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The Marketing Lied to Us, But We Loved It Anyway – How Did Frozen Become a Phenomenon?

Frozen debuted this past Thanksgiving with a five-day weekend total of $93 million, second most for a film over Thanksgiving behind The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. At that time, online box office expert boxofficemojo.com concluded Frozen‘s opening meant “a final [domestic] total north of $250 million seems within reach.”  Disney would have surely been happy with that, as it would have meant Frozen was a bigger domestic hit than their most recent non-Pixar releases: Wreck-It-Ralph ($189 million) and Tangled ($200 million).

Frozen Then, rather unexpectedly, Frozen refused to fade away, outlasting the Hobbit and Anchorman sequels.  Its most direct competition – the animated film Walking with Dinosaurs – bombed.  As a result, Frozen now has a domestic/foreign/worldwide gross of $302 million/$342 million/$644 million.  That makes it second to The Lion King ($987 million) among all Disney Animation titles.  It is now the fourth biggest non-sequel animated film of all time after Lion King, Finding Nemo ($936.7 million) and Up ($731.3 million), prior to adjusting for ticket price inflation.

Frozen is also breaking overseas records, the top-grossing Disney and Pixar release of all time in Russia ($29.3 million) and top-grossing Disney Animation release ever in the U.K. ($50.4 million).  It has yet to open in Japan and China, which together represent around 17% of the global marketplace for movies.  As a result, it will likely pass Monsters University ($743 million) to become the second highest worldwide grossing animated film of 2013 behind Despicable Me 2 ($921 million).

Its soundtrack is also turning into quite the hit, unseating Beyonce to become the #1 selling album this past week according to the Billboard Top 200 albums chart.  Only three animated film soundtracks had reached #1 before: “Curious George” (2006), “Pocahontas” (1995), and “The Lion King” (1994).

How did this happen?  The ultimate explanation is simply that Frozen is a fantastic movie that everyone seems to love with minimal to no reservation.  It sure melted our reviewer’s heart (mine was a bit more thawed than melted, but it’s still a great movie).  However, there are plenty of great movies that don’t make this kind of money, if they’re lucky to even make money at all.  What is it exactly about Frozen?

Time of the Year?  Disney has made a habit of putting out animated films in November, going back to Chicken Little in 2005.  However, simply coming out around Thanksgiving so that your target audience-kids-will be out of school was not enough to elevate Chicken Little, Bolt, Tangled, or Wreck-It-Ralph into hits anywhere near the level of Frozen.

No Competition?  Yes, Walking with Dinosaurs bombed, but the animated film competition the prior Disney November releases faced all turned out to be financial disappointments, Tale of Desperaux against Bolt, Yogi Bear against Tangled, and Rise of the Guardians against Wreck-It-Ralph.

The Weather?  It’s cold and snowy outside, with plenty of snow storms plaguing various regions of North America over the past month.  Well, Frozen has a bunch of snowcapped mountains in it, and features a plot involving a dangerous magical ice storm.   Does that mean Frozen seemed all the more relevant to audiences?  It has the ring of truthiness to it, but giving us a movie featuring a lot of snow when its snowy outside doesn’t equal big business (look at the 2006 Black Christmas re-make).

The Marketing? Here’s where you probably find some actual answers.  Disney’s strategy with marketing Frozen, at least early on, was to completely hide the type of movie it was.  Disney Animation’s Executive Vice President Andre Millstein recently copped to that, telling THR, “In the first presentation of the film through our marketing, we wanted to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. We love to set our films up so audiences discover something new in the film, something they weren’t expecting.”

Look at the first official trailer, which also aired repeatedly during commercial breaks on the Disney Channel:

Based upon that trailer, you’d think Frozen was going to be kind of like Wall-E meets Ice Age.  If that confused us adults what must little kids have thought?  The funny thing is the scene highlighted in that trailer?  It’s not actually in the movie.

It was a while before Disney acknowledged that Frozen featured not only actual human characters but two all new Disney princesses.

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This was kind of risky because they sold it on Olaf, and he doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie.  Plus, they pretended like it was an absolutely normal animated kids movie, hoping audiences wouldn’t mind when they showed up to find out it was actually a musical.  They did the same exact thing with Tangled, which is not nearly as jam-packed with songs as Frozen.  

