IFDisney has its way, 2008 will go down in kids entertainment history as the year of the fairy. Launched in 2005, when Disney Consumer Products peered into the company’s rich character vault and created a world around Peter Pan’s beloved Tinker Bell, the Disney Fairies franchise now generates a more-than-respectable US$800 million annually at global retail. However, consumers around the world, particularly DF’s core US fanbase of girls six to nine, ain’t seen nothing yet.
With a ground-breaking virtual world and new home entertainment – being produced under the watchful eye of Pixar wizard John Lasseter – launching this fall, DF is poised to prove that DCP has become a content creator in its own right.
The company has harnessed the considerable power of most of its sister divisions to build on the franchise that, up until this year, had largely been fuelled by an original book program shepherded by its publishing arm. After DCP hatched the idea, Disney Publishing Worldwide commissioned noted children’s author Gail Carson Levine to establish the world of Disney Fairies in the novel Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. Along with showing readers where Tinker Bell spent her time away from Peter Pan, it also introduced a new world and cast of fairies that were further explored in a series of chapter books (see ‘Pixie publishing prowess’ on page 110). Now DisneyToon Studios and Disney Online Studios are working with DCP to build a cohesive mythology on that foundation, with all three media incarnations feeding into each other and driving consumer products plans.
DisneyToon Studios brings Tink and Co. to the screen
Even viewed as a stand-alone project, there will be a lot riding on DisneyToon’s direct-to-video CGI film Tinker Bell when it hits US retail on October 28. Along with putting the franchise on-screen and giving voice to the notoriously silent, yet feisty Tinker Bell for the first time, the film is also being touted as a turning point for the entire division. Long before Disney acquired hit animation house Pixar in January 2006, the creative minds behind the company had disparaged DisneyToon’s profitable DTV sequels such as The Lion King 1½ and Lady and the Tramp II. So it wasn’t too long after Pixar principal John Lasseter was appointed chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios that DTS underwent a restructure.
Lasseter, along with Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, assumed responsibilities for DTS last July and immediately vowed that it would stop making sequels to focus on crafting original franchise-based fare. As the first DTV made by the revamped division, Tinker Bell will be, by and large, the poster child for Lasseter’s new vision for the animation unit.
According to producer Jeannine Roussel and director Bradley Raymond, work on Tinker Bell started around the time of the DF franchise launch in 2005, but was scrapped the moment Lasseter entered the picture. He immediately began to infuse the outfit with the Pixar ethos, starting with giving chief creatives a wider berth. ‘Pixar has a director-driven culture, and John and Ed instilled that in our division,’ says Roussel. ‘Two years ago, we were very executive-heavy, and everyone acted like a filmmaker,’ she explains. ‘Now the directors are empowered to do what they’re hired to do, and it never used to be that way. From a producer’s standpoint, I think it will be the secret to success on this film.’
With the fresh slate he’d mandated, Lasseter also took a hands-on role in helping Raymond guide the creative development of the film. Earlier versions of the script and dialogue that seemed too contemporary and skewed too young were out; and in was a mandate to make a more timeless film.
To that end, Raymond says Lasseter came up with the central idea that the Fairies would be responsible for ushering in the changing of the seasons; and their home, Pixie Hollow, would encompass all four seasons at the same time. As such, the four DF movies are going to focus on one season each, with spring-themed Tinker Bell getting the ball rolling. Subsequent titles will land at mass-market retailers each fall for the next three years.
Additionally, one look at the Tinker Bell trailer and Pixie Shorts (taken from the movie) available at www.disneyfairies.com demonstrates that Lasseter is allotting more time and resources to get these DTVs made. It’s simply higher-quality animation. Roussel, not surprisingly, wouldn’t talk budget, but she did say more time and care is being put into these projects, and they’re not being rushed through. She adds that weekly production quotas at Prana Studios in India, where principal animation took place, were on par with those of Disney’s theatrical animated features.
As for the film Raymond has crafted with Lasseter’s input, Tinker Bell establishes the world of Pixie Hollow as seen through the eyes of well-known and relatable Tink herself. Kids will get a chance to see her being born from a baby’s first laugh, just as Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie envisioned more than 100 years ago.
Tink then emerges in Pixie Hollow, and during her first talent-discovery ceremony, is dubbed a tinker fairy. Fellow tinkers Clank and Bobble introduce her to the seemingly far more beautiful and glamorous Fairies responsible for changing the seasons – Rosetta, Iridessa, Fawn and Silvermist. She also meets Vidia, a would-be rival who goads Tinker Bell into thinking her tinker powers aren’t that great. The heart of the story then revolves around Tink trying to harness a different, better power. She unsuccessfully attempts to become an animal fairy, a water fairy and a light fairy, and ‘in her failure is great comedy,’ says Roussel. In the end, Tinker Bell discovers that being true to her real talent is the most important thing, and winds up changing Pixie Hollow for the better.
