(This essay was originally drafted for CTCS 466: Theatrical Film Symposium and has been adapted for my blog, because I must share it with y’all)
By 2016, nearly a year before the film’s release, few things were going right for Disney Pixar’s newly-announced project, Coco: The Walt Disney Company had caught flack for trying to copyright the phrase “Dia de Los Muertos” which truly belonged to the Mexican tradition and community. Once word of the film’s subject matter surfaced, the creative team at Pixar was lambasted for attempting to make ‘another Book of Life’ and appropriating Mexican culture for economic benefit. In examining the marketing of this successful film ($400M+), it’s clear that the creative teams at Pixar and Disney have triumphed in marketing an authentic film against challenges that, while newsworthy, aren’t at all new to the film industry.
Of the challenges faced by the creative team at Pixar, a lack of ingenuity and foresight was not at all one of them. Director Lee Unkrich claimed in our Lecture that he pitched the film to the studio over 6 years ago, against a film landscape in which there was not a single comprehensive film about the Dia de Los Muertos tradition (Reel FX’s Book of Life later came as a surprise). Thus, Coco benefitted greatly from having a visionary director who could see into the near future of the film landscape and quickly begin to work at adding novel real estate.
With such new and culturally specific subject matter being introduced by the studio came an obvious examination of not only Disney’s previously-released animated content, but also of their motives. In a Deadline interview, Unkrich puts to bed all rumors of Disney ordering the film in an attempt to secure the Latino market: “The intent in making the film was not to bring more representation, or diversify the kinds of stories we’re telling. It really was that I had an idea to make a film and tell a story.” (Unkrich, Deadline).
However, data about the Latino movie-going audience makes it hard to believe that Disney executives weren’t thrilled to engage in the marketing of this film to a demographic they had never previously catered to. Despite Pixar’s purely-intentioned desire to tell a universal story about “celebration, family and loved ones” (Unkrich), Disney would have to undergo targeted marketing to reach the audience of a film centered on Mexican tradition. This kind of marketing “is devoted to Hispanic and African-American audiences, essential to building an audience for many films, as they are early adopters and avid moviegoers.” (Rich, The Movie Business Book) Unkrich and his team did this brilliantly: during their qualitative market research phase, he and his team made over 6 research trips to Mexican cities including Guanajuato and Mexico city, as well as smaller villages to “[spend] days with families, shoemakers and papel picado-makers.”
The notes the team gathered on architecture, food and cultural behaviors resulted in highly authentic elements within the film: i.e. after testing, animators replaced a spoon used for playful corporal punishment against the main character Miguel with a signature Mexican chancla, or Abuelita’s slipper. Research on the importance of papel picado (a decorative, cut paper craft) during Dia de Los Muertos inspired Unkrich and his team to use VFX-generated papel picado to visually provide the exposition of the film, narrated by Miguel. Each well-researched narrative element helped to sell Coco’s digitally-crafted Mexico to the targeted audience.
Even more care was taken beyond the film’s release to feed the targeted marketing efforts: the Latino authors of Frozen’s best marketing tool, “Let It Go”, penned a new tune for Latino popular singers Miguel and Natalia Lafourcade to remix post-premiere. It is also arguably one of the most memorable songs within the film, and each view to the song’s music video (now over 1 million) prompts the viewer to purchase tickets on Fandango. Pixar also threw an exclusive premiere of Coco for Mexican citizens at the Palacio de Bellas Artes long before the U.S. release date, with papel picado adorning the street and colorful Mexican mariachis and dancers welcoming guests into the tented red carpet venue. This publicity screening and release generated further earned media and positive word of mouth from Twitter users like @jberrones007 who praised Unkrich and the team, saying, “With the movie, now Mexico is part of you forever.” (Berrones, Twitter)
This positive word-of-mouth about Mexico’s publicity screening, one of marketing’s most highly-desired results, created a ripple effect that was felt not just in Mexico, where Coco opened as the 13th highest film in Mexico’s history (Unkrich, Lecture) but also in the United States, where the film opened to $111 million after a 13-day run, and continues to top the U.S. box office charts for its third consecutive weekend (Deadline). These blockbuster results suggest that Coco ‘worked’ not just for its culturally targeted audience, but also for the general movie-going audience. This is because Coco was marketed as what the Movie Business Book identifies as a four-quadrant film: “it means we believe it will appeal to men and women, young and old, including kids and parents—everyone.” (Rich, Movie Business Book)
Coco also had what the Book would call mass appeal, which negated the need for Disney or Pixar to create specific marketing for Coco’s potential White, Black Asian and other audiences. Rich shares that if “materials are effective, they might also attract a secondary audience beyond the targets, which will make the movie more successful. “ (Rich, Movie Business Book) As Mitú correspondent Gina (@gpac1) added in a Mitu YouTube video centered around Latino reactions to Coco, “It doesn’t matter if you’re Mexican or not, because honoring the people who have passed, or your family members who have passed is a worldwide thing.” (Gina, Mitú)
Coco presents modern-day Hollywood with a prime example of what can be accomplished by serving a largely-neglected market of moviegoers with targeted marketing and an integrated campaign across multiple lines of business (something Disney has truly mastered with the ability to produce remixed records in Hollywood with stories from Emeryville). The painstaking care that Pixar animators and Director Lee Unkrich took in applying qualitative data and observations from the market research stage of the film’s marketing served as the strongest weapon against popular rumor and criticism that Disney or Pixar was merely attempting to culturally appropriate Dia de Los Muertos, or line their pockets with Mexican movie-going dollars (without earning them first). Coco’s marketing likely helped Unkrich to meet his more personal objective for the film, which he shared with us during lecture: “[I hoped that] whatever I was working on would outlast me.” Being among the first films of its kind in Hollywood and Mexican cinema, Coco is sure to be remembered for generations.