Disney Signs on Guillermo del Toro, Expanding Push for 'Branded' Creators

The following post is from Ronald Grover, BusinessWeek’s Los Angeles bureau chief:

While no one has been watching, the Walt Disney Co. (DIS) may well be overhauling the way movie studios are being run. Since February, when Disney signed Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studio to a long-term film-distribution deal, it has been busily building a roster of filmmakers that have already established their own identity – and have a readily identifiable fan base – to create highly-targeted films that Disney’s marketing machine can promote with as much efficiency as possible.

In August, of course, Disney agreed to spend $4 billion in cash and stock to buy Marvel Entertainment (MVL), one of the media world’s most easily identifiable producers of content. Specifically Marvell produces comics, movies and TV shows with star super heroes that it (and soon Disney) markets to a mostly male audience of young adults and teens.

Disney took another step in that same direction on Sept. 11 when the company agreed to bankroll films from director Guillermo del Toro, creator of the fantastical 2006 flick Pan’s Labyrinth. Under the deal, del Toro, who also has helmed the two Hellboy comic book movies, will produce animated films that Disney says will be “full of chills and thrills for audiences of all ages.”

I’m not sure exactly what that means, but clearly Disney now has a new guy in its stable, one with his own reputation for a specific kind of film, just as Spielberg and Marvel come with their own audiences. And, for that matter, just as Jerry Bruckheimer, who has been making action flicks for Disney for years, has his own “brand” of film for an audience that wants car chases, explosions and other visual pyrotechnics. One thing that Disney understands – heck, it’s hard to get some of its executives to talk about anything else – is the “brand.”

That’s because a brand – whether it’s Mickey, Minnie, ESPN or Disneyland – cuts through the clutter of video games, a fragmenting TV landscape, online sites, and all the other things that today compete with movies and TV shows for the hearts, minds and money of the American consumer. If you have a Marvel movie, a teen boy’s antenna perks up; the same goes for a Spielberg flick that appeals to just about everyone else. Imagine if you’re a Disney marketer and you start with a core audience of teen boys salivating at the notion of standing in line starting at midnight for a film. Or if you’re a 30-year old woman who loves anything Spielberg makes.

Disney didn’t invent this notion of creating discreet labels. And Disney, which is keeping Marvel as a separate, independent unit much as DreamWorks intends to be. The music companies have been doing that for years, creating or buying separate labels for their urban music or country songs. That’s because the music labels can start with a target audience to which they can promote, saving money all the while. Disney understands that the same can be true for a movie. You make sure your core audience shows up, they then start a word-of-mouth campaign that brings in their folks, kids, people down the street.

Does any of this insure that the next Disney film from Marvel sells like Spider-Man, or that DreamWorks, which will make non-Spielberg flicks, has another Meet the Parents, in its upcoming slate? Maybe not. But Disney just increased the odds that it can squeeze every marketing dollar out of the films it will release in the next few years.

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