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Overcoming 'Antz' Hill Is Part of 'A Bug's Life'

Movies: Disney says it isn't worried about confusion with DreamWorks' 'Antz,' but the studio is doing a few unusual things.

November 17, 1998|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Let's say you're a movie studio and you have a computer-animated film coming out about bugs. One problem: Another studio has a computer-animated film about bugs that came out two months before yours, and that one's been a surprise hit. So what are you going to do?

If you're Disney, the answer is, forget about it--and try to make audiences forget about it too.

That's the strategy Disney is following in trying to sell "A Bug's Life," the studio's animated insect tale that opens this month (Friday at the El Capitan; Nov. 25 wide release). The idea is to ignore any similarities between its film and DreamWorks' hit animated insect release, "Antz," and play up those differences in an aggressive ad and marketing campaign.

"They are totally different movies," Disney Chairman Joe Roth says, "not even comparable."

And while to the public that may not be strictly true, in the marketing game the psychological strategy has worked before when Disney's asteroid flick "Armageddon" overcame story similarities with another DreamWorks film, "Deep Impact," in its selling campaign last summer. "Deep Impact" was sold as a disaster movie, emphasizing the human drama, while "Armageddon" was marketed as a guy-flick space adventure.

It worked. "Armageddon" went on to surpass "Deep Impact's" $140 million to become the only 1998 release to cross $200 million.

So if Roth is going to compare "Bug's Life" to any film at all it would be "Toy Story," the studio's first venture with Steve Jobs' Pixar computer-animation facility. Like "Toy Story," "Bug's Life" is aimed squarely at a younger demographic and a general family audience, whereas "Antz" was pitched at an adult, urbane crowd.

And while "Antz" focused on its title insects, Disney's campaign stresses multiple bugs--in this case ladybugs, spiders, beetles, caterpillars, mosquitoes, and yes, even ants (particularly the lead character Flik).

Unlike "Antz," which stressed the lead character voiced by Woody Allen, in the selling of "Bug's," Flik is just part of a greater ensemble, Roth says. "We definitely wanted to make sure that we conveyed this was a movie about a wide variety of colorful insects."

From early tracking studies on the movie Roth discovered that, like dinosaurs and action toys, the fascination with bugs among children crosses gender lines. The brightly colored outdoor and newspaper ads play up the varied personalities of the film's insect universe, targeting both boys and girls. The presentation is vivid enough to interest the former, and playful enough to attract the latter.

But as with "Toy Story," Disney is paying careful attention to the adult audience that helped boost that film past $200 million by paying full admission at evening performances. "Adults are critical if we want to have a break-out hit," Roth says. To that end the studio has mounted its first-ever TV campaign promoting the voices behind the characters. "We've never done it before," Roth says. "It was Steve Jobs' idea to help differentiate this film from other animated movies."

Such well-known TV actors as David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier"), Dave Foley ("NewsRadio") and Richard Kind ("Spin City") are the insect kingdom's mouthpieces. Disney has been running TV spots showing the voice-over process as well as brief chats with the various actors.

It's no coincidence that the humorous commercials are often scheduled adjacent to the actors' live-action television programs, both in prime-time and syndication. A separate black-and-white newspaper campaign geared toward adults includes takeoffs of personal ads and horoscopes.

Unlike the fledgling DreamWorks, Disney also has a highly sophisticated support machine in which the marketing plan is coordinated with its merchandising and retail (through Disney stores and various other outlets) divisions. "Bug's Life" merchandise will have been in stores for more than a month by the time the film opens in wide release.

The studio's efforts are also bolstered by a host of promotional partners who will supplement the studio's marketing budget with a $125-million campaign, including $15 million in "Bug's Life"-related TV spots.

More than a year before the film's release, Disney's head of promotions, Brett Dicker, began rounding up some of the usual (and sometimes unusual) suspects to help promote "Bug's Life." They include McDonald's, Dr Pepper, Nestle, General Mills, Sears and even General Motors. (Yes, Volkswagen's Beetle was considered, but Disney has an ongoing relationship with GM.)

McDonald's will, of course, offer toys and happy meals, as well as promotional wristwatches for adults. The film's lead character, Flik, will grace the can of millions of Dr Pepper soft drinks tied to a major sweepstakes. Nestle is creating two products to promote the movie, according to Dicker: the Bug Ball, a chocolate ball that is filled with sweet tart candy bugs; and Bug Bars, green chocolate bars filled with gummy bugs.

Over the summer and early fall, Disney, in conjunction with GM and General Mills, sponsored a national mall tour with a stage show presentation and interactive games that reached approximately 5 million people, according to Dicker.

All the film's promotional partners will be buying TV time, and "Bug's Life" director John Lasseter created special animated spots for the McDonald's campaign, featuring footage that's not in the movie--a first, Dicker says.

So if there's any confusion about the differences between "Antz" and "A Bug's Life" by Nov. 25, it will definitely not be for lack of trying.

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