As an awful lot of pundits and observers noted over the holiday week, this is the beginning of Year Two of Bob AIger Reign Two and yes, Happy Bobiversary to all. Suffice to say it didn’t exactly begin the way some might have hoped. Per VARIETY’s Rebecca Rubin:
Disney may need to find another star to wish upon. “Wish,” the studio’s newest animated adventure, was projected to land on top of box office charts over the Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, ticket sales fell short of expectations with a weak $19.5 million over the traditional weekend and $31.7 million over the five days, and the film tumbled to third place behind Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games” prequel “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” and Ridley Scott’s historical epic “Napoleon.”
Rubin throws out the olive branch that the wish that is likely being redoubled in Burbank this week is that there is a longer tail to this shooting star, as was in evidence earlier this year:
Disney is hoping the family flick will have staying power during the busy holiday season, much like this summer’s “Elemental,” which finished much stronger than its disappointing opening weekend would have suggested. “Wish” carries a hefty $200 million production budget and needs to show the same kind of endurance to justify its price tag. It helps that audiences, unlike critics, seem to enjoy “Wish,” which landed an “A-” CinemaScore.
But that’s the verdict of the audience sector that lives, sleeps and breathes all things Disney, and it’s clearly a brand that has its limitations and troubles. And as CNBC’s Sarah Whitten points out with cold, hard facts, that magic that used to be a given in the days of Bob AIger Reign One has not only not been recaptured, it has been further diminished by the machinations and priorities of the team calling the shots:
Its Marvel Cinematic Universe films have been hit-or-miss with audiences, with “The Marvels” most recently opening to an all-time franchise low. But Disney’s animation arm, which has ruled the box office for decades, has had more rotten eggs than golden ones in the last three years.
Much of Disney’s troubles have stemmed from executive decisions to pad its fledgling streaming service Disney+ with content, stretching its creative teams thin, and sending theatrical movies during the pandemic straight to digital.
This has been particularly apparent with Disney’s animated features, both from its Walt Disney Animation studio and from Pixar. Parents, confused about when and where animated films from the studio were being released, didn’t show up to theaters.
And if they’re clicking on reviews such as the one that the Left Angeles TIMES’ Katie Walsh dropped to the kind of diverse target audience Disney’s current strategists covet, they may not be flocking in droves to save the day. To wit:
It’s somewhat astonishing that “Wish” has been in development for five years because the script is plug-and-play Disney formula: a headstrong young person lives an idyllic life in a beautiful home until they realize that they shouldn’t accept the status quo and either set out to change the world around them or find something new. They sing about their desires and emotions and inspire everyone around them, and go through a cathartic journey of growth and change. Add a cute talking animal and call it a day.
You want to know what a lot of these families have been doing and watching instead? Well, it involves another family-friendly brand with a long legacy, and it’s doing so in ways that impact a lot of other businesses that Disney saw better days in its first century with . As the impossibly creatively surnamed Angela Watercutter recently opined for WIRED:
I watch a lot of Hallmark Channel programming around the holidays. With all of the options available on Netflix, Max, Hulu, and others, this feels like a very throwback move. Still, every year, the channel’s Countdown to Christmas is unmissable. This is why, despite not really having a huge presence in the streaming wars, the network—yes, the network—wins them.
And Hallmark does so in a manner that is as strategically as formulaic and as reverent as what seemed to be the desired secret sauce for WISH. As Watercutter continued:
Countdown to Christmas starts at the end of October and runs through late December, consistently rolling out brand-new movies in which overly flawless people holding mugs of warm beverages solve largely non-consequential, very middle-class, romantic problems over the course of the holidays.
Generally, the plots revolve around someone (frequently played by Mean Girls alum Lacey Chabert) who leaves a big city, goes home (or to some quaint bourg) for Christmas—often post-breakup—meets a special person (usually an Xmas aficionado), and fights off falling in love. As our protagonist does, they FaceTime their friend back in the city about it (the friend is often sassy and the city is often New York), and then ultimately end up staying in whatever arty-crafty place they’ve found themselves with the new love of their life.
