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

June 27, 2010

Favorite Quotes that can apply (however loosely) to Writing

Hi all. Sorry I’ve been absent the last few days; I’ve been hard at work on the novel. Almost up to 10K. Some days are easier than others. I’ve also been busting ass applying for jobs – 9 in the last 2 days. I’m developing a distaste for the weekend, as there are no job updates.

But this post isn’t about job applications. It’s about writing and, specifically, some of my favorite quotes that apply to the writing process; I have several of these on my desktop background. Some aren’t explicitly about writing but are still germane to the topic. Curiously, some of the advice may also apply to the job application process. Good advice is often able to transcend the borders of genre, the compartments into which we divide our lives. Some things just cut through to the core.

So, without further ado, I present to you my favorite quotes that can apply (however loosely) to that glorious process we call Writing.

1. The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will. – Vince Lombardi

2. Fear is a sign – usually a sign that I’m doing something write. – Erica Jong

3. If you are going through hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill

4. Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work. – Rita Mae Brown

5. We work in our darkness a great deal with little real knowledge of what we are doing. – John Steinbeck

6. The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. –  Tom Clancy

7. Why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere. – Stephen King

8. If everything seems under control, then you’re just not going fast enough. – Mario Andretti

9. If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people. – Virginia Woolf

10. Done is good. Better is the enemy of done. – my friend Hilary

June 18, 2010

Trust Your Characters

It’s a slow process, learning about characters. Sort of like making a new friend – it’s gradual. You can’t force it. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t force the characters. Force the characters and you risk killing the story. Ah hell, you kill the story.

It’s the same way with deciding which music will keep me going through the story. I write in silence but I listen to music to feed my muse, to put me in the mood, in that place that takes me there. Tonight, there were three songs that came to me for this story’s soundtrack: Beth (originally by Kiss, but I listen to the Glee version), Summer in the City (Regina Spektor), and Red Dirt Girl (Emmylou Harris). Summer in the City is for the piano; when I heard that song (God bless the random option on iTunes), I realized that my main character plays piano. Red Dirt Girl is for her mother. And Beth, I have no idea. Maybe the dad, who isn’t really in the story. Or maybe I just really like the texture of the song.

I cleaned my desk today. Clutter prevents creativeness. So I cleaned my desk, mostly. And I unwrapped a “note block” and started ripping off the small white notes (like Post-Its only without the sticky), and writing things I knew about my protagonist, and taping them onto my wall. I have 12 notes for her. Some are character traits, like that she’s impatient and restless. One is her favorite color (usually not something I think about, so that was weird, but it’s ice blue, in case you’re wondering). Some things come randomly, like the knowledge that she plays piano and her dad is the one who taught her. I know that she orders a Caesar salad with every meal and that she retreats into herself when asked about things she doesn’t want to talk about.

I also know that I have no idea what’s driving the internal conflict. Well, I know that it’s a conflict with her mother. Something happened three years prior to the story (that it was three years ago just got dropped into my lap), and I don’t know what. It’s big. But I don’t know. And I try to stop myself from filling in the gap: was it an abortion or a huge fight or manipulation or knowledge of her father or …? It does no good to fill it in. It’ll fill itself in.

When it comes to writing characters, I’m a firm believer that they should let themselves be discovered. I used to be the 20-step writer – you know, fill in 20 character traits, describe their physicality, decide on a personality, go from there. Now I’m more inclined to the Stephen King method (which actually applies to uncovering story, but I apply it to characters): they are bones that we as writers dig up. They’re already there. We just have to sense them, find them, excavate them carefully, removing one bit of dirt at a time until we get a clearer picture. It takes time, energy, devotion. The story is there. The characters are there. And if you trust yourself to find them, if you trust yourself enough to keep moving the pen, eventually the story and characters will start moving so fast you’ll struggle to keep up. Eventually, the story writes itself and the characters do their own thing.

That’s the point I’m excited to get to. I’m not there yet. I’m only three thousand words in right now. It’ll take a while longer before a picture starts to emerge. But it’s already changed from what I thought it was, and that’s a good thing.

Trust the process. And, to offer one of my favorite quotes on writing, never hope more than you work.

P.S. The reason for the hiatus was an excursion out west to attend the wedding of a dear friend. And then I was tired and took a break from blog writing. And now I’m back, working on a novel, still applying for jobs, and hopefully continuing to blog through the whole process.

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