This time last year, parents of many little girls were feeling frustrated looking at a wish list that repeated the same word again and again: "Frozen." Merchandise from Disney's animated movie "Frozen" is expected to top the list of most popular holiday toys this year.
Demand for Princess Elsa and Anna dresses and other products from the blockbuster animated film surged during the 2013 Christmas season, and throughout much of 2014. But stores weren't flush with merchandise when the movie first came out last November.
"Nobody expected the movie to be as successful as it was in getting kids to want merchandise," said toy analyst Sean McGowan from the investment firm Needham & Company. "It's not always clear if a movie does well at the box office, if it's going to generate a lot of demand for toys. And that's especially true for movies that come out late in the year, because, obviously, overall traffic and demand for buying things go down after December."
Disney, its licensing partners, like Mattel, and retailers like Walmart wagered conservatively.
"Retailers are generally pretty hesitant to load up on inventory of something if they're not sure it's going to sell well," McGowan explained.
With strong sales through 2014 — "Frozen" has grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide, and its soundtrack went platinum — this holiday season is a completely different story. Store shelves are stocked with everything from "Frozen" mouthwash to "Frozen" princess dresses to a "Frozen" fedora (listen to the accompanying audio piece for a trip down the "Frozen" aisle at Target and the joyful reaction of two little girls).
"Disney and its licensing partners realized this isn’t going away, and if we play this right, we can have a multi-year, brand-new franchise," McGowan said.
McGowan said it’s rare for a movie to remain in such high demand one year after its box office debut.
This last happened 20 years ago with "Toy Story," Disney's first partnership with Pixar. Before "Toy Story," "The Little Mermaid" took Disney by surprise.
"You know everybody knew that would be a nice family movie, but it turned into a massive phenomenon – so that was like the rejuvenation of the Disney animated musical," McGowan said.
"The Little Mermaid" led to a series of music-driven Disney movies, like "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King" and "Pocahontas." Many of those films, like "Frozen," had killer soundtracks written by Broadway veterans.
McGowan said he thinks "Frozen"’s popularity comes from its modern-day characters.
"The women really stand on their own. They really don’t need to be rescued," he said. "And I think that’s an interesting message, and maybe that made it a lot more acceptable for some parents who might be reluctant to throw their kids into the world of princesses."