Pixar hopes auds find ‘Ratatouille’ tasty

Disney tries to fill promotional plate

You wouldn’t think Disney would have a problem promoting an animated movie starring a mouse. But this mouse isn’t named Mickey. It’s Remy.

Who? Exactly.

Remy’s the lead in “Ratatouille,” about a rat that lives in a Paris restaurant and aspires to be a chef.

It’s the first release from Pixar Animation Studios since it was bought by the Mouse House in early 2006; “Cars” was the final film in the two company’s original distribution deal.

It’s also Jim Gallagher’s first Pixar pic since taking the reins as president of Walt Disney Studios Marketing from Oren Aviv last year. For Gallagher, this summer is basically a repeat of 2006, when the studio had a “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel and a Pixar film (“Cars”). Both wound up the year as the No. 1 and 2 films, domestically.

While “Ratatouille” features the flashy animation and whimsical characters Pixar has become known for, it isn’t necessarily considered a simple sell.

In a summer of easy-to-market sequels, “Ratatouille” isn’t based on a pre-existing franchise, its lead character isn’t already known by auds, no A-list stars provide the voices of the characters (preventing the studio from pushing them out on the talkshow circuit), and there’s the hard-to-pronounce name.

On top of all that, the movie’s not even fast-food friendly — mainly because the lead’s a rat and scrambles around a high-end French restaurant. It’s also facing some serious competition with “Transformers” and the next installment of “Harry Potter,” both of which are expected to drum up family business.

So what’s a marketing maven to do?

First, Disney had to educate auds on how to say the title. Ads, and even the pic’s logo, phonetically spell out “Ratatouille” as Rat-a-too-ee.

Second, the studio’s hyping that the pic is from “the creators of ‘Cars’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ and the Academy Award-winning director of ‘The Incredibles.’ ”

But beyond pushing Pixar’s pedigree, Disney is essentially letting the film sell itself.

Disney posted nine minutes of the pic online (disney.go .com/disneypictures/ratatouille) on May 1, preceded by an introduction from director Brad Bird. Clip is also on YouTube and viewable on TiVo boxes.

“We really feel like we’ve got the most original movie of the summer, and we can’t wait to show it to people,” Gallagher said in a statement when announcing the clip. “In a summer of sequels, we believe that inviting users to sample a chunk of the next masterpiece from Pixar is the most impactful way of demonstrating the film’s fresh comedy and originality. The Internet gives us the opportunity to do this without the limitations of traditional media, and we think that this stunt allows us to cut through an increasingly crowded marketplace.”

Footage is also being shown to attendees of the studio’s 10-city “Ratatouille Big Cheese Tour,” that started May 11 and runs through July 22 (event includes cooking demos and a 25-foot wedge of cheese that kids can slide down).

The studio also pre-screened the pic at 800 theaters June 16 to generate word-of-mouth.

Elsewhere, it’s also gone the DreamWorks Animation route, relying on technology partners to get the early word out about the film. In print ads and on its Web site, Intel has used the “Ratatouille” character to tout its faster Core 2 Duo processor (technology used to make the film). DreamWorks and HP have cross-promoted their offerings in the past.

Intel is one of only a handful of promotional partners that include Samsung, Kellogg’s and the Food Network.

Of course, Disney is blasting its inhouse broadcast and cable TV channels, Web sites like the revamped Disney.com, magazines and radio stations with ads to push the pic.

Disney needs “Ratatouille” to perform at the box office. It’s still trying to quiet Wall Street and Hollywood’s wagging tongues analyzing the $7.4 billion Disney paid to buy Pixar, and prove the money was well spent. No Pixar pic has yet beat “Finding Nemo’s” $865 million take in 2003, including a $70 million opening.

Last summer’s “Cars” opened at $60 million, roughly $10 million less than “Incredibles” the year before. While that’s still a strong opener (which helped it become last year’s No. 2 grossing pic domestically), the company’s stock price still took a hit.

Anything less than an opening of $54.8 million (the average opening for Pixar’s seven pics) and Hollywood is expected to proclaim that Pixar’s lost its magic touch.

But to be fair, don’t bet against Pixar.

The company’s previous seven pics — all original releases, other than “Toy Story 2” — have performed quite well, earning on average $243 million domestically and $528 million worldwide.

Those pics proved just as hard to sell.

Industryites predicted that last summer’s “Cars” would play to only young males or NASCAR fans, but the pic attracted a sizable female crowd, as well, after Disney marketed the film as a family-friendly comedy. “The Incredibles,” in 2004, also could have solely courted superhero genre fans, but it played more broadly.

Their box office performance only proves just how much of a brand the Pixar moniker and its hopping lamp logo have become among auds. Disney is relying on that kind of name recognition to sell tix to “Ratatouille” later this month.

So far, “Ratatouille” isn’t tracking as strongly as Disney would like among most moviegoers. The numbers are lukewarm. It’s appealing more to females under 35.

Disney hopes to cash in on signs of sequel fatigue that young auds and families are showing after a third “Spider-Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Shrek,” and still compete with the DreamWorks-Paramount juggernaut “Transformers” and Fox’s “The Simpsons Movie” in July.

That’s something Sony hoped to do with penguins in “Surf’s Up,” but that pricey toon bellyflopped at the B.O. on its opening weekend, with an $18 million take, giving Disney execs another reason to lose sleep.

If those same execs are confident about how “Ratatouille” might play, they’re not openly showing it. In fact, they’re being as quiet as, well, a mouse; the Mouse House declined to comment for this story.

Now it’s all up to Remy to bring home the box office cheese.

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