UglyDolls – Marketing Recap

uglydolls poster19The popular brand of plush and plastic toys comes to the big screen in this week’s UglyDolls. In the movie the UglyDolls are basically factory defects who find themselves all sent to the same place where they establish a society that celebrates differences, embraces imperfections and allows everyone to feel important.

One day Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) decides to venture outside of the city and finds the town of Perfection, where all the toys are perfect and where no variance from the norm is allowed. The residents of Perfection have no problem finding children to love them because they’re perfect, where as the UglyDolls struggle because of how they look.

The Posters

“Things are about to get ugly” we’re warned on the teaser poster, which features the main characters standing top of the title treatment. A bit more of the story is at least hinted at on the next poster, which has them standing with their backs to the camera as they look up at an arch with “Institute of Perfection” etched into it. We get a plush doll pun in the form of “Sew it begins.”

One set of characters features each of the Uglys against a brightly colored backdrop, with their name as well as the name of the star providing its voice prominently displayed. This encouraged audiences to “Show ‘em what you’re made of.”

The second set of character posters takes a different approach, promising audiences the movie is “The movie musical event of the year,” a key message adopted in the campaign as a whole because of the pedigree of the voice cast.

All the main characters are assembled on the theatrical poster in mostly the same poses they take on their individual one-sheets, meaning it’s just a drag-and-drop design job on display here.

The Trailers

The first trailer came out in November of last year and was focused primarily on making sure everyone knew the movie featured an all star voice lineup. Introductions to some of the characters as well as the world the characters inhabit are offered as well, but it’s mainly about the music, only offering a look at Perfection at the very end. That emphasis on the music was reinforced when a “Sing Along” version of the trailer was released a short while later.

The second trailer from March sets up an Island of Misfit Toys situation, with Uglyville being where those toys who are imperfect are sent to live and revel in their status. Moxie, we see, still believes she’ll find a kid to love her and sets out to lead a group of others on a journey to the “Big World.” The residents of Perfection are less than welcoming, though, even as Moxie tells everyone their flaws are what makes them unique and wonderful.

Later that month the final trailer was released that focused on the world of Perfection and the flawless toys who live there. The UglyDolls refuse to be put down, though, once more making it clear that “broken is beautiful” and they can be wonderful in their own way. One more short trailer from just a week ago ignores the story entirely and just sells the movie as a big musical good time for anyone who might be feeling judged because they’re different.

Online and Social

In addition to the usual collection of marketing materials, the movie’s official website has sections for you to “Meet the UglyDolls” where visitors can find out more and an area with online activities for the younger audiences to enjoy.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

A 30-second commercial was aired during the “Puppy Bowl” broadcast in March. National Pancake Day was celebrated with a short video showing you how to make character-shaped pancakes. Another commercial promised the movie would be the “biggest musical event of doll-time.”

A short TV-spot like video was featured in a Promoted Tweet in mid-April.

Partners for the movie included:

  • Little, Brown, which published a series of tie-in books featuring the various characters.
  • The Ad Council, which used the characters in a cobranded commercial encouraging parents to make sure they’ve installed their infant car seats correctly.
  • Hybrid Apparel, though there’s nothing about the partnership on the company’s site. Presumably it added movie-themed merchandise to its offerings.
  • Cold Stone Creamery, which added two character-themed flavors to its menu.
  • Hardees/Carl’s Jr., which added movie-based items to its kids meals.
  • Pinkberry, which added a character-themed recipe to its menu and ran a sweepstakes awarding tickets to see the movie.
  • Original Sprout, which ran a sweepstakes awarding a movie prize pack.

All sorts of additional commercials came out in the last two weeks that keep presenting the colorful, inspiring message of the movie.

Media and Publicity

All the characters were introduced in a promotional video that tied each one to the musician/actor providing their voice.

The prospects for the movie were so high that months before it came out STX Entertainment revealed a deal with China’s Alibaba to expand the brand in other media and products.

After being featured prominently in all the trailer and commercials, Clarkson’s “Broken & Beautiful” got an official video released in March that had the movie’s characters bouncing around with the lyrics to the song. A bit later on Clarkson performed that song as part of STX’s presentation to exhibitors and others at CinemaCon and then again on “The Tonight Show.”

Featurettes focused on the recording of “Broken and Beautiful” by Clarkson and “The Ugly Truth” by Joe Jonas. STX also released a sizzle reel of highlights from the movie’s “felt carpet” premiere. That event also allowed the other music acts and stars featured in the movie to talk about what brought them on board the project.

The story of how a relatively obscure speciality toy brand came to the big screen was covered here.

Clarkson was interviewed about this being her return to movies after some less-than-stellar early attempts.

Overall

I hope there’s some sort of decent, affirming message in the movie as a whole because what’s on display in the campaign isn’t great. Basically it shows the UglyDolls are relegated to what amounts to a segregated community because that’s the only place they can be free from the judgement of the perfect people without defects or flaws. That’s…not a great message.