Pithy descriptors notwithstanding, these movies rule.
Boy, do they. As this morning’s CYNOPSIS trumpeted:
Hallmark Channel’s “A Merry Scottish Christmas” #1 most-watched original movie premiere this year to-date among Households, Total Viewers, Women and Persons 18+, 25-54, 18-49, 55+ and Persons 18-34.
Yep, not just the old farts who watch the channel the other ten months of the year. But the audiences that advertisers covet. That typically decide to go to theatres. And also can still get coerced into visiting theme parks in conservative bastions like Orange County, California and Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Which are populated by lots of families who are more likely to identify with the values and representations depicted in A MERRY SCOTTISH CHRISTMAS than, say, WISH.
So here’s an idea for Bob AIger and company to ponder while they try and move the deck chairs around on their version of the Titanic. While you’re pondering all of these chess moves of purging yourself of more struggling channels and brands, why not kick the tires around on the Hallmark Channel and its Crown Media Networks?
It’s currently missing uppermost management, with the overachieving Wonya Lucas on her way back to corporate boards at year’s end, though it seems to have found a stabilizing creative force in Lisa Hamilton Daly, who recently explained in detail to VULTURE’s omniscient Josef Adalian how even someone with her background was quickly coverted into being a Hallmark evangelical:
I worked with a lot of the same producers and writers when I was at Netflix and also at Lifetime, so there was a lot of overlap. And I’d heard a lot about how Hallmark functioned. But I think what I wasn’t really ready for was how central the brand is to everything that they do. Netflix really didn’t have a brand; they had a lot of different types of programming. Hallmark is the first place where I really felt that everything gets filtered through, “Is this right for our brand?” And I think that learning that and really leaning into that and understanding the power of that has really helped me in programming stuff.
That philosophy and approach has been echoed by the likes of John Landgraf and Dana Walden who respectively built out FX and 20th Century FOX into identifable, dependable and yes, profitable brands. long before Bob AIger one dropped a few billion shekels to bring them aboard at the same time he signed off on reuniting the X-MEN with their MCU brethren. Those brands, particularly FX, are holding up much better than the MCU; indeed, it is the FX content that is largely driving the value proposition of Hulu, which Bob Two seems determined to make an essential part of his quixotic quest to repair Disney’s–and his–tarnished legacy.
Someone with Daly’s tastes and direct experience within Netflix could be a welcome addition to his team. And the managment braintrust that will looking for something of consequence to do if and when the likes of Freeform and FXX are put out to pasture could certainly help out in filling some of the voids that Lucas is leaving behind.
And, as a bonus, Disney could clearly benefit from the nuanced and practical approach to more existential issues that Daly offered up to a particularly sensitive issue which Adalian dared to raise:
Hallmark Channel has taken heat in the past for making movies that didn’t always reflect the diversity of America. Casts were overwhelmingly white and straight…you’ve definitely made strides. Where do you think you stand now in that effort?
I think it’s a work in progress. It’s about figuring out the best way to tell these stories that our audience enjoys. And I’ve been using this term everyday diversity to describe what we’re doing, which is to make sure that the world that you’re seeing reflects the world that we all live in. Our movies are about romances. They’re not issue-driven movies. Those are not the stories we’re telling. So I think it’s a constant evolution of, “How do we this in a way that works for our brand and our audience?”
Perhaps if the decision-makers behind WISH, or some of the more confounding recent missteps which defined a number of the more recent Disney efforts, had incorporated that kind of filter, things might be looking up.
Is Crown Media for sale? Often, it has been. In the frenzied landscape of M&A that 2024 portends to be, for the right price, it could be again. There are far worse compliments of brand and scale out there to ponder. You can sell an awful lot of greeting cards with Mickey and Pluto on them, too.
So there’s my two cents for Year Two of Bob AIger Two. Two much, you may think?
Well, do you care enough to send your very best?
Until next time…