Add The Finest Hours to the latest string of Disney disappointments that fall under two categories: PG-13 dramas and non-branded films. This amazing true story of the heroic 1952 Coast Guard rescue may have won me over as a viewer, but I was in the minority. Not only did the adventure tale receive mixed reviews, but also few moviegoers have even checked it out in theaters. Disney continues to contend with releasing movies that are neither part of an established brand nor cater to more mature audiences (and, thus, having that PG-13 rating).
This edition of Disney In Depth addresses an issue that more of us film fanatics must discuss: the Mouse House’s failed attempts in recent years to debut successful movies outside of the animation, Marvel, Star Wars, and other live-action brand umbrellas. More vitally, though, how can Walt Disney Studios find that sweet storytelling spot and make one of these projects resonate with the general public?
Take a look at Saving Mr. Banks, a huge gamble that only moderately paid off. Yeah, it made back its budget of $35 million, ultimately grossing more than $115 million worldwide. Unfortunately, its accolade intake was far from what the studio would have hoped for. Saving Mr. Banks attained a Golden Globe nod for Emma Thompson‘s strong and feisty performance, an Academy Award nomination for Thomas Newman’s dynamic score, and a string of smaller pieces of recognition, but nothing of great magnitude. Tom Hanks and Colin Farrell barely received any recognition, despite their strong supportive roles. Moviegoers responded fairly favorably to much of the movie, but took issue with some historical accuracy inconsistencies. At least Saving Mr. Banks did not tank at the box office nor entirely tarnish Disney’s attempt in creating a movie about the making of its most prized live-action production: Mary Poppins. “Who was Saving Mr. Banks intended to appeal to?” is the best question to ask. Its mature themes were more designated for an adult audience, as represented in Disney issuing it a rare PG-13. Indeed, more adults checked out the movie than their kiddos, but it underscores Disney’s huge issue in marketing films not designated for the entire family.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was the first and perhaps most successful PG-13 movie, and had the advantage of a familiar property (the theme park attraction). Its sequels also drew huge profits and mass interest from viewers of all ages. This group of movies, now a brand, is the Disney rarity. Boiling down a movie and its success to a rating may seem futile, even preposterous, but in the case of Disney, it requires more examination. For several decades the more “adult movies” were released under the Touchstone Pictures or Hollywood Pictures banners. In recent years Touchstone has mostly distributed DreamWorks productions, as in the mid-2000s Disney shifted away from making more adult pictures in favor of ones intended for more general audiences. This shift has mostly benefited the company, seeing efforts like the live-action fantasy films and branded movies pay off. But others have tanked.
One need only think of John Carter and The Lone Ranger as epic disasters from the financial side of it. Both of these movies, boasting bloated budgets, did not connect with audiences. Here the harsh critics are responsible for some of the blame. They tarnished the movies without giving them much of a chance, and the bad buzz persisted, leading many viewers to opt out of seeing Andrew Stanton‘s book adaptation and Gore Verbinski‘s take on the masked hero. I loved both of these films in their own ways. John Carter, as discussed in a book that evaluated its failed marketing efforts, was a throwback to old Hollywood with contemporary visuals. Lone Ranger harnessed elements of past Westerns with some unappreciated, strong performances.
Both were mature for Disney, accounting for their PG-13 ratings. Carter was full of action and rather violent for the Disney playbook. So was Lone Ranger, which hinted at cannibalism in one carefully edited scene. This is not the stuff of pixie dust and magic, folks. But not everything Disney should be, and that connects back to Disney’s problem with producing these darker pictures. Their audience here is not the four-year-old girl in love with Frozen nor the third-grader wanting to be Finn and Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Not many kids opted to dress up as Dejah Thoris or Tonto the year of these films’ releases, sadly enough. And let’s not get started about Disney’s other PG-13 blunder starring Jake Gyllenhaal. 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time disappeared pretty quickly. Do you recall the film? Its trailer from DisneyMovieTrailers below shows its ridiculous plot (based on a video game, no less).
It’s hard to market a PG-13 film to families with younger children, unless they come from more familiar brands (think of Jurassic World, The Avengers and the like). Then again, Disney does not need to rely simply on this demographic for its films to profit. But so far, Disney’s PG-13 efforts more targeted for older children, teens, and adults have mostly bombed, outside of the aforementioned brands. Why so? Part of the problem is that many moviegoers’ instant reaction is that the “Disney” listing means that it is not for them, and the PG-13 label can add to the confusion. It appears inconsistent. For moviegoers unaware of the PG-13 rating, they might look at the marketing efforts of a Lone Ranger, per se, and feel unsure of its tone. Accordingly, a rating is only part of the issue. The promotional efforts must convey the themes and direct these elements to the right demographic.
Likewise, The Walt Disney Studios has experienced its share of blunders with PG-rated, live-action movies from its Disney banner that do not tie back to a certain property. Recent sports flicks like Million Dollar Arm and McFarland, USA flopped despite mostly positive reviews from critics. Tomorrowland – despite having a very loose tie-in to the theme park land of the same name – failed at the box office, too. Into the Woods and Muppets Most Wanted, both released in 2014 and having some branding due to these properties’ well-known characters, may not have bombed, but they underperformed. What is Disney to do then? All of these movies carried a more family friendly PG rating and connected back to themes Disney usually does well in (save for sci-fi). The answer is to rely even more greatly on the proven successful moves of animated fantasies to live-action adaptations: Maleficent and Cinderella.
Several dates on Disney’s forthcoming theatrical release schedule are slotted for films of this nature. Is the new Cruella de Vil project on there? Perhaps so. The frustration, as I have vocalized before, is that the rehashing of old ideas perpetuates. The more we support these projects and dismiss the original ones, the fewer variety of options we see in the movie marketplace.
By all means Disney should (and will) direct its production efforts to center around the movies that will generate profits in all types of settings (theatrically, home video, merchandise, theme parks, etc.). Yet that should not compromise the occasional offering that diverts away from the trend. The Finest Hours (as seen in the trailer below by the Disney Movie Trailers YouTube channel) is a fine movie indeed, but possibly one that should not have cost upwards of $80 million to make, as The New York Times wrote in a recent article.
If Disney knows these live-action products are more risky, the budgets should remain more conservative. Otherwise, the studio must not feel as concerned about taking a loss. Much like an individual’s stocks, the offerings should be diverse. Likewise, the same could be said of a studio’s film slate. There are checks and balances. Some can expect to overperform, while others may unexpectedly tank. Disney should sustain its current array of movies – even increase more of the “smaller films,” if it is possible to plug in an additional one each year – but act with more caution in budgeting too much for the gambles.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, released on the first and third Thursdays of each month on Geeks of Doom.