20 years since its release to theaters, Lilo and Stitch seems to have ascended to the level of classic Disney animated films like Peter Pan, Beauty and Beast and The Lion King. But how did this movie, which greatly broke from the traditional Disney animated film mold, reach such success when other mold breakers like Treasure Planet and Atlantis more or less flopped?
While I personally believe it was a wild combination of great storytelling, compelling characters, visual uniqueness, and timing, there was definitely more to it. You can't get across great storytelling until people actually see your story. So what got people in the door? Well, that my friends is great marketing. You could have the best project in the world, but if you don't have great marketing, no one will ever know about it.
This is the story about how a small budget film endeavored on an out of this world journey to imagine one of the greatest promotional campaigns ever seen.
STITCH CRASHES THE PAST
Beginning in January 2002 some unique teaser trailers for a future Disney animated film began hitting TVs across the nation. Each of the four teasers featured a strange blue alien creature crashing a famous scene from other popular Disney animated films.
How did these very uncharacteristic teasers come to be? In an interview, the film's co-writers and co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois explained their aversion to the too heartwarming trailer the marketing department had come up with. Sanders said, “When we saw the first trailer, it made our hearts sink a little bit, because it was exactly what we had feared. It felt very juvenile, and simplistic." DeBlois added, "It was all about how you always remember your very first friend. It felt so saccharine and sweet to us that we pushed back on it.”
Sanders and DeBlois wanted to play off of Stitch's naughtiness, wit and curiosity to showcase that this film was a major departure from the films of the 1990s. They came up with a better idea and framed the pitch in the form of a question - what if Stitch crashed classic Disney moments. The studio executives loved the idea and soon voice actors from Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King returned to work on the new teasers.
A POSTER, TRAILER, MAGAZINE AND MEAL
The movie poster was designed to play off the teasers and featured classic Disney characters around the edge all looking disgustedly at Stitch, who sits alone in the middle. The phrase "There's one in every family" paints Stitch as the black sheep or troublemaker of the Disney animated family tree.
As the world premiere, set for June 21, 2002 approached, Disney pushed out its official Lilo and Stitch trailer. Finally audiences saw the film's location setting of Hawaii, the darling and quirky five year old that would become Stitch's companion, and the vibrant and unique animation style that would be gracing the silver screen. Between the teasers and the trailer, audiences were primed to meet this adorable alien menace.
The popular Disney Magazine featured Lilo and Stitch on the cover of the summer 2002 issue and included a seven page article introducing readers to the incredible team behind the film. Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois along with the film's producer and lead animators share about the journey of making this unique film.
We can't go on before we discuss the alien in the building. In the tradition of Disney animated films, there would be toys. And since Stitch gets into everything, where best to start than in McDonald's Happy Meals?! But a simple run of the mill commercial wouldn't do. If you're thinking, did he...? Yes, Stitch even crashed a McDonald's commercial!
STITCH AT HOME IN THE DISNEY-MGM STUDIOS
While the trailers, posters and toys reached potential audiences in their hometowns, Stitch was also making his presence felt at Disney-MGM Studios, where the film was produced. Guests using resort bus transportation to the park would see a figure of Stitch in his alien suit in the bushes of one of the parking lot medians. Approaching the entrance, they would be greeted with the sight a huge blow up Stitch. As you can imagine, this became a fun photo spot for guests.
Moving further into the park guests with a keen eye would come upon my absolute favorite Stitch crash. Guests making their way to the Streets of America area could look down New York Street to the building facade of the New York City skyline, and they'd notice something out of place on one of the buildings. Stitch was crawling around at the top of the Empire State Building! This small but impactful addition to the park was such a fun touch and so worthy of Stitch's character.
Stitch was very much present backstage at Walt Disney World too. The volume 32-number 12 edition of the Cast Member newsletter Eyes and Ears dated June 13-26, 2002 featured a full color cover with artwork from the soon to open film, as well as a full color spread with a film synopsis and character introductions.
Eyes and Ears editor Stephanie Shook briefly discusses how her team worked closely with Disney-MGM Studios manager of Feature Animation Communication and Marketing Sanj Marosi to produce the color pages. Color pages are somewhat rare for Eyes and Ears issues and generally only appear at new film debuts or other special events. This was the first issue of 2002 to have color pages.
Stitch also appeared on the Disney-MGM Studios Tell-a-Casts throughout the summer of 2002. These are Cast Member "cheat sheets" full of park and resort information like opening and closing times for all the parks, show times, important phone numbers, and other info they may need to help guests in a pinch.
STITCH MAKES THAT MONEY
With the big box office success of the film in its opening weekend, coming in 2nd place, just $500,000 behind the Minority Report, Disney knew it had a new hit on its hands. The Florida studio had taken a small budget of $80 million and produced a $273 million core memory for an entire generation.
The home video release would also prove to be a financial success. The film was scheduled to release DVD and VHS copies to store shelves on December 3, 2002, just in time for Christmas. The Disney Store offered pre-sales that would come with four lithographs depicting scenes from the film. The lithographs came inside a specially designed folio that unfolded into the shape of a surfboard. For an additional cost, they sold special lithograph frames that looked like bamboo with "Lilo and Stitch" carved into the bottom edge. According to Variety, Lilo and Stitch "hula-danced its way into the hands of 3 million DVD and VHS customers on its first day of release." First day release calculations do include pre-orders, but the revenue from this first day release equated to approximately $45 million, just slightly more than half of the film's $80 million production price tag!
Of course as the home video release date approached, Disney wanted to make sure it was top of mind for park guests. Once again, guests heading into the Disney-MGM Studios would be greeted by a huge blow up Stitch, this time wearing a Santa hat and sporting his own copy of the forthcoming DVD.
STITCH CRASHES MAGIC KINGDOM
With all the financial success at the box office and in stores, you can imagine what came next. It wasn't long before Michael Eisner was looking for a way to get Stitch into the parks in a more permanent way.
Stitch's way in would turn out to be to serve as a replacement for the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, an attraction considered by many to be too scary for a Disney park. On September 21, 2003 Disney announced ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter would close, just a few weeks later on October 12, 2003, to be re-imagined into Stitch's Great Escape. Much of the attraction infrastructure would remain the same with certain elements being replaced to reflect the new theme. Stitch's Great Escape would open to the public on November 16, 2004.
Stitch, of course, behaved badly on his way into Tomorrowland. As guests entered Magic Kingdom on the opening day of Stitch's Great Escape, they were greeted with the sight of a defaced Cinderella Castle. Stitch had toilet papered the castle from peak to peak and spray painted "Stitch is king" on one of the turrets. The attraction's opening ceremony featured Stitch and 11 Elvis impersonators rocking out on the stage in front of the castle. It was an entrance befitting an extraTERRORestrial nuisance.
OHANA MEANS FAMILY
It's easy to look back now and see why Lilo and Stitch so easily became a new classic in the Disney animated film ohana. It's almost hard to believe that this film is already 20 years old, but it has been so integrated into our Disney experience, it's equally hard to believe it's ONLY 20 years old!
While many of these marketing tactics were, and continue to be, a standard practice (featuring your new film in a magazine, doing a special full color issue of the company wide newsletter), Sanders and DeBlois flipped the rest of traditional marketing on its head with their initial suggestion to have Stitch crash 1990s hits. The near publicity stunt level rollout grabbed attention early and built excitement among audiences.
From the early 2002 teaser trailers through to the late 2004 opening day of Stitch's Great Escape, Disney fans had never before encountered such an imaginative and groundbreaking promotional delivery of a new property.
This clever and artful campaign was truly ahead of its time.