Disney's Enchanted Holiday Formula

This year, Disney has improved on the holiday hit formula by turning out its patented family-friendly fare at a budget that promises big returns

It has been a staple of the holidays for years. As the leaves turn brown and the holidays beckon, Walt Disney (DIS) greets kids and their parents with a family movie that does tons of business and, if the stars are aligned (as they often are), the hit plays straight through New Year's Day. Heck, Disney virtually invented the notion of a two-month holiday box office back in 1987, holding off releasing its Ted Danson/Tom Selleck flick Three Men and a Baby in the summer to ship it to theaters for Turkey Day. The rest, as they say, is history, marked by such November megawinners as The Incredibles, Disney's top-performing film in 2004, and $100 million films such as The Santa Clause 2 and Monsters, Inc. The common denominator for those films: They were either high-end animation movies or films with big-deal movie stars like Tim Allen in The Santa Clause.

Blockbuster on a Budget

But Disney seems to be switching gears this year with the Nov. 21 release of Enchanted, a film that seems to have neither mind-blowing animation nor star power going for it. The movie, a fantasy about an animated princess (Giselle) who is banished to New York to become a real-life ex-princess, has no star capable of carrying a film. (It does star Patrick Dempsey from Disney's ABC hit Grey's Anatomy. And while he brings his McDreamy thing to this flick, he hardly carries the picture.) As for animation, well, there is some of that—about 20 minutes' worth at the beginning that is less entertaining than cute, in a reverent Disney sort of way, with Bambi-like deer cavorting and a Chip 'n' Dale look-alike called Pip. Those few minutes are nothing a Disney animator would ever put on his or her résumé—in fact, it was created by a crew of former Disneyites.

Still, I'm going to go out on what I believe is a pretty sturdy limb and predict that Disney has found a new genre for itself: the modestly budgeted family film that plays in the big leagues, where Pixar & Co. usually tread. From the buzz I'm hearing, Disney has another hit on its hands and likely one that will beef up earnings.

How? For starters, it's a cute movie that features a relative newcomer in 33-year-old Amy Adams, who is terminally adorable and plays the role of the too-pampered Princess Giselle with dumb-witted charm and sings with a voice so sugary-sweet you'd think she'd been lifted straight from a cartoonist's drawing pad. Dempsey/McDreamy, as lawyer Robert Phillips, likely will bring in a few teenyboppers. But the biggest thing going for the movie may be the fact it was made for far less than the $100-million-plus that has become commonplace for Disney animated films. Nor is a hefty piece of the profits going to a star, like the chunk Tim Allen got last year for his third Santa Clause film.

What will make Enchanted, well, enchanting to audiences, will likely be the Magic Castle on the logo that precedes it, along with the words "Walt Disney" before the title. I'm not saying Disney can make a hit out of a flop—they've had their stinkeroos. But when it comes to the holidays, no studio seems to understand its audience better or to market to them more aggressively. When the holidays come around and you've got a couple of kids in tow, you desperately want to see something from Disney. Heck, this is the crew that made a hit out of Chicken Little two Thanksgivings ago.

Luckily for Disney, Enchanted doesn't disappoint. But then again, how could it? Disney has made this flick about as bomb-proof as anyone could. To beef up the music, Disney studio chief Dick Cook brought in the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, who between them have 11 Oscars for films that include The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas.

Plus, Carrie Underwood sings the final number, and there are tons of promotional partners and commercials on such ABC hits as Grey's Anatomy and Dancing with the Stars. Mattel already has a Princess Giselle headed to a toy shelf near you, and one modeled on Mr. Cutesy, Patrick Dempsey, as well.

The Long Road to Success

"With everything that this film has going for it, it would be hard for it not to be the No. 1 film the weekend it opens," says Brandon Grey, the founder and president of box-office tracking site Box Office Mojo. But getting Enchanted to the screen was no easy trick. It took the better part of a decade, four different directors, and a zillion rewrites to get it to the point where Dick Cook & Co. thought the script was ready. "The material simply wasn't there," says Cook. "It wasn't the heartwarming family movie that we wanted in that slot." In fact, after spending $450,000 to outbid DreamWorks (DWA) and Fox (NWS) for the screenplay in 1997, the film has had more ups and downs than Lindsay Lohan's life story.

At one point, the film was all but in turnaround, recalls producer Barry Josephson, who had watched as directors Rob Marshall (who went on to direct Chicago) and Jon Turtletaub walked out. For a while, Reese Witherspoon was aboard to be Princess Giselle. The Disney animation unit, then in the middle of a massive conversion to computer-generated artistry, didn't have enough traditional animators to do the cartoon work. "At one point," says Josephson, "I wanted to get it back so that I could try another studio. Then I realized that no studio could do the job with this that Disney could do."

Right you are. This is the Disney advantage when it comes to the holidays. You want to be merry, you want to be warm and cozy, and you want to be uplifted. Disney can do all of those things. So in true Tinseltown fashion, Enchanted came back to life with the kind of script that Cook wanted. The new director, Kevin Lima, a former Disney animator, carefully crafted a string of storyboards outlining the plot that Cook and team loved, the studio chief recalls. (Lima even provides Pip's squeaky voice in the film.) The reviews have been generous—even Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers lauded its "terrific score," called Amy Adams "wicked good," and predicted it "has the makings of a supersize sugar-coated hit." With the Disney marketing machine behind it, were you expecting anything less?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.