The BLOGFlume—Almost There

Six Flags' financial picture, Disneyland prepares for the 50th, and Wardrobe buzz.

Written by Russell Meyer
Published: March 9, 2005 at 9:34 PM

Into The Abyss
CBS Marketwatch 3/9/05

In a trend that is looking more like the first drop on a roller coaster, Six Flags posted another loss of about $109.5 million over the course of 2004. While revenue and attendance for the fourth quarter were up 11% and 6.9% respectively, those increases were not enough to negate the overall downward trend that the company experienced throughout 2004. Six Flags insists that the fourth quarter results indicate an upward trend with profit and attendance greater than estimated for the months closing out 2004. Reading the balance sheet can be nauseating, but looking at the bottom line, Six Flags lost even more money in 2004 than in 2003, which was also a losing year. Considering that Six Flags is spending a record amount of money trying to improve their parks, the possibility of making money in 2005 does not seem likely.

What can Six Flags do to dig itself out of this hole? They tried improving customer service in 2004, with limited success, but it produced another losing year. They tried massive capital expansion with profits that could not outpace expenditures in 2003. In 2005 they’re going back to the massive capital expenditure, and I just cannot see profit in Six Flags’ future this year. Six Flags needs to find a balance of capital expenditures and general park improvements and maintenance. Going from one extreme to the other will never work, because even if Six Flags can increase attendance in 2005, they will probably not be able to compensate for all of the money they had to shell out for all of the new rides and attractions that have been added this off season. If Six Flags would just look at other successful parks, they would see that general customer service improvements are needed in addition to gradual capital expenditures. I’d like to see Six Flags succeed, because they have had some glimmers of hope over the past couple of years, but for one reason or another, they continue to wade in debt with no signs of breaking out.

Getting Closer
Screamscape 3/9/05

The 50th Anniversary of Disneyland is starting to take shape. As reported already on TPI, Buzz Lightyear has opened for limited previews, and looks to be a much-needed addition to the now-barren Tomorrowland. It also appears to be an improvement over the WDW’s original attraction. With removable guns, more interactive features, and better looking targets, Disneyland’s attraction will likely be one of the more popular attractions over the next couple of months in Disneyland, especially considering a number of attractions are going into rehabilitation cycles in late March and April. In other 50th Anniversary news, Space Mountain may actually be ready for the parks official 50th Anniversary on July 17, 2005. However, it is rumored that the new Space Mountain may feature the same type of trains that will be used in Hong Kong’s Space Mountain, which are generally considered “ugly.” I don’t think the HKDL trains are ugly, per se, but to turn away from the “classic-style” cars for the original Space Mountain attraction may not be the best move. Most long-time fans of the park want the attraction to return to its original glory in its original form, and anything more than music, special effects, and safety changes would really upset some of them. I have not had an opportunity to ride Disneyland’s Space Mountain, so I cannot really form an opinion as to whether or not new trains will ruin the classic roller coaster, but regardless of how the attraction differs from its original form, most people will just be excited that the coaster is running again.

Disney’s Passion 3/10/05

One of the most lucrative Disney movie projects of the past ten years is gearing up for release later this year. C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe will be the first of a series of movies based on the Chronicles of Narnia series. The series, which is aimed at children and younger teenagers, has widely been recognized for its Christian imagery, and Disney looks to be trying to capitalize with religious groups around the country. In the wake of the successes of religiously marketed movies Passion of the Christ and Polar Express, Disney is selling The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe as a “Passion of the Christ for kids.” I’ve always believed that you can interpret a book in any number of ways, and while The Chronicles of Narnia contains a number of Christian allegories that were indeed acknowledged by author C.S. Lewis, it’s still a collection of fantasy stories. In trying to secure a Christian audience, which probably means a huge box office payout, Disney may very well alienate others who may be turned off by a film that is sold as evangelic. In a country where there are hard lines between “red” and “blue” states, someone needs to stop the nonsense that entertainment is tailored for any specific group. It’s pretty sad when Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park and Team America: World Police) can produce and market more even-keeled material than Disney.

