Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The billion-dollar song

with 2 comments

Frozen

As I write this post, it’s just before nine in the morning, and I’ve already played or sung some version of “Let It Go” approximately twenty times. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? My daughter certainly has, and although she’s only fifteen months old, she’s already capable of singing along, as well as of demanding it by name whenever I buckle her into her high chair. In the five short months since Frozen was released, “Let It Go” has reached a level of cultural ubiquity that we haven’t seen from a song in years, to the point where it seems to be running on a constant loop in my head, your head, and Patton Oswalt’s. It’s one of those quintessential show tunes that both plays a crucial role within the story itself and resonates beyond it, and the story behind it is equally compelling. Robert Lopez—who has been one of my musical heroes ever since Avenue Q—and his wife and writing partner Kristen Anderson-Lopez set out to write a number known in the story outline only as “Elsa’s Badass Song.” It wasn’t hard to imagine how it might sound; the likes of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Be Prepared” have long been a part of the Disney playbook. In this case, however, the result was more surprising. Anderson-Lopez tells the rest:

We went for a walk in Prospect Park and threw phrases at each other. What does it feel like to be the perfect exalted person, but only because you’ve held back this secret? Bobby came up with “kingdom of isolation,” and it worked.

After that, the process took less than a day, with the couple improvising melodies on the piano and lyrics on the whiteboard. It was fairly clear early on that they’d written the showstopper they needed, but its ultimate consequences were even more profound, to the point where this stroll through Park Slope had an enormous impact on both the movie itself and its eventual success. Frozen is an excellent movie in many respects—it’s cleverly plotted, funny, and visually astonishing—but there’s no question that audiences have responded so strongly to it largely because of the relationship between the two sisters at its heart. It seems obvious now, but the decision to make Elsa and Anna sisters at all appears to have come very late in the process, and the transformation of Elsa into a conflicted protagonist occurred even more belatedly. Up to that point, Elsa had been more of a conventional villain, rooted in the original conception of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” but “Let It Go” pointed at something more interesting. As the film’s co-director Jennifer Lee says: “The minute we heard the song the first time, I knew that I had to rewrite the whole movie.”

Disney's Frozen

In particular, it meant that much of the movie’s first act, as well as its central relationship, had to be reconceived to build up to the moment that Lopez and Anderson-Lopez had provided. The result recentered the entire film. And if the changes that “Let It Go” inspired are even partially responsible for the film’s outsized success, the amount that Disney owes this song is probably incalculable, which won’t stop me from trying to calculate it. The closest comparable movie is clearly Tangled, which grossed just short of six hundred million dollars worldwide in its theatrical release alone. Frozen seems likely to double this amount, and when you factor in home video, a potential sequel, merchandising—there’s a nationwide shortage of Elsa dresses—and the inevitable Broadway musical and ice show, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’re talking a billion dollars or more. How much of that additional revenue can be attributed to “Let It Go” and the emotional thread it introduced? It’s hard to say, but it’s considerable. And it’s a reminder that however industrialized the process of producing content on a global scale has become, it all comes down to a few moments of quiet inspiration.

I’m not the first one to make this argument, of course. It’s forcefully advanced by the television writer Jeffrey Stepakoff’s memoir Billion-Dollar Kiss, which claims that the kiss of the title, shared by Pacey and Joey of Dawson’s Creek, was singlehandedly responsible for saving the series and propelling it into six seasons and syndication. There’s a tendency, to be sure, for writers in Hollywood to overvalue what they do, perhaps because they have so little power in other respects. But there’s a germ of truth here. I’d like to believe that Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, or A.A. Milne would be flabbergasted by the extent to which their solitary work sustains entire industries: Pooh merchandise alone accounts for five billion dollars of Disney’s bottom line, which makes it hard to look at the Hundred Acre Wood in quite the same way. It’s what makes the business of film simultaneously so exhilarating and so terrifying. Disney has marketing down to a science, and a tentpole movie like Frozen is released across the world with the precision of a military campaign. But the pivot on which that massive machine turns is an infinitesimal one, and although it takes many different forms, it often looks like nothing more than a piano, a whiteboard, and a day in Prospect Park.

Written by nevalalee

April 14, 2014 at 9:45 am

2 Responses

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  1. Nicely said. I’m sure this is why so many Disney animations tanked in the late 1990s and 2000s: all of the marketing and that military precision, but no thought given to the heart of the story, and those quiet moments of inspiration. The same reason John Lasseter was fired, one could argue? And now look where we are with Disney/Pixar …

    It reminds me of what someone said once (I can’t remember who): that, before Harry Potter came along, were people clamouring for boy-wizard boarding-school stories? No they were not.

    People like to be surprised — up to a point, of course. Something to think about in writing.

    Matt Wainwright

    April 14, 2014 at 1:21 pm

  2. And of course, the automatic response in Hollywood is to make a movie about a different boy-wizard:

    http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=40576

    nevalalee

    April 14, 2014 at 6:54 pm


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