From the Basement

July 20, 2010

The Rapunzel-less Rapunzel: On Disney’s Latest Marketing Strategy

I love fairy tales. Disney, Grimms, Sexton, Carter – you name it, I love it. This last year, I completed an 80-page honors project that comprised critical and creative responses to marriage and motherhood in Snow White and Rapunzel.

So imagine my delight when I learned that Disney would be tackling the Grimms’s Rapunzel. Now, changes were inevitable. Rapunzel features baby kidnapping, premarital sex, and teenage pregnancy. But anything Barbie can do, Disney can do better, and I eagerly awaited the release of the trailer.

I knew that the story would be mostly unrecognizable, but I thought, you know, that Rapunzel was sort of supposed to be the main character.

Is she?

Well, the movie is called Tangled. And it seems that the character who is tangled up in conflict is not Rapunzel but Flynn Rider, resident kingdom thief (nothing new in the current world of MG/YA fiction).

As it turns out, Disney has been remarkably open about their decision to alter the film in order to appeal to a wider audience – that is, young boys as well as young girls. They’re taking the fairy tale out of, well, the fairy tale.

The decision was made to change the title (and tweak the plotline) in light of their 2009 release, The Princess and the Frog. Even with the race accusations that flew across cyberspace, the film still grossed $270 million worldwide and was met with widely positive reception here at home (it has an 84% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Roger Ebert gave it three stars; in his print review, he wrote, “No 3-D! No glasses! No extra ticket charge! No frantic frenzies of meaningless action! And…  good gravy! A story! Characters! A plot!” (He did note that the story did not live up to usual Disney standards.)

However, Disney did not cite story as the problem with The Princess and the Frog’s “low” gross but rather its gender-specific title, that having “princess” in the title alienated possible audiences (read: boys). And the company’s upset is perhaps understandable given the massive success of Pixar’s Up!, which grossed $700 million and garnered a few nods from the Academy.

But here’s the question: should Disney be trying to, well, be Pixar? Just because they’re corporate siblings doesn’t mean they have to produce identical products or appeal to exactly the same audience. Publishing houses understand this – every major house hosts dozens of imprints, each of which has its own unique list. While they obviously want the lists to be successful, they embrace their ability to appeal to a variety of audiences.

In the case of Disney/Pixar, there is an admittedly significant difference between $270 and $700 million. But so too is there a significant difference between the Disney and Pixar brand names. Can I point out the pink elephant in the room? Disney is known for its fairy tales. In publishing terms, Disney has the backlist to beat all backlists! Part of the reason we go to a Disney movie is, frankly, for more of the same, only different. Audiences love series books and films; we love predictable genre. Exhibit A: Stephen King; Exhibit B: Shrek 4.

In March 2010, the LA Times released a story that chronicled the decision to change Rapunzel to Tangled: “Disney Restyles ‘Rapunzel’ to Appeal to Boys” (written by Dawn C. Chmielewski and Claudia Ellerthe). The article quoted Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, who explained: “We did not want to be put in a box…. Some people might assume it’s a fairy tale for girls when it’s not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody.”

Fair enough. Only Disney didn’t create a “fairy tale” story for boys and girls – they took a classic, removed the girl parts, and put guy stuff in. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting it.

It’s not a universal story grown organically. It’s a mash-up of marketing strategies designed to make a supposedly “female” story genderless.

Let’s apply publishing wisdom just once more:

On agent blogs, you always hear that good books sell. Industry experts advise against writing for the trends; write for the story rather than for the market. Audiences can spot cheap imitations a mile away – hence why Twilight continues to sell heads and shoulders above the stories that have tried to suckle its success (pun intended).

Kids are consumers, too. And if I learned anything while working with kids last summer, it’s that they are not dumb. They don’t appreciate it when you try to sell ’em the real deal and then hand ‘em a fake.

Which is, frankly, what Tangled is shaping up to be.

Rather than looking at Pixar’s audience as the reason for its success, maybe Disney should look at how Pixar approaches their stories. Instead of retooling stories based on marketing strategies, why not spend more time on the stories themselves, seeking to write the best fairy tale possible, a story filled with compelling characters, a story that finds a fresh way to relay a timeless message. That’s how stories break out. That’s how the story will – unwittingly – find new audiences.

Because the story is good. Because it’s true. Because we watch it and know that we’ve just seen yet another Disney classic.

Prediction: in trying to satisfy everyone, Disney will satisfy no one.

LA Times article here: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/mar/09/business/la-fi-ct-disney9-2010mar09

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May 9, 2010

Reading to Write

I get a lot of ideas for stories when I’m listening to sermons, which is admittedly not the most convenient time. But sometimes, I go to a church where I can pretty much guarantee that the sermon will not hold my attention, and so after worship, I let my mind wander …

This morning, my mind wandered to the land of Mother’s Day and all the rich stories that unfold in such a day. There are all sorts of mothers and not-mothers in this world, and when the sermon began this morning, the ideas started flowing for a short story.

Lately, my brain has been on fire, and it’s exciting. I haven’t been this prolific in months.

This burst of creative energy is due to two things, I think. First, I’m out of school, and I’ve been out long enough to get the “it-feels-like-spring-break” schedule out of my system. I’m itching to work on projects. Second, I’m reading again. That probably sounds strange, but I had a difficult time flipping between my academic reading and my pleasure reading (while they can be synonymous, there is a distinct difference between literary theory and murder mysteries).

During college, I forgot how essential reading was (is) to my writing process. To write, you must first read. And read a lot. At the moment, I’m engrossed in one particular book – Interpreter of Maladies, a Pulitzer-prize winning short story collection by Jhumpa Lahiri, who is (in my humble opinion) one of the most talented short story writers living today. Her narratives are subtle and emotionally compelling. But my reasons for reading her work are twofold: I read to enjoy, but I also read to learn. I’m new to the short story craft, and for the last year or so, I’ve been latching onto different short story writers. Lahiri is one; the late Angela Carter is another.

Reading for pleasure and reading to learn often overlap. There are authors I read to learn from, like Lahiri and Carter. And then, frankly, there are authors I read who, while enjoyable, are also great teachers in the school of How Not To. I’m thinking of Grisham, Patterson, Brown. I just picked up Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series this month, and while I enjoy the stories, they don’t intrigue me on a structural level. It’s a lesson in How Not To.

Of course, I don’t write like the authors I emulate, either. I couldn’t write like Lahiri or Carter if I tried. I can only write like me. But that means that I need to spend time with me, reading with me, brainstorming with me, in order to learn to write like me. I can’t go for a month without writing (or pleasure reading, for that matter) and expect to pick up where I left off months ago. This is why writing every day is so wonderful – it helps me find my voice and remember where I left it.

When I’m writing and reading every day, wonderful things happen. Juices flow. Energy sparks. And if I happen to find both my voice and a story buried in a Sunday sermon, well … I’ll take it.

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