Readers' Opinions

From Derek Potter on March 9, 2005 at 11:46 PM
One of the things I have taken a look at lately has been Six Flags attendance. Attendance is sort of on the upswing, but they lost 110 million dollars. To me that just doesn't add up. Logical thinking would tell you that when attendance goes up, than so should revenue. So here is the question, how much money are people really spending on a day at Six Flags?

Let's look at the gate first. Six Flags season passes are dirt cheap, usually less than the price of two general admission tickets. For about 50-60 bucks at the maximum (or the price of a day's admission this time of year), one can enjoy a year at any Six Flags park anywhere. We can also add to that the variety of discounts on general admission tickets That's a heck of a deal for the guest. Cedar Fair and Paramount sell their season passes for about 90 bucks (unless you catch the discount for next year at the end of the previous season). While Six Flags parks aren't exactly known for their quality, they still could be charging more for their season pass...which leads me to my next point.

Once the people get inside with their 50 dollar year long pass, what exactly is there worth spending money on inside the park? There is food, but how many can say that Six Flags food is really that good? I've heard quite a few people suggest that people leave Magic Mountain to eat and then come back. If the food really is that bad at MM, than it's likely that the food ain't that great at most of the other parks either. Go to Busch Gardens Williamsburg or Cedar Point and you will find good food everywhere, and not just good food, but a variety of it as well. The sit down restaurants are usually full, and there are lines at the stands. Parks like Universal and Disney bring out the gourmet chefs in order to get your business. The price of food is high at theme parks, but if it's good, than people won't mind too much paying it. If it's not good, than people will think of it as a total waste of money and will in fact leave to eat.

What else to spend money on? I suppose there are souveniers, but how many of Six Flags patrons buy them? I could see the coaster enthusiasts stocking up on T-shirts, patches, and pins, but after that, who buys? Six Flags doesn't cater much to families, and to be honest, in my park travels and coaster events, I've seen very very few Six Flags shirts. Some parks promote their souveniers well as collector's items. Cedar Point has gotten their fans and visitors to buy big into their collectable market, using the parks long history and top notch attractions to sell everything from videos to pins to plates to pennies to a version of Monopoly. Look on Ebay sometime under Cedar Point memorabilia and you will see what I'm talking about. Even in the offseason there is a market for their souveniers. In order for people to buy this stuff, they have to have a memorable experience, and how many of those do people have at Six Flags lately? So what does that leave, Games? Games aren't exactly much of a money maker these days. The old Midway games don't have people lining up, and the cost of leasing the latest arcade hit is pretty steep. It's possible that their arcades get decent revenue from the thrillseeking youngsters, but not nearly enough to make a dent in operating costs. Paramount's Kings Island has a successful midway game and arcade operation, but it's because a lot of people walk away with prizes. The games really aren't there to make money so much as they are there to generate fun for the guest. That leaves resorts and hotels, which Six Flags have none of. Cedar Point hotels rake in the money, as do Universal and Disney resorts, ant that's because people are willing to stay an extra day or two to completely experience those parks.

I'll give Six Flags credit for having some of the coolest, most thrilling rides on Earth, but heres the reality. Rides don't generate revenue, they generate attendance. Kingda Ka and every other ride being built is just a giant marketing tool with no hard return on it's cost. Six Flags practically gives away their gate, and then once the people are in, there's nothing special to really entice any more of the guest's money away from them. Also, the very nature of a Six Flags park is not that appealing to families, who tend to have the most potential expendable income. When you look at it, the whole thing is a bit of a vicious circle. They spend big money on rides to draw attendance, but they give away the gate with their season passes, and then have nothing worth spending money on inside the park. The guest experience at Six Flags doesn't merit staying a night in a hotel, and usually doesn't take more than a day to complete. The coaster happy parks have high operating costs and aren't exactly known for guest service. The final nail is the crippling debt load on the companys back which forces them to make hefty annual payments, which they keep adding to every year with the cost of new giant scream machines and expansion. When the figures of all 25 or so parks are added up, then ladies and gentleman you have yourselves a $110 million dollar loss. To me, the question isn't when they will start making money, but when they will either fall apart or be taken over. They are back to their old ways this year with their spending, and if they don't change their methods, it's only a matter of time before it all comes tumbling down.