Even with the success of Les Miserable last year, studios still clearly feel that mainstream audiences have to be tricked into watching a musical rather than enticed.  Considering that practically every other wretched live action show on Disney Channel features characters who sing (and how central the original songs are to their hit animated show Phineas & Ferb), Disney has done more than enough to prepare their target audience for a musical.  Their marketing department disagreed.  The only kind of hint they offered as to the film’s musical nature was a heavily utilized quote from an early review which argued Frozen was the best Disney animated film since The Lion King, which we all know is a musical.  

So, did Disney just get lucky?  Well, they had that huge opening, and if audiences had truly felt misled there would have been a significant drop-off after that, which didn’t happen.  Their marketing was undeniably misleading but it also, refreshingly, gave hardly anything away.  They tricked us into going to see the cute, funny snowman and broke our hearts with an incredibly unexpected tale of two sisters who drift apart due to a magical curse – and then the snowman shows up.

Word Of Mouth?  Disney’s marketing machine can only do so much.  What’s driving Frozen has been strong word-of-mouth, which is still regarded as being among the most important elements to a film’s box office performance.  This annoys studios because that’s also the type of thing you can’t really buy.  However, Frozen has had it in abundance ever since critics got their first look at it several weeks before its release, collectively crowning it an instant Disney classic the types of which we hadn’t seen in decades.

Ever since its release, Disney has switched gears with their advertising, no longer hiding the true nature of their movie but giving newbies a look at what everyone was talking about by releasing two full scenes/songs from the movie.

Idina Menzel’s sure soon-to-be Broadway standard “Let It Go”:

And Olaf’s adorable “In Summer”:

So, basically, it all comes back to Frozen simply being a fantastic movie that audiences love so much they are clearly seeing it over and over again.  Vulture took this point a step further and argued 7 specific reasons Frozen was resonating so much with audiences:

1. It’s a Throwback at a time when many other animation studios have become overly reliant on sequels and ultrahip, wiseass-y humor, Frozen stands out for its old-fashioned story — with its regal setting, its lonely princess in a castle, its kingdom under a spell — and for its visual splendor. 

2. The Wisecracking Sidekick Wisecracking, irreverent sidekicks with a propensity for mild toilet humor (“Watch out for my butt!”) are basically a requirement of modern animated kids’ movies. Frozen, for all its above-mentioned throwback-y qualities, has got one, too, in the form of chatty snowman Olaf, voiced by The Book of Mormon’s Josh Gad. Luckily, his actions aren’t embarrassing, lowest-common-denominator high jinks. Olaf is adorable, and his dim antics are genuinely funny:

3. The Songs Frozen is an honest-to-God musical, a genre that, when done well, has an eager (and underserved) audience.

4. The “Villain” Structurally the person who should be the film’s villain is not a villain at all, but a heroine: Queen Elsa’s ability to freeze everything around her becomes a monstrous force, and she’s the one who, intentionally or not, creates most of the challenges the film’s more typical heroes — Princess Anna, especially — have to contend with.  Elsa herself is not a villain, just a girl who’s having trouble coming to terms with her … well, with a lot of things.

5. A Resonant Tale With Real-life Overtones Frozen’s tale of an older sister who grows up and shuns her younger sister is a familiar dynamic to any child who’s had a sibling, or even in some cases a very close, older friend […] This is a tale about growing up, becoming your own person, and learning not to be ashamed of yourself.

6. Girl Power! The Prince Charming of the tale — Prince Hans — turns out, at the very end, to be a gold-digging villain, and the true-love’s-kiss that Anna needs in order to be saved turns out to come from her own sister, Elsa. If that’s not a rebuke to the usual Disney true love narrative, I don’t know what is. That said …

7. Two Disney Princesses Girls do like the Disney Princesses, and Frozen’s got not one but two of them, and that’s kind of a big deal. And they’re both different in temperament. Anna’s the bright-eyed, romantic extrovert and Elsa’s the brooding, complicated loner. That broadens the movie’s already wide appeal considerably.

