love (like Marvel). Instead, it’s a risk with almost no reward. Even if “Avatar 2” scores a billion dollars, it will be a comparative flop. If it does less than that, it could sink the three sequels that are to come after it and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Whether or not these films are successful will depend on what Disney expects from them. If the company is okay with decaying box office totals in the hundreds of millions with the understanding that the films are keeping its Animal Kingdom in the public eye, maybe box office won’t matter so much. But an outright flop of the first sequel will create shockwaves that will reverberate throughout the company without being limited to the movie division.

For more Disney related content, order “Penguinate! The Disney Company.” Get “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.

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The Problem with ‘the Single’ in Disney’s Movie Business

Disney movie tie ins

In his examination of Disney’s “Dumbo,” “Forbes” writer Scott Mendelson laments the Disney Company’s penchant for releasing big budget films that have already been made, including the live-action remakes of animated classics and the multiple sequels that Disney has released over the course of roughly the last decade, and while he acknowledges that the studios are in part to blame, he also lays the blame on movie goers. “The studios can’t responsibly green-light what they know audiences will not go to see in theaters.”

The Dollars and Sense of It All

In 1984, when Michael Eisner became CEO of the Disney Company, the top grossing movie was “Beverly Hills Cop” with almost $235 million and $316 million worldwide. Disney’s movie releases were in the tank and not making what they should be with a few exceptions. In 1984, Touchstone’s “Splash” opened at No. 1 on the chart and grossed over $69 million (Box Office Mojo) by the time it finished its run; it cost $8 million to make. The film was a huge success at the time, and it brought in about $62 million profit.

Eisner looked at the situation and decided that Disney and its movie making companies would make smaller budget films that would make money rather than hope for a summer blockbuster that could fail. They were going to hit singles rather than try for homeruns. In 1986, “Ruthless People,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “The Color of Money” were released with grosses of $71, $62 and $52 million making them the 9th, 11th and 12th highest grossing movies of the year. Eisner’s strategy was successful, and Disney carved out a niche with these low budget, over-performing types of films.

Flash forward to 2018 and the surprise hit (not Disney) “A Quiet Place.” With a budget of $17 million dollars, this is the type of film Disney would’ve happily made in the 1980s. The movie made $340 million dollars worldwide ($323 million profit). Marvel’s “Black Panther” cost about $200 million to make and brought in over $1.3 billion; domestically, it was the top grossing film of the year. It would take about three “A Quiet Place” size releases to make the same amount of profit as “Black Panther.” However, “Black Panther” was a surprise in its own way.

Marvel’s sure thing for the year was “The Avengers: Infinity War” – a sequel, which according to the just over $2 billion box office gross, you’re probably familiar with. The estimates for the cost of the film run between $300 million and $400 million. Even on the high side of the estimate, the film brought in $1.6 billion, or the rough equivalent of five “A Quiet Places.”

I understand these numbers aren’t exact. There are marketing costs to consider as well as what the actual theaters make, which is different depending on the country. However, the point is it doesn’t make any sense for a company that brings in $12.6 billion (2018 net income) to worry about $10 or $20 million, the budget of “A Quiet Place” for a return of only $323 million. As Mendelson pointed out, Disney had taken risks with “Tomorrowland” (profit at a scant $20 million), “The Finest Hours” (losses estimated at $20 million), and “The Queen of Katwe” (estimated loss of $5 million). These movies didn’t return enough profit to justify their existence.

Other Sources of Income

When “Star Trek” dolls were released and the series ended, the sales of the toys dried up as well. There wasn’t anyway to remind people about the purpose of the toys without the show. When “Star Trek: The Next Generation” returned the Star Trek universe to television, toy sales skyrocketed.

In 1983, Funimation released “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” after Reagan deregulated children’s programming. The show was designed to sell He-Man action figures. Once it made it on the air and He-Man sales sky-rocketed every toy company got involved in Saturday Morning Cartoons: “Transformers,” “Go-Bots,” “M.A.S.K.,” “Jem and the Holograms,” and “G.I. Joe” to name a few. Whether the show or the action figures came first is of little consequence, what mattered was that some of the cartoons were pulled from the air not because of the cartoons’ popularity, but because the toys lacked sales.

Disney’s synergistic approach to marketing means the media giant isn’t looking just at the movies. It’s also looking at what it can make from tie-ins. Dumbo’s new movie release, regardless of how it’s received, sells more stuffed Dumbos. Marvel’s movies sell more superhero action figures, Lego sets, and whatever else they put their characters on. These things all bring in more money. Disney princesses outsell Barbie now are a multi-billion-dollar market segment. Their inclusion in “Ralph Breaks the Internet” keeps them fresh, updates them for this generation and keeps the product moving. The Disney company not only needs to create movie sequels and remakes because they are smaller financial risks, but also because they sell more toys, products and Disney park experiences.

