Can Disney Grow With Boys and Men?

Carrie Bradshaw is back

by Whiskey on September 24, 2009

With the Mancession in full swing it would appear odd that Disney, along with Time-Warner, is busy restructuring itself to appeal more to men and boys, but nevertheless, Disney is busy doing just that. Disney recently fired Disney Studios CEO Dick Cook, shortly after making an offer to purchase Marvel Entertainment. Reportedly, Disney CEO Bob Iger is considering Disney Channels Worldwide President Rich Ross as a successor, according to Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily. Nikki’s batting average on Hollywood rumors is the best among the Hollywood reporters, frequently scooping both Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, so the rumor is likely to have substance to it. But what the move shows, if true, is how thin the executive ranks in Hollywood are when it comes to proven ability to attract boys and men to either movies or (especially) television. The latter being a female and gay ghetto. [Disney's ABC is especially bad in this regard.]

Disney, Time-Warner, and other media conglomerates would prefer not to make the effort. They lack the ability, mostly, to shepherd complex, boy and man-appealing entertainment into success. Most of their outlets appeal to the “New Girl Order.” But a terrible advertising climate, a crisis in DVD sales, and the threats of piracy, the internet, and simply watching existing DVDs has led Hollywood’s media conglomerates to one conclusion. Women and girls are not enough.

Not enough to provide real growth in revenue, particularly if Larry Summers is correct and the current recession, with permanent job losses and structural unemployment at the 10-15% range over ten years or more, curtails the “New Girl Order.” Even with men making up most of the unemployed, single mothers face economic pressure as well, if nothing else from declining real wages as tax increases and inflation mounts, along with job uncertainty. This promises to end the easy money of selling $100 “Hannah Montana” tickets to the parents of tween girls.

Hollywood focused on the female and tween girl audience because it was easy. Disney particularly was able to develop a strong stable of tween girl appealing stars, from Hillary Duff (“Lizzie McGuire”) to Miley Cyrus. Disney’s bets on Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez have not fully paid off, however, as the predicted influx of Hispanic/Latino girls flocking to those stars never materialized. Unsurprisingly to anyone but Disney execs drinking the Multicultural Kool-Aide, Latino/Hispanic (read, overwhelmingly Mexican) tween girls prefer real, authentic, Spanish-speaking idols from Mexico, available in Spanish-language television, magazines, and movies.

From the Wall Street Journal article:

Like other studios, Disney also has to combat the decline in DVD sales. Hollywood still makes the bulk of its profits from home-video sales. But that market, which grew more than 15% a year between 2000 and 2004, has begun to wilt. According to Adams Media Research, consumer spending on home video fell 9% last year. It projects home-video sales will fall between 8% and 10% for 2009.Mr. Iger has said DVD sales are in an irreversible decline, but he said Marvel’s strong brand profile should offer a measure of protection. “They are not immune from the changes that we’re seeing,” Mr. Iger said, referring to Marvel, during a conference call with analysts Monday morning. “But they have established a footing that we think is more solid than what you typically see in the nonbranded, noncharacter driven movie.”

As Charles M. Blow of the New York Times has written, the speed of the collapse of the Music Industry is amazing, cut in half from its peak in 1999, in ten years. First piracy, and then music streaming over the internet, free and legal, have severely cut industry revenues. Clearly, Hollywood can see the same problems facing themselves. Already Hulu.com, ironically created by NBC Universal (GE), Fox Entertainment Group, and ABC (Disney), has taught consumers to access streaming movies, television shows,and clips instead of buying DVDs. The success of South Park Studios where every South Park episode can be watched, for free, online, shows that creative people can build their own portals very quickly and capture consumer interest (and advertising revenue) without much cost. The success of “District 9″ in providing a unique, and expensive look with a production budget of $30 million means that the studios, with high costs and overhead, face real challenges from productions in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and potentially many other nations with low production costs and favorable tax treatment.

Hollywood clearly must have a male audience, both boys and men, to provide revenue stability, let alone growth, if the pressures of piracy, online competition, and simply re-cycling existing DVDs (and video games) continues. Tween girls and women are not enough. From Box Office Mojo and the Wall Street Journal I have compiled the list of Female Skewing movies and Marvel Superhero movies:

Female Skewing Movie World-Wide Gross
Sex and the City $415,252,786
27 Dresses $160,259,319
Devil Wears Prada $326,551,094
Jane Austen Book Club $7,163,566
The Proposal $272,060,335
He’s Just Not That Into You $172,011,653
Marvel Movies World-Wide Gross
Blade $131,183,530
X-Men $296,339,527
Spider-Man $821,708,551
X2: X-Men United $407,711,549
Spider-Man 2 $783,766,341
Fantastic Four $330,579,719
X-Men: The Last Stand $459,359,555
Ghost Rider $228,738,393
Spider-Man 3 $890,871,626
Iron Man $585,133,287
Wolverine $363,362,640
Punisher War Zone $10,089,373
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer $289,047,763

