In a little over five weeks, Winnie the Pooh has earned almost 28 million dollars at the box office. This might seem like a phenomenal achievement, when faced with competition like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two, until you notice another family film that came out just two weeks later. The Smurfs has made almost 118 million which begs the question: What went wrong?
The Smurfs had marketing that appealed to multiple age groups. Their main original group of fans from the 1980s has grown up, most likely with kids of their own, and they did exploit that. First of all, they cast Neil Patrick Harris who is popular with a mix of demographics. He especially appeals to that coveted 18-34 because of being so successful at Broadway, film, sitcoms and hosting award shows, plus, a lot of people still have warm childhood feelings for the former Doogie Howser, M. D. His co-star, Jayma Mays, is in the popular Glee series and the voice cast includes Katy Perry and others. All the main human stars did plenty of talk shows, everything from the morning network shows to entertainment news shows to the stuff late at night. They also had plenty of commercials during a wide variety of programming.
If you ask any adult off the street, would they have even realized a new Winnie the Pooh film was out? Despite utilizing Zooey Deschanel to sing and having such cult favorites in the cast as Craig Ferguson, there were no talk show appearances or real attempts at garnering older viewers. Those who had grown up with The Smurfs on television also had The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, but that demographic wasn’t tapped by Disney. The commercials were mainly relegated to children’s programming and at a ratio much lower to how often they showed The Smurfs ads. The Smurfs also had special segments played in the movie theaters themselves for a month or so before it came out. It’s true that some theaters had special events for Winnie the Pooh but they seemed to have gotten lost in the lists of events for the final Harry Potter. Even the special park activities would only reach a handful of what would most likely be the more ardent Disney fans anyway.
The Smurfs had a huge merchandise campaign. There were special action figures, play sets, shirts, and multiple licensee deals with stores like Hot Topic and Build-a-Bear. You couldn’t walk into a store with anything for children and not be inundated with them. Winnie the Pooh had next to nothing. There was nothing special in the stores except for a little more generic merchandise than usual at the Disney Stores and a few new books. There was a way of getting the adorable plush shown in the film but it was a limited edition set where they had to be bought together and it was quite expensive, again limiting it to the most ardent Disney lovers. While The Smurfs also appealed to teenagers and young adults by partnering with Hot Topic, Disney has seemed to keep Winnie the Pooh in the toddler’s domain the last few years even though it has worked with both Hot Topic and Claires for Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice in Wonderland. Do they feel a Disney film only appeal to those demographics if they have Johnny Depp?
Disney has had a long history with fast food franchises, like McDonalds and Burger King. Disney’s last licensee contract with any of them expired in 2006 and has never been renewed amid the controversy surrounding children’s meals and obesity. However, that has possibly hurt them in the long run. McDonalds has enjoyed a very popular promotion the past month with the Smurfs. Each Happy Meal gets its own collectible Smurf similar to those made by Schleich. It’s more motivation for a child to beg their parent to take them to the movies when they already have the special movie tie-in toys.
Winnie the Pooh was a traditional animated film with a G rating while The Smurfs is live action combined with computer generated images and is a slightly more mature PG. The G rating and the association of Pooh with toddlers could have easily turned off older children who though it would be too babyish. There is also the concern that traditional animation is dead apart from the art house and cheap television sequels. The Smurfs was also helped by having 3D showings which made for inflated earnings.
Considering the lackluster performance Winnie the Pooh had abroad before being released here and the number of problems that could have easily been corrected, did Disney deliberately sabotage Winnie the Pooh? Did they compare the cost of a proper merchandise and marketing campaign compared to the guaranteed sales once it reached DVD and decide it wasn’t worth it? Was this the real reason that they scheduled it to compete with Harry Potter who was poised to make a billion dollars before it had even been released? What do you think?