From TH Creative on March 10, 2005 at 6:12 AM
I have HUGE doubts about the potential success of the Narnia films. While the books have been popular with kids they never had the sort of pop culture "buzz" that the Potter series has. Nor do they have the adult audience that made the LOTR franchise such a remarkable success.

While I think it was wise for Disney to participate in the production , I doubt it will make any substantial bank until after it is released on DVD.

Starting the 'Artemis Fowl' franchise would have been much wiser.

From Tim Hillman on March 10, 2005 at 6:14 AM
I'm going to Six Flags!
From Russell Meyer on March 10, 2005 at 7:26 AM
NEVER underestimate the marketing power of Disney. I think the books have cooled off a lot since I read them in elementary and middle school, some 20 years ago (has it really been that long?). The books were probably hotter in the 1980's than LOTR and just about anything else at the time, and I think if Disney can market the movie correctly, it will be a HUGE hit. TH is right in saying that the interest is not as high as HP, LOTR, or AF, but even a mild success for the first movie in the series could snowball into massive profits for the sequels by drawing attention to books that may just need some dusting off.
From Russell Meyer on March 10, 2005 at 7:34 AM
I tell you Derek, you've hit the Six Flags problem right on the head, but what can they do to fix it? I think they have made one move this "off season" that may slightly help one of their problem. They contracted a new highering firm, Deploy Solutions, that is responsible for staffing all of their parks, and keep track off all human resources. One of the major complaints that many guests have with Six Flags is the lack of respect that employees show towards guests, and in a test program run last season, Six Flags and Deploy Solutions received possitive feedback regarding employee performance for those employees hired through Deploy. Not only will Six Flags stay fully staffed throughout the year, but they will actually be staffed with compitent employees. This move may go a long way into making a visit to Six Flags a more palateable experience.
From TH Creative on March 10, 2005 at 7:56 AM
'Narnia' might have been better as a TV mini-series.
From Pete Brecht on March 10, 2005 at 8:23 AM
In addition to charging more for their season passes, Six Flags ought to make it an extra-cost option to make the passes useable at parks other than the passholder's home park. I think that they're petrified of having lower attendance numbers, so they plan everything around driving up attendance rather than driving up revenues/profits. I'd happily pay more for my season pass (quite a bit more, in fact) if it meant more manageable crowds and shorter lines. And I'm sure Six Flags investors would happily take smaller attendance numbers if it resulted in actually turning a profit for a change.

Also, Paramount and Busch parks offer a 4-for-the-price-of-3 deal on their passes, which is a great way to get families to buy passes. As has been noted many time here, families spend a lot more money in the park than teenagers, and security problems are much lower with a family-oriented crowd as well. Perhaps Six Flags should consider a 2-pronged approach of raising the prices of their passes in addition to having a family 4-pack at a reduced cost.

From Russell Meyer on March 10, 2005 at 8:36 AM
The Chronicles of Narnia was a TV mini-series in 1988.
From Robert OGrosky on March 10, 2005 at 12:23 PM
With SF promoting season passes so cheap i think more attendance wouldnt be good for them. They dont benefit if a increase in attendance just gets season passholders to come more often and make lines much longer and the park busier.
As a SF season passholder i wouldnt be upset if prices went up enough stop the parks from being used as a babysitting service.
If they want more of my money they need to reduce the prices of things like soda, increase the quality of food and change there souvenirs. They have used the same t-shirts as a example for years without changing the design at all. As it is i spend almost nothing in the parks as we leave to eat and bring in munchies/water bottles and this does SF no good, so they need to change things bedfore i give them more money!!
From J. Dana on March 10, 2005 at 1:27 PM
Each of the Chronicles of Narnia films will easily pass the $200 million mark, possibly more (depending on how well the films are actually produced). Notice, though, that Disney is not doing the LOTR method of filming multiple films at the same time (as they are with the two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). Are they hedging their bets? I do know that Narnia ideas are already on the drawing board with Imagineering for quick theme park tie-ins. Granted, expectations for the films isn't nearly as high as it was for LOTR...I'm a fan of the Narnia books, but I too, wonder if they can succeed much past the Christian and children's market (and I count myself squarely in the Christian market). I know that WETA enterprises (who did the LOTR films) are pulling out all the stops for Narnia...but here's the deal: how many trailers have you seen in theaters yet? LOTR gained and gained in momentum more than a year ahead of it's release date. The trailer for the first film hit theaters a year prior (even though it was simply the fellowship walking over a mountain pass).

