Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dragon Box Office Ramble


Let's get real for a second… $50 million is a pretty solid opening for an animated film.

It's a bit disappointing for How To Train Your Dragon 2 though. The original opened with a decent $43 million, the obituaries were written for it right away… But then something happened. It had all of April and May to itself, and it had extremely robust legs. It pulled the rare 5x multiplier and grossed a staggering $217 million domestically. Worldwide it took in a solid $493 million… You could say that was one heck of a success.

The TV show Dragons: Riders of Berk (now Defenders of Berk) followed and was a hit. The next seasons will now be on Netflix, I assume that's being done because of DreamWorks' deal with them. It's also a smart move, just in case Cartoon Network does something stupid and gets the show canceled. (Such as moving it to a bad timeslot and causing the ratings to plummet.) Also, How To Train Your Dragon was very well-received. 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, great reviews out the wazoo. This got great critical reception too! What could go wrong?

I keep saying marketing. The movie just didn't look all that good, despite the fact that the first film was good. Those trailers, TV spots and ads just made it look like more of the same. Does that remind you of something? Yeah, Kung Fu Panda 2's lazy marketing campaign! Like that movie, it was pitted against an R-rated comedy. This June's model was 22 Jump Street. That stole a good chunk of the teen and adult moviegoing audience, two groups that - contrary to popular belief - actually go to see animated films as well. It ain't just kiddies making these things big. That's a belief that should've been put to rest, in, um, 1994!

However, let's look at recent animated films… How many animated films released in the last four years have opened higher than $50 million domestically not counting this movie?

11 movies. What are they?

  • Toy Story 3 - $110 million
  • Despicable Me 2 - $83 million
  • Monsters University - $82 million
  • Shrek Forever After - $70 million
  • The Lorax - $70 million
  • The Lego Movie - $69 million
  • Frozen - $67 million
  • Brave - $66 million
  • Cars 2 - $66 million
  • Madagascar 3 - $60 million
  • Despicable Me - $56 million

Over half of them were sequels, four of them were Pixar films, those open with over $60 million by default. Why is that?

Pixar earned adult audiences' trust. Years of excellent, well-reviewed movies earned them this, and all Pixar films are pretty much locked to open with over $60 million. Again, it's adults, not just kids and their families. Kids and families only get an animated film so far. Why the $66 million opening for Cars 2 when Planes didn't even make half of that on opening weekend? It's the Pixar name and its goodwill with adult audiences…

What else… Despicable Me. Surprise hit, looked really cute, the marketing was everywhere. Who didn't want to see that film? Since everyone loved part one, part two was locked to do very well. Universal was smart, they used a very effective and strong marketing campaign to get the sequel to open big! Hey, audiences responded with their wallets, the marketing must've caught their eye.

The Lorax? The same marketing strategy for Despicable Me was used (same studio, of course), and it's Dr. Seuss. Of course it opened high. Audiences probably saw it as a Despicable Me-esque film to get their Despicable fix before two hit theaters. Maybe, that's just a theory. But it was definitely the strong marketing and the Dr. Seuss name that got the crowds in.

Madagascar 3 had the goodwill from the first two, the marketing got audiences psyched. "Afro Circus" was pounded into our heads.

Frozen? Audiences treated that as a sort of Tangled 2, and Tangled opened with a good $48 million. Audiences loved Tangled, so they wanted to see the next Disney princess fairy tale by default. Add in that final trailer and the emphasis on the songs prior to the movie's opening and boom, $60 million+ opening. Not rocket science.

The Lego Movie? This was something everyone was waiting for, from kids to anyone who has come across a Lego brick in their lives. It looked hilarious, adults and teens went. Families and kids went, put them all together and what have you got?

I'm more than tired of the "status quo", the belief that animated films make big money because of just kids and their parents. It is hilariously untrue. Frozen and Toy Story 3 didn't make $1 billion worldwide each just because of that audience. If it was kids and parents that made these things so big, why haven't the likes of The Smurfs and Alpha and Omega made that much? Parents make the ticket-buying decision, and if they would rather wait for a bad-looking animated film to hit DVD so they can put it on in the other room, they will. Simple as that.

