LOS ANGELES — While little girls gleefully wear Cinderella's gown, don Jasmine's slippers or otherwise play with toys from the panoply of Disney Princess characters, little boys are not clamoring for Prince Charming merchandise.
"Boys don't seem that enamored of princes," said Robert Iger, president of The Walt Disney Co.
That gender divide is a problem for Disney, which did score a hit with boys with the "Toy Story" movies of the 1990s but which has faltered in recent years with action adventure films such as the animated "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "Treasure Planet." Its Princess line of tiaras, flouncey gowns, toys, books and videos, meanwhile, is a worldwide business generating sales of more than $2 billion annually for Disney and its licensees.
Disney is hoping for a turnaround in this trend with the testosterone-driven "The Incredibles," the fourth film from its five-picture deal with Pixar Animation Studio. "The Incredibles" debuted this weekend to a whopping $70.7 million and is supported by one of the largest marketing campaigns ever for an animated film and with a line of action figures, remote-control cars and video games aimed at boys.
Next year's "Cars," also a Disney-Pixar product, is expected to be even more appealing to boys. By then, Disney will have switched its master toy contract for feature films from Hasbro Inc. to Mattel Inc., which is planning to use its Hot Wheels car line to market the film.
"I think Michael (Disney CEO Michael Eisner) looked at those last two movies, and we certainly looked at them from the consumer products side, and said, 'These are right in the sweet spot of what boys do,' " Disney Consumer Products chairman Andy Mooney said. "These are the first ones that we've seen that are very distinctively boy, even more, I think, than 'Toy Story' was."
Characters from "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2," including Woody and Buzz Lightyear, have been perennial boy favorites since the first movie debuted in 1995.
But Woody and Buzz are an exception. Disney's cupboards are filled with characters that appeal to girls, including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The Winnie the Pooh characters are skewed heavily to girls. The girls market for toys, books, videos and other products is at least twice the size as that for boys, especially products closely associated with a character, such as Snow White or Belle from "Beauty and the Beast."
Boys are more elusive, in part because they outgrow particular characters more quickly as their attention shifts to sports and other interests. Boys also don't respond as much as girls do to products based on a single movie — not even films such as "The Hulk" or "Harry Potter."
With "Toy Story," Disney kept the franchise alive with direct-to-video sequels and a TV show, essential elements to building long-term revenue from characters. It is planning at least two more sequels.
Disney also had success with boys when it translated its 2002 animated feature "Lilo & Stitch" into a TV show centered on the mischievous "Stitch" character.
The company's approach to character marketing and licensing has changed since it hired Mooney, a Nike marketing veteran, in 2000. While Snow White, Ariel and similar characters had been around for years, no one had thought of marketing them under one umbrella; now they're all part of the Princess line.
Disney didn't have the same option given its dearth of boy-oriented characters and, in fact, failed to develop a battalion of toys, costumes, games and other items geared to last year's surprise smash hit, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl."
It doesn't intend to repeat the mistake.
"Given the fact that we have sequels in the works, we have an opportunity to create a pirates franchise as we did with princesses," Iger said. "What I would love is to have any boy in the world who thinks of pirates to think of . . . Disney pirates."
Iger established a regular monthly meeting of department heads to focus on the company's character franchises and to develop movies, TV shows, books, toys and other ways to expand market share. One meeting focused exclusively on boys.
"We don't have the strength in terms of core set of character assets to just snap our fingers and end up with an umbrella over the boys category," Iger said.
Disney is in the process of either creating or buying boy-friendly franchises and characters.
On television, the company has created the Jetix brand to group its slate of boys shows, including "Power Rangers," which it acquired as part of its purchase of Fox Family Worldwide in 2001. Jetix appears on the ABC Family cable channel as well as Toon Disney.
"We wanted a complementary brand that gave us more freedom to reach boys through action adventure and outrageous comedy," said Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel Worldwide.
While the Disney cable channel is skewed 60/40 in favor of girls with such shows as "Lizzie McGuire" and "Kim Possible," the goal is to have the Jetix shows skew 70/30 to boys, Ross said.
The channel recently launched a new series, "Super Robot Monkey Team," drawn in a Japanese anime style popular with boys.
From a merchandising standpoint, Disney knows it would be hard to replicate with boys' toys the magnitude of the success it has had with the Princess line. Mooney is shooting for a few smaller successful boy franchises that will add up over the next five years.
"Given the scale of our business, I'm always looking for franchises that can be $1 billion," in retail sales Mooney said.
Mooney, with his experience marketing athletic equipment, says he understands the play patterns of boys.
"We're pretty simple animals — let's build things up, tear things down, fight and race and play sports," Mooney says with a laugh. "There's not much else we really get into."