If anyone can market themselves out of a shoebox, though, it's Disney....and it is SMART (not a mistake) to market this film to the same values-based audiences who made Passions of the Christ the worldwide sensation that it became. You can talk about alienating audiences all you want, but when a Christian audience can push a film to mega success, then Disney is smart to answer. And for all you naysayers, don't be dumb enough to think Disney will enter into a proselytizing campaign with this film. The organization is still heavy in Jewish executives. BUT, why shun away from a project just because it might have religious overtones....c'mon now, are you telling me that some people will shun this movie just because it might contain some Christian imagery? Good. Don't come to it. It's still gonna make lots of money...and it will be more fun watching without the critics in the audience hissing at every possible Christian connection. You guys can just go watch Adam Sandlers "Darlin Nicky" if that's the type of fare you prefer.

From Justin Smith on March 10, 2005 at 2:52 PM
I think Narina might be successful but not hughly successful(a.k.a Harry Potter,Lord of the Rings). Micheal Eisner should've recieved the rights to Lord of the Rings when he had the chance!
From Derek Potter on March 10, 2005 at 4:58 PM
Robert I suspect that what you are talking about has become a bit of a problem. The cheapness of the season passes would logically lead me to believe that they have a lot of passholders. Passholders go to the park and give them attendance, but passholders most likely don't spend as much money per visit as an ordinary guest does, especially if the passholders are the teenagers that Six Flags "babysits". While I don't think that Six Flags should jack up their season passes, I do think that a 10 to 15 dollar increase isn't such a crazy thing. An instant hike like that may not be good, but instituting things such as park hopper charges isn't a bad idea either. The only thing there is that people have gotten so used to paying beans for the pass, that they may think that a 70 dollar season pass is too much (really it's not).

The new employment agency hiring for the park will help to generate better employees, which presumably will serve to better customer service. As Robert said, food and souveneir quality has long been ignored, and working on things like these are quick and somewhat cheap ways to give park income a shot in the arm. Most parks charge a lot for a soda, but for some reason people don't seem to complain as much about paying it at other non Six Flag places.

From Erik Yates on March 10, 2005 at 7:38 PM
Why is Disney marketing to Christians? Because if christians believe that something appeals to them they will follow. And while Trey Parker and Matt Stone are mentioned with an air of disgust they are some of the only people left in Hollywood who do make movies for what they consistenly stand up for, not what happens to be the flavor of the week. And lets not forget that Disney is not making The Chronicles of Narnia because it is one of the most beloved book series of all times, its probably because that Jackson guy made over a billion dollars with those ring movies, and hey while we're at it, we can turn it into a theme park attraction at our Animal Kingdom park. No Disney is not even keeled at all, but lets not forget why they do things anymore. Again its not the vision that old Uncle Walt had way back when anymore, taking people to a different place and fueling the imagination. Lets see it for what it is.....the money.
From TH Creative on March 11, 2005 at 6:58 AM
Note to J. Dana: Not certain that ALL of the Narnia films (assuming they make more than one) will "easily" pass the $200 million mark. The Lemony Snicket books are red-hot and that film only banked $170 million worldwide (according to Box Office MoJo).

Further, while the initial film's receipts may be bouyed by marketing buzz, the films that follow may be limited to more hard-core fans. Notice how the revenue from the Potter films has steadily decreased (HP1 - $976 million; HP2 - $876 million; HP3 - $789 million).

