As Prince William and new bride, Duchess Catherine Middleton, toured California over the weekend, they grabbed headlines and gave Hollywood's brightest a rare chance to be star struck. Their April matrimony was termed by many a fairytale come to life in its own modern, simulcast way, but come October, the British Royal Family will be given a lesson from the true experts in fairytale lore.
In a unique, surreal swirl of reality meets fable and back again, Disney will induct Rapunzel, the featured star of their animated hit "Tangled," into their official group of Disney Princesses, in a horse and carriage, celebrity-laden ceremony at London's Kensington Palace on October 2nd. The Princess group, mainly, is a way for Disney to package its fabled characters -- Ariel, Aurora, Belle, Cinderella, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, Snow White and Tiana -- for a new generation, in mediums from entertainment to theme park attractions to merchandise.
"Once Rapunzel becomes an official member of the Disney Princess court, she will be celebrated and recognized as such across Disney, and will be included in all Disney Princess products featuring multiple characters, in addition to her own merchandise line," said Mary Beech, vice president of girls franchise development and marketing at Disney Consumer Products, in a press release.
The takeaway is twofold: one, a glitzy day that provides a bit of magic and great photos to feed TV stations across the world; and two, as Beech touched on, a brand new line of merchandise for Disney to pitch its worldwide audience.
As sweet as the ceremony will probably prove, the marketing boon is no lucky coincidence; it is just the latest marketing move in the spirit of the company's first genius merchandising man, Kay Kamen, who turned Mickey Mouse from a new movie star to a veritable icon. It's a process Disney has now perfected.
To wit: when Disney Pixar's "Cars 2" surpassed box office expectations in its first weekend in theaters last month, the extra $10 million or so that it made was a nice bonus for the studio, as was the prestige of surprising critics and prognosticators. Chances were, though, that Disney wasn't quite sweating the weekend return; children, after all, don't base their toy wish lists on turnstile activity.
Before the sequel even came out, Disney had made nearly $10 billion in merchandise sales on the first film, which provided the perfect licensing storm of animated characters that happen to be cars, the quintessential childhood toy. And now that they know the brand's power, expect the second film, filled with a whole host of new characters, to spawn even higher sales. After all, as the cars were being developed for the screen, in-house product makers were working closely with the creative team to make the perfect cars for passionate Disneyana collectors.
Disney Consumer Products gave The Huffington Post a tour of their holiday season product line, which included toys and clothing and every lifestyle item to which they could apply a theme (including vintage Mickey Mouse-patterned Q-tips). As expected, Princesses and Cars-branded products were at the forefront.
From specially designed metal die cast models for collectors -- and a spy jet that functions both as a carrier for those die cast models and as a collectors' item on its own -- to remote control plastic replicas for children, the actual movie characters are available at all levels of quality and price. Also for sale, bearing "Cars" likenesses: legos, a set of racing jackets, video games, iPad protector cases, yogurt, apple slices, Cheez-Its, chicken nuggets, cakelet pan and cookie cutters, baking aprons, bath sets, an actual bed frame and even gummy vitamins. To name just a few.
It's largely the same deal for the Princesses, though toy cars are replaced by dolls -- including a new series of the characters depicted as children -- and collector replica dresses. Also, wedding dresses made to look just like the Princess' gowns.
There is, of course, far more to the Disney universe than just Cars and Princesses; gone largely unmentioned, thus far, is the company's greatest icon, that good spirited, aww-shucks ambassador, Mickey Mouse. Yes, there's a plan for him, too.
While noting that Mickey has 99.9% worldwide recognition -- that someone in a country modern enough to be surveyed by Disney could have never heard of Mickey Mouse is more impressive than the mass of positive respondents -- executives admitted that the Disney Channel preschool show, "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse," was launched to introduce the now 83-year old mighty mite to a new generation of potential fans.
Assuming they've won them over with Mickey's charm, Disney this fall will release Rock Star Mickey, a singing, dancing, mini karaoke machine that performs animatronic splits. There's also the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse rocket ship, vinyl figures, pajamas, earrings, edible arrangements and hand soap dispensers, in case your hands get sticky while enjoying some Mouse-shaped healthy treats.
The company is also touting Minnie Mouse's comeback -- she, too, has been a worldwide icon since that first cartoon in 1928 -- with a long line of jewelry, clothing and bed spreads marketed to women of all ages. All told, Mickey and Friends products took in $9 billion in 2010 -- without appearing in a single feature film.
The intention is to make it possible to meet all human needs with Disney products, from clothing to shelter to nourishment to pleasure. But there is only one Mickey Mouse, so in order to keep the franchises relevant -- and highly profitable -- Disney is tailoring its content more than ever to service its merchandise market.
While the "Toy Story" franchise received a major, Oscar-winning boost with its long-awaited third film last summer, fast-fading attention spans mean that Disney is already working to keep it relevant and profitable. Ahead of "Cars 2," they debuted the short film, "Hawaiian Vacation," which starred its Barbie and Ken characters. Come November, when they relaunch the Muppets (another profit center that is already getting its own products), another short will precede the feature, right in time for the Holiday shopping season.
In fact, Disney won't just provide products for existing narratives; they'll be creating narratives based on products. Focusing on Buzz Lightyear's legacy as an almost-astronaut, they'll introduce Buzz Lightyear's Spaceship Command Center and Rocket and Action Figures, which will come with a digital book telling the story of his, Woody and Rex's space flight. Not part of the traditional canon, but a smart offshoot, anyhow.
Its own mini-economy, Disney has mastered the cycle of entertainment to merchandise to lifestyle, in many places even blurring those lines. Its machine is well-oiled, an instructive example for studios looking to turn art into commerce, which has become an art all its own.
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