In his highly-recommended book The Big Picture, writer and journalist Ben Fritz chronicles how, of the last decade or so, Disney’s film operations have increasingly operated more as brand owner and manager than anything else. It’s still a movie studio to be sure, but with Pixar and then Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm under its management executives at Disney have been more focused on how to keep all those brands fresh and interesting to the audience, a goal that sometimes involve the production of a feature film release.
Along with those properties, all of which it acquired over time, Disney also realized it was sitting on a gold mine of recognizable and beloved characters and stories all its own, even if many were adapted from other works. That has lead, over the last four years and into the foreseeable future, to a series of remakes, sequels and reimaginings of classic Disney animated films like The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and more.
Just recently the first teaser poster for the next movie in this lineup of titles being revisited was released when star Will Smith shared the initial key art for Aladdin, in which he plays the Genie. That artwork, along with that for previous as well as upcoming releases, shows just how keenly Disney is aware of how one single image can capture the attention and imagination of the audience and sell them something both new and familiar.
Consider these examples:
Aladdin (2019) – What could be more synonymous with the story of Aladdin, which Disney made as an animated feature in 1992, than the lamp from which Genie emerges? That’s why it’s the central focus of the first poster, with a soft blue smoke wafting from the spout while a strange purple light shines in the background.
Dumbo (2019) – If your heart doesn’t melt at the thought of the young elephant who could fly using his magic feather to escape the circus he was born into you need to see someone. That’s why the teaser poster uses the connection of those two, with Dumbo only seen in shadow with his trunk reaching up to where we see a small feather floating through the air.
Beauty and the Beast (2017) – While there are plenty of visual elements that could have been chosen, including any number of anthropomorphic furniture-based characters, the initial teaser poster used an image of the rose whose falling petals represent the time Beast has to break his curse and become human again.
Cinderella (2015) – It makes eminent sense that, when the poster designers wanted to distill the value proposition of the movie down to its simplest element, they chose the glass slipper that is so integral to the story, representing Cinderella’s time as a princess and the Prince’s quest to find her.
What Disney has done is effectively use a kind of visual shorthand in its marketing. Seeing the glass slipper immediately tells you this is a Cinderella story, even though the poster doesn’t feature the movie’s title. Same for the lamp on the Aladdin poster. You get it and understand what it is you’re being sold. That kind of shorthand is uniquely available in instances like this, where the studio is able to trade on a beloved classic movie’s widespread cultural awareness to sell the new version.
This approach shows how vital brands and properties are to the current movie industry, Disney in particular. The stars of these movies are not unknowns and include the aforementioned Smith along with Emma Watson, Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Michael Keaton and a host of other names you’d instantly recognize. Disney, though, understands that what will bring people into theaters is the brand and so leans into that preference.
It’s not as if Disney has stumbled into anything new here. Consumer products companies and retail brands have long understood the power one single image can motivate the buying public. That’s true for shoe companies, automakers, tool brands and countless others. But Hollywood has traditionally been reliant on star power to sell its movies. As that diminishes and people want to be pleasantly entertained by something passingly familiar, movie marketing has embraced the concept as well.
There’s little reason to think the teasers for upcoming remakes like The Lion King, Mulan and more won’t take the same approach. It works. Put an image that transcends language in the center of the frame, bathe it in a spotlight and let audience recognition do its thing, creating instant awareness and interest kick in almost immediately.