You hear that, filmmakers and advertisers?  There are certainly elements of Frozen you can plunder, marking off similar check-boxes.  However, if you make a truly astounding movie we will turn out to see it en masse even if, yes, your marketing kind of tricked us into it….at least at first.

What do you think?  If you’ve seen Frozen, what got you to see it the first time?  And when did you first discover it was actually a musical?

5 comments

  1. We have not seen Frozen, but we were at Disneyland recently… at their World of Color show, they were doing a winter/holiday show, with Olaf as the MC. And, despite not having seen the movie or really knowing the character, he got us laughing. And, they used both of the songs you highlighted, which were both great.

    If Disney’s last three big animated offerings are Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen… sounds like they are finally making their own good movies again, instead of relying (or losing to) Pixar.

    And is this an Oscar for Idina Menzel and her song?

    1. To be honest, you’ve highlighted something I failed to consider at all: the influence of Disneyland. I’ve never actually been there. So, it didn’t even occur to me. I just assumed it was a constant variable where every Disney movie has the benefit of connecting to their core audience by promoting their latest film at Disneyland. However, not every Disney movie actually lends itself so well to the type of thing you’ve described.

      I ultimately wish I had a better answer for why Frozen is doing so well other than, “It’s just a really good movie” (I failed to mention its similarities to Wicked – oops). However, I’m sure countless actual Hollywood people are closely studying Frozen to pinpoint exactly what went right to try to emulate that with their films. If that means they start trying to sell us on a film’s tone and imagery rather than plot elements or even dialogue that could be intriguing.

      On the Disney renaissance, their turnaround is generally attributed to the influence of John Lasseter, who after Pixar was purchased by Disney in 2006 took over as co-head of both Disney’s animation department and Pixar. However, there’s some in-fighting going on as to whether or not he is devoting too much of his time to Disney. He has them on a financial and creative hot streak right now whereas Pixar is still a financial force but are thought to be in a creative decline (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University). Plus, they look like they are being mismanaged, having recently laid off 5% of their workforce and forced to delay their next release from 2014 to 2015, meaning for the first time in as long as we can remember there will be no new Pixar release in 2014. You can read the full article here:

      http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/pixar-disney-animation-john-lasseters-661752

      Lastly, I would have thought “Let It Go” would have been a shoe-in for the Best Song Oscar until U2 beat it in that category at the Golden Globes. Then again, it’s the Golden Globes – there’s 0% overlap between their voting members, and the Academy. Even with U2’s win I’d be stunned if “Let It Go” didn’t win. The only thing that might work against it would be if multiple songs from Frozen are nominated, thus potentially splitting the vote. However, even the movie’s critics seem to agree “Let It Go” is an instant Broadway classic. Personally – I don’t actually love it. That’s not the type of Broadway song I usually go for. I’m more of a sucker for funnier songs, thus Olaf’s summer song.

  2. My daughters and I saw “Frozen” for the first time last week (late February), and only because a friend told us about the sing-a-long while we were visiting Southern California. I had hoped it was a musical because of Idina Menzel’s and Jonathon Groff’s involvement. Now we have the soundtrack, my kids want to see it again, and we have watched far too many YouTube videos of “Let It Go”. One child is learning to play the song on her instrument, too. I was strongly reminded of “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked”, and also I thought of “Lilo & Stitch’s” sister bond as I watched “Frozen”.

    1. Thanks for responding. Did you and your daughters see Frozen for the first time at a sing-a-long showing? If so, that must have been interesting. I would have guessed only people who had already seen the movie would go to sing-a-long showings, but I’m thrilled you and your daughters fell so in love with the movie. I’m sure your kid now trying to learn how to play “Let it Go” on her instrument is the type of thing that would make the day for everyone involved in the movie, especially Bobby Lopez and his wife for writing the music and Idina Menzel for singing the song. You’re absolutely right to make the “Defying Grafity” comparison for “Let it Go.” Actually, Frozen in general seems to owe a lot to Wicked, sort of like what if instead of just being friends Elphaba and Glinda from Wicked were actually sisters. I have to admit, though, that I’ve never seen “Lilo & Stitch.” I’ll have to rent it some time.

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