Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why Didn't "Guardians" Rise?

Before anything, it's too early to write Rise of the Guardians off entirely. It still has the Christmas weekend and subsequent weekends to give it a healthy boost plus there is no big family-friendly competition after the 3D re-release of Monsters, Inc. (which shouldn't even hurt it anyway). Word of mouth is certainly helping it too, as possibly getting $100 million off of a $23 million opening weekend is no small feat. Think of Bolt and The Princess and the Frog, two films that opened with a similar amount and got past $100 million despite all odds. While the final total may be a disappointment, one must consider the legs. I always thought they spoke greater words than the numbers.

But the big question is, what really happened with this film? DreamWorks Animation films are guaranteed hits each time out, and it's been this way for a long while thanks to films that are noticeably superior to most of the films they released prior to Kung Fu Panda. Their films usually open with at least $40 million on opening weekend, though Puss in Boots was an exception due to the fact that audiences were pretty much burnt out on anything Shrek-related and the fact that it looked unspectacular from the marketing.

Rise of the Guardians seemed like it would be another smash hit for DreamWorks at first. The teaser trailer showed that the film was definitely not like their earlier stuff, with the absence of goofiness, lame jokes and half-hearted ways to get kids interested. Nothing similar to silly singing polka-dot zebras with afros to be seen. The trailer was attached to many successful animated family films, most notably DreamWorks' own Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, which was their biggest domestic hit in two years.

Many have suggested that the trailers themselves failed to sell a premise that was apparently difficult to take seriously or accept. Of course, I wouldn't write it off since it comes from an animation studio I generally trust. I do remember being skeptical when reading the plot description, and thinking to myself, "DreamWorks better not make this stupid with lowbrow humor and hip jokes." I saw images, some early descriptions... I was a bit intrigued. I guess I am biased, an animation fan such as myself can't speak for everyone else.

Rise of the Guardians was written off before it hit theaters. People saw it as "The Avengers - Childhood Heroes Edition", even the consensus summary on Rotten Tomatoes goes along with this. I can see why. Early posters and banners showed all the characters with taglines such as "Legends Unite". The second trailer had action sequences that made them come off as action heroes, "badass" updates of the legends we grew up with. I could see why the look of this film would strike someone as preposterous.

Again, as an animation fan, I knew that it was based on books by William Joyce and it was from a good studio. Do others know that? Many people still can't tell whether it's Pixar or Disney or DreamWorks or whatever. Even if they have seen the film or trailers saying "From the creators of...", they still don't notice. Most viewers probably don't give it a second thought, most computer animated films look the same to them since they dominate the market. Understandable, I know several people who aren't big on animation who confuse the output of the different studios all the time... Even after they have seen the films!

So to audiences, this looked like Avengers with Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman. Of course that's out of DreamWorks' control, it's just a coincidence that Disney happened to release The Avengers in May. At one time, Rise of the Guardians was actually scheduled for a November 2011 release. Had it come out then, things could've been different for this film's box office.

My question to the marketing team at Paramount is: Why make it come off as an Avengers-type film? It's obvious that The Avengers did so well for a very good reason, so why try to advertise a film like this like a big action picture? This was Paramount's final DreamWorks release, so why not go out with a bang?

It's hard to market animated films as serious films in North America, and it shows, a lot of marketing departments go for the worst possible campaigns that focus on jokes, gags and very little on the emotional content or the story. Once in a while, American marketing for animation gets it right with trailers that somewhat balance the humor and the story. Pixar's trailers are a good example, even though most of them are still pretty bad. Still, it's why they secure an opening weekend gross of over $60 million.

Rise of the Guardians came off as a fairly serious film with lots of beautiful visuals and action. There were a few jokes here and there, but it wasn't like other trailers where they feel forced to make the kids in the audience guffaw. I liked the trailers for what they were, but they tried too hard to make these characters seem like action heroes. Why not focus on the characters' personalities themselves and not them in action? I think that would be more appealing, plus they could save the action for the last part of the trailers.

