The Muppets Fuzzy Renaissance
Disney is orchestrating the Muppets’ return on several fronts: TV specials, Web videos, a feature film, theme-park attractions and a whole lot of merchandising
Courtesy of the New York Times
September 18, 2008
Poor Miss Piggy. Like most aging stars in Hollywood, that prima donna pig, along with most of her Muppet pals, has struggled to find substantial roles. Almost nobody under the age of 30 remembers “Pigs in Space.” All everyone wants to talk about is this Hannah Montana person. What’s a down-on-her-luck puppet to do?
The Walt Disney Company feels her pain. Since it bought Miss Piggy, Kermit and crew in 2004, executives have struggled to figure out how to put them to work. Efforts in 2005 to rejuvenate the furry creatures created by Jim Henson sputtered as the Muppets got lobbed between corporate divisions, and a new television series — a parody of “America’s Next Top Model” called “America’s Next Muppet” — died in the planning stages.
Now Disney is giving it another go by revving up the full power of its culture-creating engines. Instead of the take-it-slow approach, this time the Muppets are getting the “Hannah Montana” treatment, being blasted into every pop-culture nook and cranny that the company owns or can dream up. The balcony blowhards Statler and Waldorf would be impressed with the ambitiousness of the plan — even if it does come with equally outsize challenges.
“We think there is a Muppet gene in everybody,” said Lylle Breier, a Disney executive who is the new general manager of Muppets Studio.
Disney Channel is presenting new specials — the first ran last month, the second will be shown in October — in which Muppets interact with “High School Musical” stars and the Jonas Brothers, among other teenage wunderkinder. A stream of comic videos is in production for Disney.com, where a new Muppet channel recently made its debut, and viral videos have been unleashed on YouTube. NBC will broadcast a Christmas special in December, and special skits will arrive on certain ABC DVD releases. (One skit with the working title “Desperate Housepigs” is on a coming “Desperate Housewives” DVD.)
A new feature film, still untitled, is planned for 2010, with more in development. Meanwhile the Muppets will work overtime elsewhere, appearing on a new float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, on “Nightline” interviewing political candidates and on various talk shows. More Muppet-theme attractions are being discussed for Disney theme parks.
And then there is the merchandise. Coming soon: Muppet clothing at Urban Outfitters and Limited Too stores; Muppet-theme items like stuffed animals and tote bags, at Macy’s; and a Muppet boutique at the New York flagship of F. A. O. Schwarz.
Disney does not want to create a flash in the pan; it sees the Muppets as a franchise that can sit side by side with, say, Winnie the Pooh. But creating any flash at all is the challenge. With the exception of a guest appearance here and there, the characters have largely been in cold storage for the last three years. And because the Muppets have been without a regular television gig for more than a decade, many children and younger teenagers don’t know them.
Ms. Breier said recent focus groups indicated that some children could not even identify Kermit and Miss Piggy, much less ancillary characters like Fozzie Bear and Gonzo the Great. The wisecracking, irreverent Muppets (a combination of puppets and marionettes) also don’t fit that neatly in the Disney culture, as they differ from most of the company’s bedrock characters in two big ways: Kermit and coterie were primarily created to entertain adults, and they live in the real world. Henson was so insistent that they stand apart from his “Sesame Street” creations in personality and tone that he (misleadingly) titled the 1975 pilot that would boost their careers “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence.”
Undeterred, Disney expects the Muppets to expand their fan base beyond nostalgic older generations to the age group between 6 and 12 that has powered “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical” into international blockbusters. But how do you make 50-year-old puppets, even those as beloved to many people as these, relevant in a “Wall-E” world?
The Muppets are hardly moribund, but they do represent one of the most striking examples of franchise fumbling in Hollywood history.
“The Muppet Show” made its debut on CBS stations in 1976, introducing the classic characters Disney owns today. (The Muppet characters that populated the inaugural season of “Saturday Night Live” a year earlier were different.) “The Muppet Show” was full of song-and-dance numbers and skits, often featuring absurdist humor, along with backstage antics. Dancing chickens were thrown in for good measure.
Some of the biggest names in entertainment at the time populated each episode. Rudolf Nureyev and Miss Piggy, clad in towels, sat in a sauna and sang “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”; a bejeweled Elton John performed “Crocodile Rock” with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, the show’s house band.
Witty, somewhat subversive dialogue and the hilarious-looking Muppets themselves quickly won audiences over. The show, which ran for five seasons, at one point was syndicated in 100 countries. The ubiquitous franchise spawned hit movies (“The Muppet Movie”), hit songs (“The Rainbow Connection”), loads of merchandise and, eventually, an animated series called “Muppet Babies.”
But those glory days are long gone. After Henson’s death from a rare bacterial infection, at 53, in 1990 his five children took control of the company. They set about working on new adventures for the Muppets — but not before dragging them into a nasty court fight with Disney over terms for a Muppet attraction Henson had completed for Walt Disney World. And the franchise’s pop-cultural resonance slipped; the last Muppets movie, “Muppets From Space,” sputtered at the box office in 1999.
The next year Henson’s heirs sold the family business to the German media company EM.TV and Merchandising for about $680 million. But as the German conglomerate slumped under crushing debt and an insider-trading and fraud investigation, the Muppets stagnated further. The Henson children later bought back the classic Muppets and the characters from the HBO series “Fraggle Rock” for $78 million (before selling the classic characters to Disney in 2004 for $75 million); the “Sesame Street” Muppets were sold to Children’s Television Workshop. The family continues to operate the Jim Henson Company, which retains ownership of the Fraggles.