What’s It All Mean?

There’s no incentive for Disney to green-light smaller film projects, even if they become the next “A Quiet Place.” The movie industry can only stand so many new films before there aren’t enough movie-goers to see them all. Worse, people say they want new stories, but they only think they want new stories. Audiences still flock to their favorite characters and movie franchises because its an acceptable risk. To spend $10 to $15 on a movie that you may not like or know nothing about doesn’t make much sense when you know that Marvel (or DC or Pixar) has a release right around the corner.

Moreover, Disney can make more money from product friendly franchises that it can tie into its theme parks than it ever could from a movie that has to stand on its own two legs. This all becomes more problematic with Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox, and it’s looming control of 40 to 50 percent of the box office. The studios will have to schedule movies so they don’t cut into each other’s profits, which will mean fewer movies and fewer opportunities for a smaller film to get made.

For more on the Disney Company, preorder “Penguinate! The Disney Company.

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9 Episodes in: Laugh Riot at “Instant Hotel,” Managing Expectations, and Alaskan Bald Eagles

bald eagle

I don’t want to give anything away, which means I probably will, but episodes eight and nine of “Instant Hotel’s” Season 1 are seriously hilarious. You might have to watch from episode six to get a feel for the characters and allow the comedy to build, but I haven’t laughed that hard in a couple of months. (That’s your spoiler alert.)

Managing expectations in any endeavor is so important to customer and experience satisfaction. There are few companies that get it right. Disney, somehow, is able to deliver on sky-high expectations. Marvel movies have also done it consistently. DC movies weren’t able to satisfy expectations until movie goers started expecting bad movies and got decent ones. Otherwise, even in customer-oriented businesses, it’s a crap shoot. Under promise and over deliver should be your mantra, the problem is that people expect you to over deliver. If you just meet expectations, it isn’t good enough.

You need to be able to talk up your product, service or experience enough that people are interested in it and willing to take a chance on it, but not so much that people expect gold plated toilet seats and unicorns. It’s a fine line that requires honesty without bragging and still needs to feel positive.

(Seemingly unrelated detour, but stick with me. I’m not promising it will make sense, but it will be interesting.) It’s hard to see bald eagles at rest in the wild unless you know what you’re looking for. Part of the reason for this is because people expect it to be easy to spot a white head against a dark background. So, instead of looking for the heads, they look for the other parts of the eagle that blend into the background trying to see the full form of the bird.

When I moved to Alaska and went on my first camping trip on the Kenai during salmon season, the more experienced guy on the trip pointed at a tree and said, “Look at all those bald eagles.”

I looked at the evergreen tree and didn’t see a single eagle. I thought he was playing a joke on the cheechako (me). “Where?”

“In that tree.” He pointed to the same tree. “Do you see them?”

“No.” I shook my head.

My newbie friend leaned over and whispered, “Look for the golf balls.”

It was like a veil had been lifted. My jaw dropped. I uttered an exclamation of awe as the tree lit up with what looked like hundreds of bald eagles. From that moment on, I knew how to spot bald eagles in trees and could see them easily.

So, a couple years later when my mom came up to Juneau, I knew she would want to see bald eagles, and that seeing them could be problematic. There are a lot of bald eagles in Juneau, but they are less visible when the salmon aren’t running. There was one place where it was easy to find bald eagles, so I told my mom I was taking her to see a lot of them. However, the place where they hung out wasn’t going to be very majestic. It would stink if the wind was blowing inland, but there would be eagles there.

Properly prepared, we went to the city dump, and there were so many eagles. I was even able to tell my mom about the golf ball trick pointing to a nearby tree.

Mom had a great time looking at the eagles and laughing about how they weren’t so majestic when they were eating garbage. Had I told her we were going to a nutrient-enriched environment that acts as a sanctuary for the eagles when food is scarcer, her reaction to the dump may have been a but different. She would have been at least disappointed, even if she had fun.

When the “Instant Hotel” guests are overly critical at their hotel stays, they set themselves up for a downfall. If they have such high standards and can point out all the flaws of an instant hotel, their hotel must be immaculate and so much better. Don’t talk up your property or degrade others even if it really does deliver on what you think.’

Managing expectations is a key to success. It’s about being honest with yourself, your guests and your customers. When you can provide a little extra, you should, but don’t set the extra up as an expectation.

If you’d like to read more about Alaska, get the coloring book “There Are No Penguins in Alaska.”

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How Did Disney Get to a Soulless and Creatively Bereft ‘Lion King’?