No, adults and teens help make the biggest animated films as successful as they are. It's not 1984 anymore, many adults and teens have seen the light. Animation isn't "that kiddie thing" to these audiences, they go in expecting a good film because the film appeals to them. You think it was just kids and dragged-in-against-their-will parents that made Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King big? Think again. The mindset that animation is for kids first and foremost still prevails today, it's been a prevalent problem since the mid 1960s. It still can't be shaken off. I mean, why else do people assume it's just kids making these things big?

Now that I got that off my chest, let's consider that an opening above $40 million is still pretty solid for any film - animated or not. The problem is, animated films cost a lot (normally above $90 million) and because a lot of them are family-friendly, there are lots of merchandise deals and tie-ins and other things riding on them in addition to covering a roughly $100 million budget. Studios also have specific rules; DreamWorks seems to have those when it comes to their films.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is certainly going to turn a profit. It's as sure as the turning of the Earth, $50 million is a good start. It may not be $65-70 million like everybody expected, but it's still good. The obituaries are already being written, and I'm repeatedly facepalming as always. Animation never gets a break, does it? I bet if this didn't happen to Mr. Peabody & Sherman right after it opened, it would've had better legs at the box office. If the news outlets and analysts didn't keep barking "FLOP! FLOP! FLOP!" like gleeful little trolls, things probably would've been better. When people hear the word "flop" associated with a film, they normally think the movie itself is bad when the movie could actually be quite good.

But here's another thing…

Not every animated movie is going to make $XX million by default. It's unreasonable to expect, actually. $200 million, for instance, is still a pretty good benchmark for an animated film or heck! Tons of films!

Let's look at this year's biggest non-animated films that were hyped up. Captain America: The Winter Soldier crossed $250 million domestically, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past had/are having trouble getting past $200 million. All three of those films opened with over $90 million, too! Spidey is struggling because the film itself isn't very good and many audiences aren't surprised, considering how Spider-Man 3 turned out. Godzilla? Many audiences, sadly, wanted more creature action and less human-level stuff. It's just the way they thought, audiences aren't predictable and they won't always like what's well-received. X-Men: Days of Future Past? Well, it's doing a little better, but its gross will be well below the adjusted totals for X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand.

Actually, let's look at animated films and superhero films over the years. I've seen animated films called a "fad", superhero films are usually called a "fad". Let's look at both…

What is one of the highest grossing superhero films of all time? Spider-Man. How much money did Spider-Man make back in 2002? $403 million domestic. Wow!!! You know what that adjusts to today? $553 million! Holy crapola!

So, you'd think that Spider-Man 2 would smash that amazing total, right? It didn't, but it still reeled in a great $373 million. Why is that?

My theory is that when something is new and fresh, everybody goes… And I mean everybody: Kids, adults, teens, preteens, older folk, people who normally don't go to the movies to begin with, everyone and their brother. It's an event in every sense of the word, it's a movie that everybody flocks to. When Spider-Man 2 came out, it wasn't as fresh and new, but a lot of audiences still came coming back. But there were probably a good chunk of folks that felt that they already got their Spidey fix with the first film. One group is the type who don't normally go to movie theaters, but did so for something like Spider-Man. They see the ads for Spider-Man 2 and figure, "Nah, one was good enough. I don't usually go to the movies, I'll wait for it to come out on TV."

I wouldn't be surprised if Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn't outgross the gargantuan first film. It'll still make a boatload, I'll be damned if it tops the original's $623 million domestic take. But this prediction is not absolute, again, it's like the first Spider-Man. Everybody went, even those who wouldn't hit the theaters that often. Age of Ultron may not get those kinds of folks back to the theater.

Now let's look at an animated film that damn near everybody saw: The Lion King. $312 million in 1994 dollars! That's incredible!!! That adjusts to $600 million today! WHOA! That, again, was an event that never usually happens again for a long time.

Basically, not every superhero film is destined to make Spider-Man numbers. Or even Iron Man numbers. $200 million domestic is solid for any film, putting aside budgets. Thor and Captain America, for example, did quite well.

Not every animated film is going to be as big as Frozen, or even as big as Despicable Me or even something like Hotel Transylvania. $150 million is quite fine, if we don't think about those pesky budgets for a second. A film making over $100 million is pretty good, it indicates a good number of people went to theater to see the movie.

But budgets are the be-all end-all these days. It's understandable because moviemaking is a business, and you might as well make those sky high $150-200 million budgets back, right? It doesn't matter if quite a few Americans went to the theater and got the film to do $100 million, money needs to be made. Animated films are as every bit as expensive as your big blow-em-up blockbusters. Pixar now spends over $180 million on their films, DreamWorks hovers around $135 million. Disney goes for the $150 million ballpark. Blue Sky and Illumination wisely try to stay below $100 million, while Sony Animation goes a little above that mark.

