Disney goes beyond Mickey to appeal to older boys

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Walt Disney Co is turning up the speed and power to balance its tiaras and flowers, as boys who have grown beyond Mickey Mouse are seeking fun and adventure outside the entertainment studio’s kingdom.

NFL football New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes gets some help from Minnie Mouse during a kicking demonstration at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, February 29, 2008. REUTERS/Matt Stroshane/Handout

Disney, whose two strongest franchises until 2001 were the gender-neutral Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, has seen product sales skew toward girls since Disney Princesses, launched that year, has turned into a $4 billion phenomenon among 3- to 6-year-old wannabes.

To boost its appeal to boys, the Burbank, California-based studio is adding testosterone to its toys, films, video games and TV shows due for release in 2009 and beyond.

“The entire company is focused on broadening Disney’s appeal to the older boy,” Disney Consumer Products spokesman Gary Foster said. “That’s where the company -- from an overall entertainment perspective and from a boys perspective -- that’s where we want to expand into.”

While “Cars” and “Mickey’s Clubhouse” has bolstered Disney’s appeal to preschool boys, the company has had a harder time reaching their older brothers.

Meanwhile, the slant toward girls has deepened with the runaway success of Disney Channel juggernauts “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical” among tweens.

Brand and toy analysts said Disney’s challenge is in finding narratives to lure boys aged 8 to 12 away from entrenched properties like Transformers, Spider-Man and Star Wars.

But boys may be a tough catch, spending only about half the $16 billion that girls pay for character-based merchandise each year in the United States. The products include dolls, sing-along videos, games, apparel, stationery and even band-aids, whose sales are supported by Disney’s movies, TV channels and theme parks.

“You can get boys to watch entertainment but they are not really toy consumers at that age. It’s a big challenge,” said independent toy analyst Chris Byrne said, noting that sports, video games and music are their best draws.


Boys differ from girls in how they play, said Nancy Zwiers, chief executive of Funosophy, a marketing and design specializing in kids entertainment products.

“Disney will really have to focus on entertainment concepts that lend themselves to core play patterns: good versus evil, speed, power and performance,” she said.

Disney Princesses capitalized on a typical girl’s play pattern by bringing together for the first time, the heroines of its animated classics under one brand. Sales of the new line, which includes 25,000 products, totaled $300 million in 2001 and surged to $4 billion by 2007. They are sold in 72 countries and 27 languages.

Disney created the Fairies line of toys to appeal to girls aged 6 to 8 who have grown beyond Princesses, and went on to capture the tween audience with “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical.” “Camp Rock,” an upcoming Disney Channel movie starring the teen pop sensation Jonas Brothers band, also targets that demographic.

Disney acknowledges that boys “tend to have shorter attention spans” but believes the company could replicate its success with girls in the boys’ market, Vince Klaseus, senior vice president for franchise management for Disney Consumer Products.

Disney Studio plans to draw in boys next year with “Prince of Persia,” an action-adventure based on a video game; and “G-Force,” a secret-agent themed movie from “Pirates of the Caribbean” executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Klaseus said. “Major live action event films” will be announced in subsequent years, he added.

Sequels to “Cars,” “Chronicles of Narnia” and “Toy Story,” due in theaters in the next five years, will spawn new product lines that capitalize on pent-up demand for the proven titles, Klaseus said.

“Cars,” which hit theaters in 2006, has generated a reliable $2 billion in annual global retail sales, and Disney expects “Toy Story 3,” whose previous installment was released in 1999, to be a blockbuster as well, Klaseus said.

The Disney Channel has also tweaked its schedule to include more animated and live action adventure programs that challenge competitors like Cartoon Network’s “Ben 10” and “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”

Sports, and possibly Disney’s cable sports network ESPN, may also figure in the plan to attract tween boys, he said.

This fall, Disney’s video game business will roll out a rival to the popular music-making “Guitar Hero” game and a racing game called “Pure” aimed at older teens.

While Disney’s family-friendly, wholesome brand image bars it from producing the edgy, violent games that some boys crave, it learned how to push the envelope with its PG-13 rated “Pirates” films and game and is counting on a gentler segment of teens to buoy its games.

“There are a lot of other winners in that top 10 that don’t involve that gratuitous violence,” Klaseus said. “We think there are opportunities to develop games that are competition based, that are rich with worlds and storytelling that don’t have ... issues that would be contrary to the Disney brand.”

Reporting by Gina Keating, editing by Richard Chang