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Disney In Depth: The Marketing Genius Of ‘Muppets Most Wanted’
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Brett Nachman   |  @   |  
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Muppets Most Wanted leaps into theaters some 28 months after the “revival” of the Muppets entity through the Jason Segel and Amy Adams film that sparked new interest in Kermit, our favorite felt friend. The March 21 release benefits from a keen and laugh-out-loud marketing campaign that integrates one of the brand’s best assets: smart humor.

This week’s Disney In Depth takes you behind the scenes as we explore how Disney’s first family film of 2014 may also be the best-promoted movie of the year – no matter the studio.

Muppets Most Wanted cast photo

Like its 2011 predecessor, Muppets Most Wanted has been marketed for many months prior to its theatrical debut. The steadily increasing amount of TV spots and promotional YouTube videos, most referencing funny attributes and scenes found in the movie, also reflects the path The Muppets took back in 2011. The conservatively budgeted film starring Segel, Adams, and Chris Cooper relied on familiarity with the Muppet characters, promises of clever celebrity cameos, and wickedly funny viral videos to bring the Muppets back into public consciousness. The movie earned a cool $165 million worldwide. While not that financially impressive, the film cost some $45 million to make. Not bad. It received generally favorable reviews, as seen in its high 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film and its intelligent marketing choices translated to the development of a sequel.

Here we are two years later. As I mentioned earlier, Muppets Most Wanted follows a similar pattern of marketing tactics. D23 Expo 2013 revealed a few clips from the feature, which will include several new songs and a few returning favorites. Modern Family star Ty Burrell holds up the humor fort for this sequel, alongside the always-amusing Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais. The casting choices, and how these humorous heavyweights have been marketed in the promos, speak to the evolution of the Muppets marketing brand.

Whereas the 2011 Muppets featured comedians in more of a cameo capacity, this time around we find three recognizable and well-regarded comedy favorites as the three leads. Burrell’s popularity may have slid somewhat since Modern Family reached its highest viewership a few seasons back, but its enduring strength in syndication will help ensure Burrell’s visibility for years to come. His film roles up to now have been as supporting characters. Similarly, while Fey hit her 30 Rock strides several years back, her TV comedy power has not translated to film success. 2013’s box office bomb Admission represents that. In the same vein, whereas Gervais has experienced many positives in the television zone, his starring roles in film (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying) both flopped.

D23 ExpoTy Burrell Muppets Most Wanted

So where does this leave the new Muppets film? All three leads have not found a place on the big screen in the way they might like. Could Muppets Most Wanted change the game in this regard? I say yes.

Returning back to the marketing component, every advertisement has utilized Burrell, Fey, and Gervais well. For Burrell, the spots have focused on his character’s Interpol inspector (almost resembling Steve Martin in the popular 2006 Pink Panther adaptation) “competing” with Sam the Eagle in the sizes of their badges. As for Fey, how many spots have focused on her Russian officer character tripping in the darkened prison? It’s funny each time I watch. The same consistent laughter applies in finding Gervais pronounce “Dominic Badguy” in a French manner. The marketing team knows what gags and one-liners work. The abundant amount of humor in the Muppets film gives the marketers many opportunities to craft ads that not only use the same clips, but also draw on some of the celebrity cameos.

Speaking of cameos, the 2011 film hosted an array of great turns from the likes of Jim Parsons and Zach Galifianakis. For the 2014 sequel, we will see Celine Dion, P. Diddy, and others, many of them singers. This makes sense from a marketing perspective, as often musical talent may be more timeless than comedians. But don’t be surprised to see a host of television and film stars popping in for a minute here and there. The trailer intentionally shows a bunch of them and makes reference to that important element of a Muppets film. So do the television spots.

One of the trademark components of Muppets Most Wanted‘s promotional campaign has been its ability to tap into current events and pop culture that speak to the environment. For instance, the spot featured above, airing during the Golden Globes, provided a mass audience of the continued wit found in any Muppets picture. The (fictitious) Twitter users’ messages shown in the advertisements, and many of the latter ones, make the ’70s-era Muppets feel fresh in the social media realm. Though the implementation of reaching out to younger viewers may be timely – and could potentially be dated many years down the line – the core elements of Muppets is its non-dated appeal. Humor that does not rely on trends can succeed no matter when you observe it. Look back at The Muppet Movie or Muppets Take Manhattan, and despite the celebrities being stuck to that time period, the laughs work 30 years later.

Based on the details I have shared it would appear that Muppets Most Wanted should perform extremely well in theaters. It reaches older viewers who remember watching the Muppets growing up, as well as the kiddos who find Fozzie Bear and Gonzo silly. Teenagers and college-aged kids appreciate the celebrity infusion and how the marketing has targeted them. Even couples may choose this as an option for a date night. But box office translation is finicky, especially for a film like this, which opens against the highly promoted Divergent. That young-adult action film aims to repeat the success of The Hunger Games, premiering during the same weekend as the aforementioned movie.

In all likelihood, Muppets Most Wanted should “have legs,” as they say in the film industry, as it lacks any film competition from family audiences – save for perhaps some who still have not seen Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Muppets must debut with about $17 million – $20 million here in the United States to be considered a solid opening. It should come close to its 2011 film’s domestic earnings of just under $90 million, although that movie had the benefit of a Thanksgiving opening when kids were home. Then again, more family pictures competed in the marketplace. Here’s hoping that if Muppets Most Wanted makes a cool $90 million or more domestically that it could earn another film in the Muppets franchise.

Will you be seeing Muppets Most Wanted during its opening weekend? What have you enjoyed most about its marketing efforts? Share your thoughts.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.

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