It's unreasonable, however, to expect all animated films to top $150 million, let alone $100 million, domestically. Some are cut out to attract many audiences when they are in theaters, while others aren't. Marketing plays a big part too, if the movie looks good, audiences go. If it looks "eh", very few people go. The press is all about opening weekends, if the thing isn't dashing out of the gate like an overconfident unicorn, then it's a disappointment. A dud. A flop. An underperformer. A this. A that. Studios ought to think of the subsequent weekends rather than have the films hit a specific mark on opening weekend.

Forget about letting movies breathe for a couple weeks, it's immediately labelled a disappointment. As if movies have to come and go, why can't movies co-exist in theaters with other competitive ones? They certainly do that; maybe the emphasis should be on strong subsequent weekends and not how big the opening weekend gross will be… But wait, the Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand release are around the corner! The release window is shrinking! There's a problem there, but if they widen the gap, piracy and other things may cause problems. It's a tough climate for films, but I think things could improve if we don't treat movies as "One-week only things"… Why not have the movie be cool for a couple months, have it still playing strong?

For instance, I missed out on Edge of Tomorrow on its opening weekend. I still haven't seen it though I plan to soon, but by the time I get to the theater to see it, it's going to seem like a ghost town. As if the movie just sort of came… And went… In some theaters, the screenings of a film that's been out for weeks gets relegated to the crumbiest screen in the building. By contrast, back in May 2012, I saw The Avengers for the second time two weeks after it opened. Theater was packed to the brim, the crowd was enthusiastic and vocal…

Now… DreamWorks. Are they going down the drain?

No.

Repeat after me… No.

Jeffrey Katzenberg has been making some very wise decisions as of late. He has stepped back from the creative process and is now doing what he can to make sure the studio stays afloat.

Sequels: Sequels are a core strategy, since audiences will come back to see characters they liked in the first installments. Why else is a fourth Madagascar being made? Why else is there going to be a Puss in Boots sequel? Why did Katzenberg hint at a fifth Shrek recently? Or how about the hints of a fourth How To Train Your Dragon?

Live Action: Walt Disney fully ventured into live action production in 1950 with Treasure Island, a film that - unlike Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart - didn't feature animated characters or segments. He scored many successes left and right, and many live action films were made in his lifetime. The studio continued that after Walt's passing, and look at what a lot of their live action product brings in today!

TV: Walt also used TV to bolster his studio, in the form of an excellent anthology TV series. But then it expanded from there, Disney then got its own channel in 1983. Then over two decades later, that channel was spun off into different channels and spawned franchises as well. DreamWorks currently has Netflix, which is smart because you know… TV networks tend to screw over animated shows, but on Netflix, shows can be allowed to breath and find audiences wherever and whenever. No threat of the midnight death slot around the corner! DreamWorks is currently taking full advantage of this. The successful Dragons: Defenders of Berk is moving to Netflix. Series based on Puss in Boots and King Julien are coming. DreamWorks also owns boatloads of properties thanks to the relatively cheap Classic Media acquisition: Think of what they can do with classic installments and new ones! DreamWorks has also acquired several properties over the years. One of which was Chris Gall's children's book series Dinotrux. DreamWorks is currently turning that into a show for Netflix, and as I suggested over at the Rotoscopers, something like this could be a launchpad for a successful franchise and subsequent movie. Turbo F.A.S.T. is supposedly helping out the flop film it was based on.

Theme Parks: Right now we're seeing various attractions being planned, but I wonder if Katzenberg has the ambition to make a Disneyland-esque theme park. Problem is, there are many DreamWorks films that are considerable unmemorable or not all that great. However, on Shrek, dragon, panda and perhaps the zoo gang alone, they could have a decent-sized park somewhere.

Live Action: The live action production is going on in China right now, as films are being made specifically for that market. Will DreamWorks eventually start making live action films here under a different name (so as not to confuse them with DreamWorks SKG) or something? We shall see, but this new venture in China is a good start.

They'll be fine… They've been here for almost 20 years, they had a few trip ups lately. Whatever, they've had trip ups years ago. Stop writing their obituaries, people. Box office isn't everything, either.

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