Aside from that, the campaign works so hard to sell this as a big musical adventure it’s questionable if there’s even a script. With a voice cast pulled from the ranks of top musical talent that’s not hugely surprising, but the studio is working hard to recreate the magic of what happened a couple years ago with Trolls and Justin Timberlake’s breakout hit from that soundtrack. Not sure if it’s going to pay off as the pitch here is a bit muddled and there may not be a clearly defined audience for this one.

Picking Up the Spare

Monae talked more about her character and the movie’s story here. 

The Toy Aisle Invades the Multiplex

Comic books are played out. Well…maybe not played out, but movie audiences at this point know more or less what to expect from most big-screen adaptations of comic characters, particularly those from the pages of DC and Marvel titles. Gender-swapped remakes or reboots of older movies are still treated as curiosities more than anything and don’t have the all-ages appeal studios are looking for. Other sources of existing IP continue to be mined, but there isn’t the kind of big, exciting, productive new vein of material that’s been opened up in about a decade.

A number of projects are underway showing studios are exploring new fields in the hopes of not only creating new franchises but tapping into areas that come loaded with existing brand awareness and the potential for non-theatrical revenue streams.

Warner Bros. is working with Mattel on a live-action film based on the perennially popular Hot Wheels line of toy cars. That same studio is reportedly developing a movie featuring Funko’s incredibly successful POP figures. And Mattel is also said to be partnering with MGM on a movie featuring the American Girl line of dolls and figurines.

All those, of course, follow the successful LEGO franchise of films released by Warner Bros. over the last five years, though the sequel to 2014’s original The LEGO Movie underperformed in its first weekend and then lost out to Alita: Battle Angel in its second. There are already movies coming out this year featuring the Uglydolls and Playmobil. And a long-gestating Barbie feature film finally seems to be moving forward with Margot Robbie now involved.

Toy companies have long realized there’s cross-media potential in the lines of characters they create for shoppers – particularly kids – to lust after. Classic 1980s cartoons like “G.I. Joe,” “Care Bears,” “He-Man” and countless others are all based on an ever-expanding line of plastic or stuffed figures and dolls. Barbie, Bratz and additional lines have also expanded across media with direct-to-video movies and other releases. Over the years there have been a number of comic book expansions as well, with Marvel Comics’ Madballs comic being just one example.

This wouldn’t be the first time toys have come to theaters, either. Not only do franchises like Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and others included multiple big-screen executions but there are the one-offs that never really caught on like Garbage Pail Kids, Max Steel and more.

What’s different now is that we are in the post-Iron Man Age, one where studios are more acutely aware of their role as managers of IP. Making a movie is just one part of the process that includes setting up cinematic universes that can expand to TV, comics and more and lead to all sorts of spinoffs, sequels and other iterations.

Alongside all that is the licensing and merchandising which is intrinsically baked into these properties. The LEGO franchise offers a good example of how this works, with the movies being based on a line of toys that was then expanded with new building sets based on the characters and scenes found in the movie. Some of those characters were then spun off into their own films, with The LEGO Ninjago Movie having the additional background as coming after a number of TV shows featuring those characters, though it wasn’t really tied to those stories.

Creative talent for most of these upcoming movies haven’t been announced as of yet, so it remains to be seen if the studios involved choose to go the route of the most successful comics adaptations – hiring quality directors in additional to recognizable on-screen/voice talent – or if they try to get these off the ground with the cheapest available option. Not that unknown directors can’t be talented, but the reason Batman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man and other movies work as well as they do is because Tim Burton, Patty Jenkins Jon Favreau and similar top-tier filmmakers were behind the camera, working within the guardrails put in place by the producers while also bringing their own distinctive style to the project.

These movies also come at a time when the retail toy industry is, to put it mildly, in flux. Toys ‘R’ Us declared bankruptcy last year in part because toy shopping habits had shifted either online or to stores like Walmart or specialty shops, in particular comic stores, Hot Topic and the like.

(It was also weighed down by massive private equity debt, with many analysts pointing out it likely could have survived if it didn’t have to divert so much money to the financing of that debt instead of investing it in store remodels etc.)

Just recently both Mattel and Hasbro reported quarterly earnings, with the former down dramatically while the latter rose in part because it has embraced the franchise lines it manages, including Star Wars and now toys tied to the popular Fortnite video game.

What all the upcoming toy-based movies have in common is that they are based on lines that have distinct characters, or at least character types. Uglydolls come with backstories and personality traits. Hot Wheels cars are all easily identifiable based on look and color, with some being sportier or more heavy duty than others, something that will lend itself well to film. As the existing home video releases show, American Girl – which got a feature adaptation in 2008 that failed to catch people’s interest and attention – figures have backgrounds and identities that translate well to stories.

Hasbro, Mattel and others, it seems, realize that selling molded plastic or stuffed fabric is only part of the picture, with additional revenue potential coming from big screen features that have the name recognition, budget and interest to warrant cover stories on Entertainment Weekly. The toys will sell the movie while the movie sells more toys, enhancing whatever money is made simply by placing product on store shelves.