Before the summer 2013, only five animated features grossed $300 million at the domestic box office.
The very first animated feature to hit that mark was The Lion King all the way back in 1994, and it did so because it was literally the summit of Disney's momentum mountain, the climb that had begun with the box office success of Oliver & Company in 1988 followed by the growing and record-breaking grosses of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin...
Adjusted, The Lion King's initial $312 million gross is actually over $600 million!
But let's put the adjusted talk to the side for a second. No animated film reached $300 million at the domestic box office until Pixar's Finding Nemo hit in the summer of 2003, nearly nine years after The Lion King. Like Lion King, Nemo was the top of Pixar's own momentum mountain. Toy Story 2 was big, Monsters, Inc. was a little bigger, Finding Nemo beat both by a country mile. It grossed $339 million, beating The Lion King and temporarily holding the highest-grossing animated feature of all time crown.
No more than a year later, someone else took that crown. DreamWorks' Shrek 2 not only outgrossed Finding Nemo and became the third animated film to take in $300 million domestically, it took in a massive $441 million! It remains the highest grossing animated feature domestically, it was a real case of the perfect storm too: People loved the first, they loved this one, computer animation was something of a novelty at the time of its release, and it had absolutely no major competition whatsoever.
Three years later, Shrek the Third became the fourth animated film to cross the $300 million mark at the domestic box office. It only got there because of its massive opening weekend, which was fueled by the success of the first two films. Its legs were much weaker, though, as audiences were let down by this disappointing installment. Nonetheless, it was a box office smash.
Then we had to wait until 2010 to see an animated cross that mark again. Toy Story 3 inevitably was going to cross it given how strong Pixar's originals do (Up from the previous year took in a great $293 million) and the fact that it was the long-awaited finale to the series. It got the teen audiences who watched the first two when they were young, and the marketing targeted them, adults and everyone else. It grossed $415 million domestically, becoming the second animated film ever to hit that mark.
So that's five animated features... Two more films crossed that mark, two that were released last year: Illumination's Despicable Me 2 and Walt Disney Animation Studios' Frozen. Despicable Me 2 seemed like it would get big numbers given how well-liked and successful the first film was, but this one really took off. Frozen was backed by strong marketing, and audiences probably viewed it as a Tangled successor (which took in $200 million back in 2010), and the word of mouth bolstered it. It became a worldwide phenomenon and it is now the world's highest grossing animated feature, though domestically it'll come in third place behind Shrek 2 and Toy Story 3. It has now topped $400 million, too.
In fact, 2013 was the first year that saw two animated features hit $300 million at the domestic box office. Frozen might've reached that after 2013 ended, but both films were released the same year, that's what I'm looking at...
7 animated films have grossed $300 million at the domestic box office. 37 live action films have made that much or more on their initial releases.
3 animated films have grossed $400 million at the domestic box office. 13 live action films have made that much or more on their initial releases.
Box office analysts are predicting that How To Train Your Dragon 2 will be the 8th animated feature to cross what seems to be a hard mark to reach. We see blockbusters - some of which that garnered poor reviews - pass that mark like its nothing thanks to their large opening weekend grosses. Back in 1994 and 2004, the $300 million mark kind of meant something, nowadays it's seen as rather small. I mean, after The Dark Knight, Avatar and The Avengers make $500-700 million domestic, it would seem like nothing.
Anyhoo, Dragon 2 looks like it'll be big. The first one was a real sleeper hit that audiences really loved, and the marketing for this one is everywhere. It promises a bigger scale, lots of epic action and a huge story. I had predicted that it would top $300 million easily back in December, but now other analysts (such as Box Office Mojo's Ray Subers) have spoken. They think this sequel will fly high to $300 million, too!
Do any other films this year have the potential to hit $300 million domestic? If Disney plays their cards right with marketing, Big Hero 6 could do it. $200 million seems to be the floor for it at this rate. Anything else seems like a stretch, and this year is Pixar-less.
My big question is... Will animated features hit $300 million at the domestic box office on a regular basis in the coming years?
For me, the success of Despicable Me 2 and Frozen tied with the big February success of The Lego Movie tells me that animation domination has pretty much happened. Audiences have shown time and time again that they will see good animated movies at any time of the year, as long as they look good from the trailers and commercials. Audiences more and more are now starting to care less what medium a film is made in and will see it whether it looks good or not, not whether it's animated or live action.
Now we need the various studios to really step up their game, and distributors to make better marketing campaigns that really sell an animated film to a really wide audience. If they all do so, and the studios make films that deliver, we'll probably see more $300 million biggies.
If you ask me, yes, I think almost every year we'll see an animated feature make the big 300 domestically.
- This year has How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is arguably a lock for $300 million. Big Hero 6 has a very good chance to make that much as well.
- 2015 has two Pixar originals (that is, if The Good Dinosaur is fit to open in fall 2015) and the Minions spin-off.
- 2016 has Finding Dory, How To Train Your Dragon 3 and Giants, which will be Disney's next fairy tale musical. I have no doubt that will be pretty big... If not giant! (Yes, I went there.)
Animated films aimed at family audiences that happen to entertain everybody from ages 5 to 55 to 155 tend to have strong multipliers, no matter how big their opening weekends are. Even films that aren't so well-received still garner a 3x multiplier, which is something most blockbusters wished they would get!
Contrary to popular belief, animated features don't "cannibalize" each other at the box office. When a new animated film hits the scene, the other one dips that weekend for two reasons: A) the number of screens decreases, those screens go the new animated flick in town. B) Loss of 3D screens and 3D ticket prices as well.
After that drop usually happens, the films hang on and have steady drops at the box office until they are taken out of theaters. Dollar theaters and second-run houses also help quite a bit since there are quite a few families who don't want to spend too much money on a film that may not be worth $11-14 times 4. Dollar theaters are also why you'll often see animated films playing in theaters, even after their Blu-ray and DVD releases hit the market. I remember back in 2003/2004-ish, when I was ten, seeing Finding Nemo still playing - going by the numbers online - and being confused: "But it's already on DVD, why is it still playing in some theaters?"
So with all that being said, do you think some animated films will normally top $300 million every year? Will it become an easier height to reach in the coming years? Or not? Sound off below!