A whole new online world
The trajectory of Tinker Bell should make for a great introduction to the second pillar of DF’s new entertainment strategy, especially for those who don’t discover virtual world and MMOG PixieHollow.com prior to the film’s launch. But chances are that traffic will be pretty heavy before then. PixieHollow.com is slated to go live sometime before the fall, and there’s already an army of virtual fairies chomping at the bit to get in.
Disney Internet Group seeded the property by launching a create-a-fairy function on the portal to all-things fairy (DisneyFairies.com) last spring – since then, close to five million unique avatars have been created. And as Steve Parkis, SVP of new virtual world division Disney Online Studios, puts it, these fairies ‘were all dressed up with nowhere to go.’
With the explosion of girl-friendly virtual worlds such as Webkinz and Disney acquisition Club Penguin in the past 18 months, PixieHollow.com seems like a no-brainer. But in typical Disney fashion, it’s designed to one-up what’s currently in the market. The site reportedly cost between US$5 million and US$10 million to develop, and users can expect to experience a rich online world that they’ll be able to take into the real one.
Like the Pirates of the Carribean MMOG that Disney launched last year, the plan is to have a two-tiered site with free and subscription versions. What every fairy sitting in her room right now at DisneyFairies.com will be able to do at PH’s launch is enter. Upon arrival, says Parkis, users can expect to immediately meet Tink and friends, and then learn how to fly. In fact, basic social interaction on the site will revolve around flying, as the virtual fairies flit from spot to spot gathering natural objects like acorns to barter for goods with which to outfit their Pixie Hollow rooms. They’ll also be able to chat.
Disney Online has developed a speed chat function that provides a set list of phrases kids can use, such as ‘Fly with me,’ which means hello in fairyspeak. Free chat will also be possible, but to comply with COPPA regulations and ensure that communication stays clean, it will pass through a filter first. Beyond that, mini-games will tap into the Fairies’ role in changing the seasons, as laid out in Tinker Bell, and mirror social activities like baking and crafting.
Right now, the core audience of girls six to nine is the focus of these gentle games, but during trial runs, Parkis says the site was able to attract girls as old as 12 with the right applications. And in future iterations, you can expect Disney Online to court that audience with a more adventuresome and dramatic environment called the Wilderness, a.k.a. the land between Pixie Hollow and the human world, where girls will be sent on timed tasks.
Moreover, the virtual Pixie Hollow has been designed to be a two-way conduit, pushing the play into the real world and having that feed back into the evolution of the online site, which makes it markedly different from existing virtual worlds. While toy-based sites like Webkinz.com use a physical object, in this case plush, to initiate game play, the toy pretty much gets tossed aside once the user is online, and the action tends to come to a halt the minute kids log off.
Along with fuelling the ground-breaking Disney Fairies Clickables toys (See ‘Disney Fairies Clickables ushers in web toys 2.0′ on this page), Parkis says girls will be given off-line quests that will earn them Tink points to use in the MMOG. The quests will also tie in with emphasis on the natural world and friendship that’s at the heart of Pixie Hollow. So, for example, if girls go out and recycle something, plant a tree or make a friend laugh and then report their good deed once they’re back on the site, they’ll earn points. Also, ‘it allows us to send a green message out via the game,’ notes Parkis.
Interestingly, the one thing Pixie Hollow won’t be doing is cross-promoting other Disney Fairies media. Franchise updates, news about upcoming entertainment and books, and advertisements will be housed on the overarching franchise portal. ‘The Fairies don’t know there’s a film being made about them; it would freak them out,’ says Parkis. ‘Once you enter Pixie Hollow, you’re in that world.’ So, he reasons, it also wouldn’t make sense to tell girls about a film while they’re immersed in the game as their fairies.
Coming full circle -
consumer products plans
There is currently a fair bit of Disney Fairies product at US retail, including a toy line from master licensee Playmates, dress-up products, Disney Mix Stick MP3 and Mix Max video players, apparel, bedding and stationery.However, DCP’s fall plans will focus on supporting the new entertainment, in a sense completing the creative circle. As with Pixar-hatched properties such as Cars and Ratatouille, Tinker Bell’s filmmakers have been welcomed into the process of product development. Its director Bradley Raymond says he got to be involved in everything from the creation of title treatments, to cereal bowls and pencils.
Along with Clickables, says DCP’s VP of girls franchise development, Kathy Franklin, Playmates will be launching a movie-themed line including a talking Tinker Bell doll that marks the history-making movie and playsets that replicate some of the Pixie Hollow settings found in the film and on the MMOG. The toys will also be linked back to PixieHollow.com, courtesy of the inclusion of a Pixie Pass in each package. Franklin says the pass will allow girls to unlock content on the site, including picking up new virtual items for their fairies. As for extending the pass to other categories, she says DCP’s waiting to gauge the reaction to the toy program.