The Walt Disney Company traditionally rereleased its animated classics to theaters about once every seven years. Even as video cassettes were becoming popular, Disney kept its animated classics “in the vault” and off the shelves. Rereleasing films was profitable because Disney could fill out its movie slate for the year with a film that had no additional production costs. The money from the rereleases was almost pure profit minus the advertising budget.

With pent-up adult demand for something from childhood that they could share with their children and the importance of introducing the characters to a whole new generation that would then want to see those characters in the parks, Disney’s rereleases were more than just profitable. They kept the company in the news, and they made the attractions in the parks more relevant to children who otherwise wouldn’t have seen the movies.

The rereleases, in essence, drove profits at the box office and at the parks, especially during some of the Walt Disney Company’s rougher periods. It wasn’t enough.

When Michael Eisner took over the company, things changed drastically as he followed through on Ron Miller’s (the then defunct CEO) plan. For the first time, Disney classics would be available in their entirety on VHS. The video series reaped immediate cash rewards and provided a much need capital input into the company while possibly sacrificing future profits and relevancy in the process.

Eventually, Disney would return videos “to the vault.” The announcement would increase demand for the videos because they would no longer be available for purchase though they would remain on video rental store shelves until the videotapes wore out. Videos would also be released in different versions and levels, including Masterpiece, Gold Series and Platinum series. This strategy kept the profits flowing while also keeping the films and their characters relevant. It still wasn’t enough.

To drive further interest in its intellectual property and keep the park characters relevant, Disney offered up direct-to-video sequels. Unable to rerelease the classics to movie theaters on a wide scale, (Who would go see “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” on the movie screen when they could stay at home and see the same movie with the family at a much cheaper price?) the new videos were often inferior in quality and storytelling, but they were effective for the price and benefits reaped. On television, other characters made it to Saturday Morning. “Tailspin,” based on the Jungle Book characters, and “Timon and Pumbaa”, based on the Lion King characters, were relatively successful and kept the spirit of the shows (and their related tie-in profits) alive.

Still, Disney needed a way to produce box office profits and buzz with as little risk as possible. Remaking the classics has accomplished that in spades.

In 1994, Disney had a moderate hit ($44 million) with a live action “The Jungle Book” starring Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes and Lena Headley. In 1996, it had a much more successful live action film ($320 million) in the Glenn Close vehicle “101 Dalmatians.”

While some may classify Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” as a remake, it is really a retelling. It has many elements similar to the animated classic but is different enough to rate its own story. Still, it’s $1 billion box office take certainly didn’t deter Disney from the remakes. “Maleficent” ($758 million) is another live action film, based on Disney’s telling of “Sleeping Beauty,” but still different enough to be its own story. Even “Pete’s Dragon” didn’t stick strictly to the script of the original. “Christopher Robin” (not quite $200 million) and “Dumbo” ($352 million on a $170 million budget – whoever authorized that budget didn’t understand why the firs was released) had different storylines compared to the originals and were considered flops as they didn’t score highly with critics or at the box office.

“The Jungle Book” (2016), which almost made $1 billion, featured groundbreaking cinematography and stuck close to the original animated feature. “Beauty and the Beast” was a lot like the original, too, and this may be the beginning of the downfall because it brought in $1.2 billion. Why write a new script if you can just use the old one?

Enter the ultra-busy actor, producer, executive producer, director, chef and whatever else Jon Favreau. Favreau is responsible for directing “Iron Man” and for starring as Happy in several of the Marvel films. He’s taken part in the “Star Wars” movies and shows Disney has/is creating. He is also the producer and director of “The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book” (2016). He made a cooking show in his spare time “The Chef Show” because he missed the time that he spent with the chef that taught him how to cook on his movie “Chef.” Look up his IMDB and be amazed, and then understand the problem.

Favreau’s box office dominance isn’t in question. His ability to be original is. When someone is so busy with as many projects as he is, it’s inevitable that he or she will take the easiest road. Adapting “the Lion King” from the old script and giving it originality, in addition to wrangling the photo-realistic “not” animation, would’ve have been too much if it were the only project on his plate. After all, “The Lion King” made almost $1 billion.

More importantly, it’s beloved by millions of fans the world over. If he had messed it up by taking a risk to make it more original, he would’ve seen his career with Disney take a dive. Favreau had no choice but to fulfill expectations and keep the animals looking live-action rather than animated. Follow the script and no one gets hurt, except those parts that living animals couldn’t literally do – like dress in drag and do the hula or march in fascistic fashion.

Favreau was out in a no-win situation. In order for the “not” animated “Lion King” to have been a better film, he would’ve needed to cut some of the fluff (literally and figuratively) out of the film while concentrating on character and using human expressions to get the animals to show emotion. He would’ve needed to take a risk in the same way that the gorgeous and expensive Broadway show took a risk. He would’ve needed to lead the innovation and story team to bring something new to the screen that would’ve added to the film’s legacy. He didn’t have the time to do what he needed to do to make the film better, so rather than create something new, he took the safe road to profitability. And we’re all creatively the worst for it.

