This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On a windy Saturday afternoon in March, Christina Hendricks, draped in a cashmere-wool, coral-colored coat, walked a red carpet at a premiere in Los Angeles. She wasn't promoting the final season of Mad Men but rather her role in a far more valuable yet mostly undercover franchise: Disney's Tinker Bell animated film series. Hendricks voices the new fairy Zarina in the latest installment, The Pirate Fairy, a Peter Pan prequel that was released April 1 in the U.S. on DVD.
Those who aren't parents of young girls probably have never heard of the Tinker Bell movies. But the first four titles -- Tinker Bell (2008), Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure (2009), Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (2010) and Secret of the Wings (2012) -- each were made for $30 million to $35 million and together have grossed $225 million in U.S. DVD sales, a pirate's booty in a struggling home video economy that has caused many big studios to abandon direct-to-DVD. Overseas, especially in Europe and Latin America, the films play in theaters, bringing their total DVD-plus-theatrical gross to north of $335 million worldwide for DisneyToon Studios. Pirate Fairy, already playing in international theaters, is on course to match the $60 million in box office that Wings made in 2012.
The popularity of the spunky Tinker Bell, part of the Disney Fairies empire that includes merchandising (more than 7 million fairy dolls have been sold), books and magazines, likely helped lay the groundwork for the $1 billion showing of Frozen, the top-grossing animated film of all time.
"I think the success of Tinker Bell might have opened Disney's eyes to an underserved market, which are pre-tween girls," says Wade Holden, an analyst with SNL Kagan. "Then came Tangled, Brave and Frozen. There was a craving for this sort of content."
Tink might have never found her twinkle without Pixar's John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, who set out to reinvent DisneyToon's direct-to-DVD factory when they arrived in 2007 to run all of the studio's animation units. Sharon Morrill, president of DisneyToon, was ousted as Lasseter and Catmull issued a mandate to produce fewer and higher-quality films tied to Disney consumer products, rather than endless sequels to theatrical releases.
The first Tinker Bell movie was already in the works when Lasseter arrived, but he was so unhappy with what he saw that he scrapped that version. The late Brittany Murphy, originally set to voice the lead role, was replaced by Mae Whitman (Parenthood). The reworked film generated more than $53 million in DVD sales.
"We went backward to go forward," says Disney Animation Studios executive vp Andrew Millstein, whose purview includes DisneyToon. Tinker Bell and Planes, a 2013 spinoff of Cars (with another in the works), are the only DisneyToon properties of the Lasseter era, and both have created franchises. Planes was given a theatrical release worldwide and grossed $219.8 million.
In the Tinker Bell films, the Disney mascot is true to the likeness of the palm-sized fairy in the 1953 animated Peter Pan -- blond bun, green dress, slightly voluptuous. But her fellow fairies are ethnically diverse and have empowering skills, such as water fairy, garden fairy and wind fairy. Recurring voice actors include Lucy Liu, Anjelica Huston and Timothy Dalton. The franchise's target age is 4 and up.
"What we've heard from our audiences is that they love the fairies because they have power and talents," says Peggy Holmes, director of Secret of the Wings and Pirate Fairy. "The fairies are superheroes to them."
It's very rare for films to go direct-to-DVD in the U.S. but have a theatrical component overseas. Disney dipped its toe in the water in Latin America, where promotional screenings plugged the home video release. "Wouldn't you know it, people showed up," says Dave Hollis, Disney's executive vp distribution. "So what started as a small handful of theaters grew."
Disney is coy when asked about the future of the Fairies series. The sixth film, Legend of the NeverBeast, is due out next year, but a seventh film was scrapped last fall because of story problems. Pirate Fairy, featuring the voice of Tom Hiddleston as a young Captain Hook, certainly opens the door to a Peter Pan storyline.
Millstein concedes that Tinker Bell flies below the radar, but that's fine with him: "It's been a great driver across multiple lines of business for us, even though it isn't the first thing people think about when they talk about franchises at the Walt Disney company."
3 THRIVING DIRECT-TO-DVD PROPERTIES
BARBIE: Universal and Mattel have made 28 films since 2001, grossing well north of $100 million combined. In 2010, the princess-themed movies began weaving more fashion into their stories.
DISNEY BUDDIES: Disney's 1997 Air Bud, released in theaters, spawned Hollywood's most valuable direct-to-DVD empire aside from Tinker Bell. The first 12 titles have brought in at least $220 million.
DC UNIVERSE: Although Warner Bros. closed its direct-to-DVD unit in 2012, it still offers a prolific line of animated titles based on DC Comics heroes. The first 19 titles have taken in at least $100 million to date.