For Disney Fairies’ older fans, Disney Electronics is releasing a movie-inspired set of flat-screen TVs, DVD players, boomboxes and other consumer electronics, and the franchise is also getting a video game treatment for the first time with a Nintendo DS title based on Tinker Bell in the works.
In terms of marketing and retail promotions, Franklin says it’s a little early to talk details, but this program will go wide at mass outlets such as Wal-Mart and Target. Girls, though, are getting the first taste of where they can take their personalized fairy offline via a new custom product line on Disneyshopping.com that allows users to put their avatar on goods such as T-shirts and mugs. And for DCP, explains Franklin, the fall program is a watershed moment. Even though über-successful Disney Princess, which generates roughly US$4 billion at retail globally now, was conceived within the walls of DCP, Fairies is the first franchise that had no pre-existing content, save Tink’s short appearance in the J.M. Barrie play and 1953 toon Peter Pan.
‘We had to start from scratch,’ Franklin notes. ‘Now,’ she says proudly, ‘it’s headed to be a long-term franchise.’
Pixie publishing prowess
Girls around the world were first introduced to the world of Disney Fairies through Gail Carson Levine’s Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg, released in fall 2005 by Disney Publishing Worldwide. In the intervening years, the division of Disney Consumer Products has amassed huge success with the franchise. According to John Yaged, VP and US publisher at Disney Book Group, more than 10 million copies of Disney Fairies books have sold through worldwide, including five million copies of the chapter books that followed up Levine’s first title, and there are currently 385 titles in circulation. Because the chapter books are designed for independent readers, the franchise stays skewed towards older girls ages six to nine.
Yaged says the fall publishing program will revolve around Tinker Bell, and that the filmmakers were in constant contact with his division. Fairies summits were called, and there was a lot of informal collaboration between Disney Publishing’s New York offices and Burbank to help create a cohesive Fairies mythology. In the meantime, Disney Fairies fans in the US will have Borders Disney Fairies Month to tide them over.
The US book retailer, says Yaged, has given over a big chunk of real estate to the publishing division for April. Along with handing out Disney Fairies event kits, 200 Borders stores will celebrate Fairy Extravaganza Day on April 12, and a 12-title display (including a gift-with-purchase Tinker Bell kite) will be at 1,000 outlets along with an in-store sweepstakes.
Disney Fairies clickables ushers in web toys 2.0
It’s fair to say that no company working in the toy industry today has let the success of Webkinz go unnoticed. The compelling proposition of a real toy that unlocks the entrance to an online world has captured the attention of millions of kids around the globe, and everyone’s now looking for a piece of that action. So leave it to ever-inventive Disney Consumer Products and toy tech manufacturer Techno Source to raise the bar more than a few notches. The pair’s joint-venture Disney Fairies Clickables is a line unlike any toy/web hybrid on the market.
‘We were trying to find a way to create products that allow kids to continue to play offline and then hook back into online play with the toy,’ says Eric Levin, EVP at New York-based Techno Source. And DCP had already established its Toy Morrow research group that was on the hunt for ways to grow DCP’s tech toy presence. The company’s VP of global electronics, Chris Heatherly, says he wanted to find a way to extend play in the online world. And as the two companies were searching for a way to do it, both had stumbled upon the Clickables technology that ended up cementing the partnership early in 2007. It turns out that the tech’s inventor introduced the pair of them, and DCP and TS soon realized they had the same vision for the product.
In its first toy application for the Disney Fairies line, what Clickables does is enable the exchange and subsequent storage of digital information through metal-to-metal contact using very inexpensive components. Built around the classic girl-friendly play patterns of collecting and socializing, the initial line includes a Tink Friendship eBracelet, Tink eCharm Bracelet and Tink and Friends Fly with Me eLCD handheld game that allows girls to swap info and plug it back into their online Pixie Hollow experience with the clink of two objects.
The friendship bracelet, for example, plugs into a computer via USB cable, and a girl can then download her Fairies avatar’s info onto the actual piece of jewelry. If she spots another girl sporting a friendship bracelet, the two can click them together and exchange profile information. So when they get back home, the girls can download their friendship requests and become pals in the online world. The LCD game, meanwhile, lets girls accumulate Tink points when they’re offline that can later be transferred to their Fairies profile, and they can also give friends their points by tapping their bracelets with the game.
The tech, notes Levin, can also be used on retail signage, so that girls visiting a store could walk up to a Clickables display, tap their bracelet on the sign and download a code for a virtual DF item. The beauty is that the physical sign never has to be switched out to support new retail promotions as changes are made on the software end.
As for DCP, Toy Morrow is now a standing group, and Heatherly says it’s looking to tap other technologies such as robotics for Disney toys. What it means for certain is that DCP’s taking a much more active role in the space. ‘We want to be first to market,’ says Heatherly. ‘And larger toy companies are going to learn that if they don’t come to us early on with new technology, we’ll do something on our own.’