Most of the Marvel Movies outperform the Female skewing movie average (which was $225 million). Only 2 out of the 13 Marvel movies listed made less than the Female-skewing movies, and that is including the “Hard R” rated Punisher War Zone movie and 1998’s “Blade” made over 11 years ago and featuring a very minor Marvel character. Even a poorly made movie like the second Fantastic Four movie brings in nearly $290 million. Obviously, the usual caveats apply. This applies to world-wide box office, including foreign box office grosses, and generally the studios receive significantly less than the gross for both foreign and domestic exhibitors. Often, foreign receipts gross less percentage-wise than domestic receipts. Moreover, foreign receipts are more vulnerable to pressures of piracy. As MTV reported, the movie “American Gangster” was available in major US cities on bootleg DVDs (of high quality, too) before its release. Eli Roth reported that “Hostel II” was on sale in Mexico City for the equivalent of a quarter.

However , the average of the Marvel movies is $430 million world-wide. That is serious money even though the net for the studios is likely to be less.

Which makes Disney’s move puzzling.

Disney has access to Marvel’s characters, assuming they settle with Jack Kirby’s estate over the rights to characters he created, including Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk and the Avengers. These characters are proven money-makers in extracting cash from the wallets of men and boys (who are the audience that watches the movies, and buys the DVDs). Disney also has family-film studio Pixar, with hit after hit, and a deal with Dreamworks for adult fare (likely to produce prestige but little cash). The role of the successor to Dick Cook as head of Disney Studios is to push products from the Marvel character library (and undo existing exclusive deals with Sony, and other studios such as Columbia, for characters like Spider-Man and Ghost Rider respectively) to grab more of the dollars “lying on the table” that belong to men and boys. Because clearly more “chick flicks” and tween-girl pop princess fantasies face limited growth potential amidst DVD piracy and audience erosion from streaming online video.

According to Nikki Finke (who has an excellent track record), Disney is considering Rich Ross. Ross is listed in After Elton as one of the most powerful openly gay men in Hollywood. As noted in the NY Times article about how Disney used “Kid Whisperer” Kelly Pena to find out what boys liked, Ross was quoted as saying:

While Disney XD is aimed at boys and their fathers, it is also intended to include girls. “The days of the Honeycomb Hideout, where girls can’t come in, have long passed,” said Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide.

Disney XD, which took over the struggling Toon Disney channel, has improved its predecessor’s prime-time audience by 27 percent among children 6 to 14, according to Nielsen Media Research. But the bulk of this increase has come from girls. Viewership among boys 6 to 14 is up about 10 percent.

Ross’s track record demonstrates a failure to increase boys’ interest in watching Disney XD. As a Gay Man, he’s incapable of understanding what boys and men like in entertainment. Ross could read one market research report after another, and never understand why one kind of content succeeds and another fails. Including girls will automatically exclude boys, by making the content “girl-friendly” and therefore actively repellent to boys and men.

The extraordinary durability of Marvel Comics characters created from 1941 through the 1970’s stems from the creators themselves. Often nerdy, shy, young men who did not find enormous success with the ladies, the creators (often deeply patriotic and assimilated Jews) created power-fantasies whereby “ordinary” young men with good character were transformed into weird and powerful heroes. Some were more upbeat, others more angst-ridden, but all were “fun” in the way that only a truly masculine identity could embrace: Spider-Man swinging through Manhattan’s skyline and mouthing off to adversaries the way he could not in his ordinary life, Daredevil vigorously maintaining the line between hero and villain in a struggle to save his neighborhood, the Hulk’s embodiment of a child’s anger and innocence, or Captain America’s exuberant love for his country and smashing his nation’s enemies.

Making these characters “girl-friendly” requires mutilating their appeal to young men and boys, and creating female characters who “tame them” adds far too much competition over the female characters. The whole point of a character like Daredevil is that while his outward self may be handicapped, the inner person and hero is a ladies man, irresistible to a host of female character, such as Elektra, Black Widow, and so on.

Because the executive talent pool for Disney and Time Warner is such a female and gay ghetto, reflecting much of its product, it is not surprising that Time-Warner appointed a female marketing executive whose prior experience was Harry Potter promotions as head of DC Comics. Nor is it surprising that Disney is considering an openly Gay executive, who notably failed in attracting boys to the male-oriented channel, as head of Disney Studios. Old habits die hard, and the Hollywood studios have pursued a gay/female ghetto strategy for so long that even when recognizing that growth, or at the very least simply reducing the revenue erosion, depends on attracting boys and men, the only choices on hand to run the show are women and Gays.

Thus, I expect Marvel Comics to get a lot “gayer,” and existing projects such as the Iron Man 2 movie, the Thor movie, the Avengers movie, and so on will become a lot “gayer” and more “girl-friendly” as well. They will be flops like “Jane Austen Book Club,” but far more expensive. Hollywood simply does not know how to appeal to men.

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