From Kevin Baxter on March 12, 2005 at 10:47 PM
Good point, THC. No one can say the Narnia books are currently more popular than the Unfortunate Events books, and that film didn't get near the $200M mark. $118M domestically, and it had Jim Carrey!

And where is all this "If anyone can market themselves out of a shoebox, though, it's Disney" coming from? Does anyone remember LAST YEAR? The year that Disney COULDN'T market themselves out of a shoebox??? Take away The Incredibles, which relied solely on the Pixar name, and the ONLY Disney marketing success last year was the first weekend of the wretched The Village. Remember The Alamo?? Remember 80 Days??? Disney's alleged marketing might was pathetic last year. Universal did better than them and they had to sell crap like Van Helsing!!!

Want more proof? What movies does Disney have coming out this year??? That ice-skating crap, which has the OH-SO-EXCELLENT "Mothers, take your daughters." That is absolutely moronic! Freaky Friday was a mother/daughter story, but it didn't exclude boys right out of the gate!

What other films? I actually had to look it up, cuz all I could come up with are the Narnia thing and Chicken Little. And I haven't seen trailers for EITHER of those. Valiant, the CGI film from Disney's Shrek alliance is supposed to be out NEXT MONTH, and I haven't seen a single thing! That's some great marketing, considering I had to actually go through three websites to even learn of the film. The Hitchhiker's Guide comes out next month too.... where are all the ads???? Disney said they were scaling back in the film division. Apparently that meant in advertising too.

And let's not fool ourselves about Passion of the Christ either. That movie did well because Gibson created heaps of controversy for the film by baiting Jews. Dozens of religious films have been released over the past few years and NOBODY has gone to see any of them. Number Two on the Christian chart is Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie which made a whopping $25M. Clearly, religious movies are tough sells unless you pretend another religious group wants to squelch your "art." So to sell to the "values-based" crowd (which is actually just a euphemism for "gay-haters", which is my euphemism for another word) would instantaneously doom the films. $100M, tops, if they are lucky.

From Justin Smith on March 13, 2005 at 1:37 PM
"What other films? I actually had to look it up, cuz all I could come up with are the Narnia thing and Chicken Little. And I haven't seen trailers for EITHER of those. Valiant, the CGI film from Disney's Shrek alliance is supposed to be out NEXT MONTH, and I haven't seen a single thing! That's some great marketing, considering I had to actually go through three websites to even learn of the film. The Hitchhiker's Guide comes out next month too.... where are all the ads???? Disney said they were scaling back in the film division. Apparently that meant in advertising too."

Aside from the Valient thing, I totally disagree with you. Sure I haven't seen anything for Narnia yet but it's too early to see traliers. I saw two adds for Chicken Little and Hitchhicker so you can't say they aren't advertising it. Back to Narnia thing, I find it ridiculous they are selling it to Christians saying it's "Passion of the Christ for kids" because aside from the use of magic there is nothing religous about it. Oh well, at least it will help raise movie ticket sales for Disney. LOL

From Kevin Baxter on March 13, 2005 at 7:59 PM
How can you disagree that I haven't seen any ads??? I haven't seen any. And I watch A LOT of television! Just because you have seen them doesn't mean they are all over the place.

In comparison, I have Ice Princess ads at least a dozen times. I've seen Robots ads at least twice as many times as that. In fact, of all the big April releases, I have seen trailers for Sin City, Sahara and XXX2. NOTHING for Hitchhiker's. NOTHING for Valiant. There are others I haven't seen ads for - Fever Pitch, Amityville Horror and The Interpreter - but I knew of them. I haven't heard anything about Valiant. NOTHING.

