Commentary

'Cars 2': Entertainment Or Merchandise Mover?

The promotional buzz for "Cars 2" started many, many weeks ago -- both in the media and at retail -- but should hit full pitch now that it has zoomed its way through an opening weekend. Despite a lot of yellow and red flags from critics (and, in fairness, a rave or two), the movie grossed $68 million on its opening weekend. That's more than its 2006 predecessor "Cars," which grossed $60.1 million out of the box and went on to earn $462 million worldwide, Michelle Kung reports in the Wall Street Journal.

Only a third of critics, and two-thirds of the almost-always more agreeable consumers, rated the movie positively on "Rotten Tomatoes." The headline on Patrick Kevin Day and Rebecca Keegan's Los Angeles Times' piece reads "'Cars 2' a wreck with critics," and goes on to quote Indiewire's Leonard Maltin: "It actually hurts to knock one of [Pixar's] movies -- something I've never done before. But then, I've never gotten a headache watching any of their previous films."

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The New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote Friday: "Maybe I'm misinterpreting the movie and underestimating Pixar's capacity for subversiveness. Maybe 'Cars 2' is a dystopian allegory for an era of ecological anxiety. Or maybe not." That's after Scott had put a finger on what appears to be the raison d'être for the flick: Crass commercialism, as we used to say in the Sixties.

"'Cars 2' is certainly built to move merchandise -- this series may surpass even the 'Toy Story' films as an effective advertisement for licensed playthings -- but it is notably lacking in soul or sublimity," wrote Scott. And, opines Toronto Globe and Mail critic Liam Lacey, "Apparently fuelled more by prospective toy sales than any intrinsic narrative purpose, 'Cars 2' varooms right under Pixar's usually high bar."

Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz goes so far as to say that potential merchandise sales likely led to the decision to make the sequel in the first place, according to a story by Michael White and Robert Langreth in Bloomberg. Creutz wrote in a June 23 note that the original film has driven almost $10 billion in global merchandise sales, though most of it is through licensing, of which Disney collects up to 15%. Disney expects sales of "Cars 2" toys and products to top the $2.8 billion from "Toy Story 3" last year.

You may recall Marketing Daily's Karl Greenberg's coverage of efforts by Goodyear that include advertising, events, a makeover of its consumer Web site, and rebranding the Goodyear blimp, as well as State Farm's "Agent on a Mission" promotion.

"The war in the store is increasingly starting at the movie theater or the stadium," wrote Jack Neff in an Ad Agepiece that detailed Kimberly-Clark's global, multi-brand strategy -- Kleenex, Huggies, Pull-Ups, Scott, Cottonelle, Viva -- with "Cars 2" a couple of months ago. At least 22 retail chains are participating in the U.S., including regional ones. The effort includes movie advertising, a newspaper coupon insert and direct-mail program, in-store ads -- including spots on Walmart's in-store TV network -- and working with leading parenting bloggers to host a "Cars 2" contest.

"We look at multibrand really from a retail and shopper-marketing perspective," enterprise integrated marketing planning director Deborah Hannah told Neff. "It's much more powerful if we can go with a proposition that says we're going to be about 'Cars 2' and we've got a lot of brands participating and can really build basket size, trips, etc."

The subhed to a Dawn C. Chmielewski and Rebecca Keegan story in the Los Angeles Times last week was a mini Q&A: "Despite the first 'Cars' movie's somewhat unimpressive reviews and ticket sales, Pixar is rolling out a sequel. Why? Because the animated film sparked a long-lived licensing bonanza."

In fact, director John Lasseter, who is himself a car buff and toy collector, tells them that worldwide toy sales have continued to rise every year since the first movie came out. "The products are really a manifestation of the love of those characters," he said, "and are a way that collectors, kids, families, can have the characters be with them beyond the boundary of the film."

But we're not just talking about latter-day version of the Matchbook toys that certain nerds of my acquaintance seemed to prefer over a pickup game of sandlot baseball. The characters have also been licensed for crackers, tissues, shampoos and a guitar, among other things, Ethan Smith reported in the Wall Street Journal last week. And next year Disney will open a 12-acre "Cars" area of its California Adventure theme park that's the centerpiece of a $1 billion expansion.

Disney consumer products chairman Andy Mooney tells Smith that his division approaches "Cars" as a "lifestyle brand for young boys" and that it is the "male answer" to the Disney Princess marketing push (which Vicki Arkoff runs down for TLC here).

"It is very, very potent in terms of its appeal to kids," says Disney CEO Robert A. Iger. Iger clearly has a firmer grasp on the obvious than I do. If were running the merchandising-to-kids world, we'd be pushing interactive Neil deGrasse Tyson action figures with features like "E = mc2 Explained." The retail economy would, no doubt, be in worse shape than it is . But we'd be nerdier ... in a good way.

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