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The Email List: Struggles and Reasons

I’ve been struggling with this idea of an email list for several reasons. It’s a lot of extra work. It’s an extra expense. I don’t really like the email lists I’ve joined, and I was hoping that people would migrate over to my Patreon where we can make beautiful words and penguins together. (You can still migrate to Patreon and get cool things for as little as a dollar a month.)

Extra Work

I already write at least one post a day for my blog; I surpassed 200 days of posting in a row on July 12, 2019. I plan on keeping that streak alive, but it isn’t easy to come up with something new every day. I try to write 3 posts a day for my SEO job when they have work available. I need to write posts for my Patreon – one or two a month. I edit books as a side job.

Adding one more thing to my list of things to do, which includes marketing, continued learning, reading, refilling the creative well, dishes, laundry and other housework, taxes, teaching English, searching for freelance jobs to supplement my income, keeping my social media accounts active and relevant, and spending time with my wife and family, is a little overwhelming, especially when I really have no idea what I’m doing. How can I keep an email list current and active while still finding time to write my next book?

Extra Expense

MailChimp offers free limited use email lists. If I get more than 2,000 subscribers or I want to do something cool like set up a series of future emails, I’m going to have to pay up for that. This extra expense may end up being worth it, but right now, it’s hard to justify. Automation would be great for an introduction to Penguinate.com and its creativity, books and penguins. For now, I have to live with what there is – the opportunity to follow up with an immediate discount email, a day later intro email, and an email on the first of the month that rounds up everything I posted on my blog. Then, I’ll hope people don’t forget who I was when the next email I send is more than a month away.

Other Email Lists

Russell Nohelty and some other people do these great list building contests. For a small fee, authors join the list builder. The money is pooled to come up with a prize package that people will really want based on a fandom, like Doctor Who, Firefly, or Marvel. I’ve signed up for a couple of these and ended up on email lists that were not what I was expecting. (Who knew Buffy the Vampire Slayer was related to the reverse harem genre of books?) Aside from that, I received 20 to 40 different emails or more during a two-day period after the sign up and those emails keep coming until I unsubscribe. They aren’t just from the authors, they’re from Amazon, Kickstarter, GoodReads, and other websites the authors had people sign up at to get more entries. (I did not win the Buffy swag, by the way.)

All the emails end up being the same. Hi, I’m author, here’s what I’ve been working on, here’s a free (short story, book), here’s a contest you haven’t entered, here are some other free books… I don’t want to inundate your email inbox with emails you aren’t going to read, and I haven’t figured out how to make an email that is any different. Why would I want to make an email list where people will get the same thing (minus the freebies) that other authors are already sending out? Do you really want pictures of my cat? (If so, I’ll send them, but she doesn’t like being photographed.)

On Patreon

I was really hoping to build my Patreon into a juggernaut. If I could get 600 people signed up at a dollar each, my financial situation would be much more stable. It wouldn’t give me the opportunity to quite everything, but it would reduce the amount of freelance and SEO work I had to do. Unfortunately, I still haven’t got a handle on how best to get fans to sign up for the Patreon. I’ve offered discounts at any level. I’ve created offers, like join at $30 for three months and get a penguin. I’ve posted about it on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I haven’t figured out how to grow any of my social networks beyond a certain number and Patreon is the same right now.

Why Am I Doing It?

I am starting an email list because it’s the best way to keep you in the loop about what Jenya and I are doing creatively. YouTube changed its criteria for creators to monetize videos. Facebook changed its algorithm, so that creators had to pay to get their fans to see what’s being posted on the fan page; it has also randomly marked my penguin8.com as spam without giving me a reason or checking the posts that I sent notices about. Weebly eliminated access to its website for anyone geographically listed in Russia and other countries. These changes have made it more difficult for creators to make a living off of random and organic growth. They have also shown that these companies control my eCommerce to a degree that is not only uncomfortable and unprofitable but also dangerously close to being able to remove my presence from my largest outlets with a small change in their algorithms. I can’t count on social media and search engines to drive organic views to my websites.

In addition to this, my SEO job ebbs and flows. There have been days when there just aren’t any articles to write. I need to find a better way to make money, and every other book and website I’ve read about being a creator in the Internet age says an email is the only way to go. When a website like examiner.com or MySpace shuts down or becomes less visited, the email list is still there to sustain the creator. In theory, I’m in control of the email list, and thus in control of my destiny. And isn’t that all anyone really wants? To control his or her direction?

So, please sign up for our email list. Like share, comment on our social media posts and sign up for our Patreon. I look forward to you becoming honorary Penguinators.

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