From Russell Meyer on March 13, 2005 at 8:26 PM
There are a lot of Hitchhiker's Guide trailers on the internet, where most of the fans of the book are likely to see them. Material from the film seems to very limited in the trailers, in fact the one trailer makes a mockery of trailers by innundating the screen with shots from the film that go by so fast that you can't tell what you're watching. There was also an ad during the Super Bowl for it.
From TH Creative on March 14, 2005 at 5:45 AM
I have high hopes for Hitchhikers -- speaking as a fan of the book. The full length trailer of 'Chicken Little' looks pretty damned good. Disney must have a lot of confidence in the flick -- as it's being released around the same time Warner is gonna send Potter 4 into theatres.

One thing is for certain, if 'Chicken Little' turns out to be a good flick it will silence those who have criticized Disney for letting its Pixar contract slip away.

On a side note, is there a more historic franchise than the Potter series? If Potter 4 continues the trend of the first three films, the franchise will have generated more than $3 billion dollars in a little over four years. Has any other franchise made so much money in so little time?

From Justin Smith on March 14, 2005 at 7:41 AM
Wow I thought Harry Potter 4 came out November. I need to do more research on that. As for seeing traliers on t.v you need to be more patient Kevin, Chicken Little comes out in July, you usually don't see traliers for movies coming out in four months. Hitchhicker I guess is a bit surprising that we aren't seeing traliers but I bet when April comes( its release month) than we'll see more traliers. But I totally agree with you about Valient. They might as well not release the movie if they aren't bothering to advertise for it.
From TH Creative on March 14, 2005 at 7:52 AM
According to the official site, 'Chicken Little' comes out in November -- the same month as Potter 4.
From Robert Niles on March 14, 2005 at 10:50 AM
Yes, but let us discuss the animated feature so many folks on this site really want to see, the movie that will win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature next year (remember, no Pixar flick in '05):

"Wallace and Gromit" bows in October.

From Ben Mills on March 14, 2005 at 11:58 AM
There has been Hitchhiker marketing everywhere over here. Maybe they figure it's got a bigger market. Does anyone know where it comes out first? (I could look, but I'm way too lazy for that.)

Having said that, I'm still yet to see a single trailer for Chicken Little. And having just spoken to a few people, no-one seems even to have heard of it. That could be worrying, or it could be that we're destined for yet another one of Disney's epic gaps between release dates across the continents. Sigh. They're so lame.

From TH Creative on March 14, 2005 at 12:17 PM
There is a 'Chicken Little' trailer on the Yahoo movies pages.

Ben, is Hitchhiker getting big play in the UK because of Martin Freeman?

From Kevin Baxter on March 15, 2005 at 5:16 AM
Jeez, Robert, I was totally going to predict Wallace and Gromit and the Always Changing Movie Title as this year's winner!!

My biggest fear is that Chicken Little will suck hardcore! The trailer is way too DARK (not to mention stoopid and not at all funny... honestly, "I'm nervous." and "I'm going to scream like a girl." are supposed to be funny???). And half of it isn't even CGI! Suspicious. Even if it ends up looking good, Disney has had such a horrible track record the past few years with the actual writing of in-house animated movies. The clever Sweating Bullets turned into the hideous and generic Home on the Range. The Emperor's New Groove was TOTALLY rewritten. Brother Bear was nothing but a rehash of other, more popular Disney films. And most of the rest of them basically follow the same freakin' theme: Hero, and little animal friend(s), must overcome major obstacle and learn about love/friendship/family/life/making me vomit. Chicken Little will be this year's Shark Tale. It will make money. But not Shrek money or Pixar money. If it does suck, I hope it makes NO money, so Disney can focus on their ailing parks!

From steve lee on March 15, 2005 at 10:21 AM
I'm going out ona limb here and guessing that Hitchiker's getting better publicity over there because...well, it's a pretty British product. Disney released the new trailer for Hitchiker with Constantine, which was a pretty smart play on their part. The new trailer gets a much better reaction than the teaser (since way too many people 'round here have never heard of the property, so name value alone isn't going to cut it).

As far as not promoting it enough...we're still over a month away from its release. It's far too early to start heavy rotation on television (though I anticipate ads'll start popping up on ABC soon - probably during commercial breaks on Lost (one of the two shows I watch on ABC. Two more than the other networks, at least).

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