the industry

Disney’s New Movie Merch Plan

Jeff Bridges in Tron really is the future.

The Proposal starred the newly resurgent Sandra Bullock, grossed $315 million worldwide, and only cost $40 million to make. Who wouldn’t want to make a sequel?

Wait, before you answer, here are a few more questions: Can you sell Sandra Bullock action figures? Will there be a Proposal theme-park ride? A “Let’s Get A-Proposin’!” line of greeting cards? No, no, and no? Okay, then we have our answer to that sequel question: Disney.

The studio behind the original hit has told the producers that it’s not interested in making a follow-up to one of its biggest 2009 hits. It’s all part of Disney’s new edict to make, essentially, only two kinds of films: The $150 million-plus blockbuster with lots of CGI and merchandising (i.e., anything that was once a ride at Disneyland or already a Disney title; anything old or new from Pixar; or a major character at Marvel Studios, for which it paid $4 billion last year) or the $30 million project with young, cheap, on-the-cusp movie stars. (Think Freaky Friday, a Disney-associated title which the studio is talking about making yet again, just seven years after the Lindsay Lohan remake.) “Everything in the middle,” says one producer on the Disney lot, “is toast.”

The franchise-intensive mantra came after Disney CEO Robert Iger admitted publicly and unflinchingly that 2009 had been “awful”: Having started the year with Confessions of a Shopaholic (domestic gross: $44 million) in the worst recession of all time, it then summered with the costly $150 million rodent flop G-Force (domestic gross: $119 million), and spent the end of the year eating turkey upon turkey: The Bruce Willis action flick Surrogates (domestic gross: $38 million) was laughable; the comedy Old Dogs (domestic gross: $48 million) was not.

To help pay for the whopping $10 billion Disney spent acquiring Pixar and Marvel in recent years, Iger decreed that as the world’s largest licensor of consumer products, Disney needs its films not to merely succeed in theaters, but to sell gobs of spinoff merch, as well: In 2008, the company sold some $30 billion worth of licensed consumer products, and suffice it to say, exactly none of that came from Sandra Bullock hand towels.

In December, speaking at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference, Iger explained that new studio president Rich Ross — formerly the Disney Channel’s worldwide president responsible for making Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers household screams — had been brought in to enforce a new mission: “The value to our company of a really high-quality, successful Disney/Pixar — and down the road, Marvel — film is going to be a lot greater over time than any we could create from a non-Disney branded, or non-Pixar or non-Marvel film. That is where we are headed.” Some future projects that reflect this new mantra are Tron and The Black Hole — both of which decidedly fall into the blockbuster realm.

Producers on the Disney lot have learned just how quickly Disney is moving in that direction. Sources tell us that in addition to being told that Proposal 2 was a total nonstarter, the original’s producers, Mandeville Films’ David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, had the plug pulled on a planned sequel to their 2007 Tim Allen–John Travolta comedy Wild Hogs, which grossed $250 million worldwide. And then, after their “comedy” Old Dogs bombed, Disney abruptly changed its mind about its about-to-be-greenlit Robin Williams comedy, Wedding Banned.

But sources tell Vulture that if Lieberman seemed bitter about his company’s reversal of fortune at a Christmas party last year, he’s more than happy now: While Ross and Bailey were busily hacking to death any and all middle-aged comedies left on the lot, they were also doling out new franchise-able projects, and Mandeville was offered a plum: a new Muppet movie, which Ross has made a top priority. (The product that a Muppet can’t be stuck on has not been invented.) Mandeville has also been assigned Jungle Cruise, essentially a tabula rasa project based on little more than the eponymous Disneyland ride. Before you laugh, remember the Jerry Bruckheimer–produced Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has so far grossed $1.03 $2.68 billion worldwide.

Disney’s New Movie Merch Plan