Using action and an epic tone would've worked for another animated film, such as Brave, whose third trailer had that kind of tone alongside more focus on the story. Rise of the Guardians was tricky because its concept alone would be rejected if you told someone about it. A lot of people just found it to be incredibly silly. Those trailers didn't help, making it seem even sillier. But what other route could the marketing go for? Perhaps the more whimsical side of the story, focusing on the characters and the magical elements, then use action at the end when it was probably needed.

One last problem was the title itself. The title sounds like a superhero film wannabe. Why did they change the title? The Guardians of Childhood was a much better title (the title of the books as well) that pretty much summed up the entire concept. Rise of the Guardians as a film title is not only vague, but it gives a different vibe... Why will they rise? To audiences, it rings too similar to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Dark Knight Rises, so they may see it as a cheap "kiddie" imitation of those films. Others confused it with Animal Logic's Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, another poorly titled animated film that did poorly at the box office. This alone should've proven to Paramount and DreamWorks that vague titles don't always work. What are they "guardians" of? Like anyone is going to pay attention to subtitle like The Owls of Ga'Hoole. The Guardians of Childhood was the better title.

Sadly, DreamWorks' executives may view this film as a flop. It cost $145 million to produce, the typical amount for one of their films, and it's going to miss that domestically. Worldwide, it isn't doing significantly better, though it should double the budget by the end of its run. From the beginning, it was not going to be as big as Madagascar 3, but by all means it should've grossed around the same amount of something like a Blue Sky film.

Now I think I know why DreamWorks is using such an aggressive Oscar campaign for this film (even pushing it for Best Picture)... They're trying hard to get audiences to go see it before Oscar season to boost it. They don't want people to forget it. Good intentions, but will that work? Word of mouth is certainly good, the film was at #2 for two weeks in a row after opening lower. It may stay in the Top 5 once the heavies drop off the charts, though The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is giving family audiences their holiday fix. It may be curtains for this well-received, quality-made DreamWorks film.

It's just not good because DreamWorks' output is better than it used to be, and it should be faring better. I'm not necessarily worried about DreamWorks' executives turning around and saying, "Audiences don't like serious films from us! Let's go back to goofy comedies!" How To Train Your Dragon is their best-received film and was a big hit domestically, outgrossing all of their non-sequel/Shrek films. Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots were saved by big international grosses. Megamind, despite getting mixed-to-positive reception, did well enough.

Still, the low amount this film will make stateside will not look good. This is even less than Bee Movie, and if it misses $100 million, it'll be their first non-Aardman film to miss that mark since Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas in 2003. You know, that poorly-received hand-drawn film that notoriously sunk? Also consider 3D ticket prices and attendance... Not good.

I'm just hoping that this doesn't shatter DreamWorks' hopes in risky projects and creative ideas. This film didn't underperform because of the quality, it's actually getting legs because of its strengths. It's successfully appealing to family audiences and slowly getting everyone else interested. The Oscar campaign may help it too. No, quality had nothing to do with it. This film underperformed because it was once again a combination of things: Bad timing (way too much family-friendly, 3D competition), poor title, misguided marketing and no real push to get a real wide audience to show up on opening weekend.

Will 20th Century Fox get it right with a future DreamWorks film that's similar to this in tone?

What is your take on this? Why do you think this film opened poorly? Why do you think it isn't doing so well? Sound off!


  1. I've notice Rise of the Guardians is doing well in forign markets, while Wreck-It Ralph is doing poorly in the forign markets, and each film preeforms the exact opposite in the domestic market.

  2. "Wreck-It Ralph" isn't out all over the world yet (the UK doesn't get the film until February, Japan has to wait till March), so it's doing okay for a film that's only playing in some other countries. "Rise of the Guardians" is also doing okay, but it may not be enough for the suits at DreamWorks. Only time will tell...