But even Disney, skilled in immortalizing the vision of a single man, has struggled to rekindle the Muppet spark. Although Disney estimated three years ago that the Muppets would be generating about $300 million a year in merchandising sales by now, retail analysts say the total for 2008 will be closer to $50 million.
Meanwhile Henson loyalists like the performer and puppeteer Frank Oz publicly criticized aspects of Disney’s stewardship. Allowing Miss Piggy to serve as a Pizza Hut pitchwoman in a Super Bowl commercial created a major dust-up among fans, even though Henson himself was overtly commercial. (The piano-playing dog Rowlf was created in 1962 to sell Purina Dog Chow.) And family members have at times been frustrated at what they saw as Disney’s lack of focus.
“Have they been a little slow? Perhaps,” said Brian Henson, the co-chief executive officer of the Jim Henson Company. “But the most important thing to us is that they are careful. Now, more than ever, we believe they are doing just that.”
Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios and Ms. Breier’s boss, attributed the pace to the scale of Disney’s plans. “Developing the kind of high-quality entertainment we have planned for the global relaunch of the Muppets takes time,” he said.
|Eric Jacobson performing Miss Piggy.
In early August a motley group of puppeteers, lighting technicians, camera operators and Disney executives gathered on a Hollywood soundstage to work on Miss Piggy’s comeback.
She perched on the arm of Eric Jacobson, who performs the Muppet characters originated by Mr. Oz, stared blankly downward. A crew member brushed her hair and plucked a piece of lint from her forehead. “Miss Piggy, are you with us?” asked the director, Bill Barretta.
In the scene at hand, destined for Disney.com, Miss Piggy would demonstrate her workout routine: bend at waist, pick up bonbon from box on floor, eat; repeat. “Kissy, kissy, it’s moi,” she said after the camera started rolling.
Gently attaching the Muppets to today’s touchstone issues — healthy living, the environment — is one way Disney hopes to make them more relevant to the young and the trend conscious. Hence Miss Piggy’s donning of workout gear and Kermit’s recent appearance on ESPN (yet another Disney outpost) chatting with athletes about being environmentally friendly.
At the same time maintaining the core DNA of the characters is crucial, so as not to alienate an older generation with warm memories from their own childhoods. Miss Piggy, as a result, does not suddenly become a vegan; she communicates about exercise by talking about how she hates to exercise. Kermit does not pontificate on going green; he listens to others talk about it in his humble, unassuming way.
“We want to be very, very careful that whatever we do is in the spirit of the Muppets and that we are enhancing the brand,” Mr. Cook said.
The new Muppet film, for instance, will be geared to a broad audience, but Disney understands the need it to retain an adult sensibility. Mr. Cook hired the team behind the raunchy comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Jason Segel (the writer and star) and Nicholas Stoller (the director), to deliver the script. Leading up to a film rather than starting with one reflects the feeling among studio executives that the film will make a bigger splash if the marketplace is prepped first.
With merchandising partnerships like the one with F. A. O. Schwarz, Disney is also trying to tap into a retailing trend popular with children and teenagers: customization. American Girl Place stores, for instance, give shoppers the opportunity to design dolls to their specifications. F. A. O. Schwarz will do the same for Muppets fans.
At the store’s Muppet-theme boutique, customers (for $100) will pick a body shape from various styles and then accessorize it with “a huge variation of Muppet parts,” said David Niggli, the president of F. A .O. Schwarz. (Versions will be sold on its Web site, fao.com.) The result will be what Jim Henson referred to as a “hand rod” Muppet: one hand goes inside the head of the puppet and the other holds thin rods connected to the puppet’s hands, allowing for gestures.
“Younger consumers expect to be able to immerse themselves in the brands they like, so this idea is spot on,” said Samantha Skey, an expert on youth marketing at Alloy Media & Marketing. She added that as far as teenagers and children are concerned, “it’s a great way to bring this brand back from the dead.”
That resurrection is being planned at Disney’s headquarters in Burbank, inside what Ms. Breier has called the Muppets’ war room. At a recent meeting the Muppets team watched a newly completed video for distribution on YouTube in which Sam, the moralistic eagle, and the rock star Animal, still chained to his drum set, perform “Stars and Stripes Forever” with a chorus of clucking chickens and other Muppets. Everyone in the room laughed.
The viral videos have exploded on YouTube over the last month, giving Ms. Breier confidence that her strategy is starting to work. Four YouTube videos had been viewed a total of more than five million times as of Sept. 9, according to Disney research.
And some parents are starting to notice that the Muppets are suddenly on the radar screens of their young children.
“I tried getting them to watch DVDs of ‘The Muppet Show’ probably a year or two ago, and they weren’t that interested,” said Tom Weber, a New York father of two girls, ages 5 and 9. “But now that Disney is making its marketing push, they seem more aware and into it.”
Ellie Weber, the 5-year-old, confirmed it. “Miss Piggy is really funny,” she said. “I like it when she plays with the froggy.”
star in Toyota Super Bowl ad campaign
Video: "All I Need is Love" with CeeLo Green and The Muppets
on The Voice Tuesday November 27
Muppets Take Disney Store Manhattan November 27
Muppet Christmas Carol arrives on Blu-ray November 6
and Miss Piggy on "Best in TV" ABC special September 18
• "Kermit's Party" viral
videos from Bounty Paper Towels
Electric Mayhem on Jimmy Kimmel March 21
• Miss Piggy
and Sharon Osbourne go head-to-head on The Talk