In July, I had written about how I wanted DreamWorks to launch a new plan. A plan that involves lowering budgets and picking better release dates...
Now remember, this is all from the perspective of a fan and animation enthusiast. I know about the business and all, but of course I'm no "professional", but these are suggestions and theories. Ultimately, I want this studio to succeed for a number of reasons. They're an animation studio, they often make good quality films, and a lot of talented artists are there and should of course keep their jobs. (Food on the table, ya know?)
Recently, DreamWorks has slowly but surely been evaluating their release slate. They've had it a bit rough lately on the movie end. Rise of the Guardians, Turbo, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman - all released from fall 2012 to spring 2014 - were money losers at the box office. SoftBank was planning to pick up the studio earlier this year, but things fell through. Then it looked like DreamWorks would find a partner in Hasbro, a deal that would've really helped them, but that fell through as well...
Will anyone buy them? Sure. Give it time, I say, though the doom-n-gloom brigade thinks that no one will want the studio based on the recent underperformers and franchise entries How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Penguins of Madagascar not opening well at the domestic box office. Of course, when DreamWorks makes a flop, everyone loses their minds. Wall Street, analysts, everyone writes their obituary and mocks them. ("Home looks dull [to me] and B.O.O. was delayed! It's curtains for them!")
When How To Train Your Dragon 2 opened at $49 million here in the domestic market, there was a real sense of disappointment everywhere. To be fair, this should've opened bigger because of how beloved the original was. $70 million seemed to be in the cards for the opening weekend, not just a few millions more than what the first film opened with. Legs weren't as awesome either, though $177 million off of $49 million is still pretty good. 3.6x multiplier! Worldwide it was really saved. $618 million... You don't call that disappointing! (Unless you're Sony Pictures spending $250 million on it and another $150 million for the marketing.)
What went wrong? Who knows, really. My theory is that it was a combination of things: Weak marketing, opening it against 22 Jump Street, the TV show existing ("Why pay $13 to watch this when we can see it on TV for free?"), and some audiences just not being interested for some reason. Legs? I guess the family chunk of the audience balked at the film's darker tone and the overall rough second half. But it all doesn't really matter now, for the film has pocketed over $600 million worldwide against a $145 million budget. Blu-ray and DVD sales, I've heard, were really, really good. Shocker in this day and age of digital-vs-physical media.
Penguins of Madagascar was expected to open big as well, being part of the well-liked and lucrative Madagascar franchise. I thought it looked cute and funny from the marketing, the Thanksgiving release date was fine for it, $35 million+ opening, right? Nope, $25 million. I guess audiences just weren't interested. Of course, I always object to the usual "It flopped because it was bad!" sentiments. How does the audience know Penguins is a bad movie before it even opens? No, I feel most films open badly because no one doesn't want to see them to begin with.
One thing to add, lots of bad movies fail, lots of bad movies make money. Lots of good movies fail, lots of good movies make money... Moving on...
Opening weekends, as I've said many times before, are a sort of great decider in this day and age. Movies don't enjoy the timeframes that they used to. For a great example, The Lion King was released in theaters in the summer of 1994, June to be exact. When did it come to video? Was it released in November/December 1994 to capitalize on the holiday season rush? Nope, it wasn't. The film was released on video in March 1995, and it still sold a record-breaking 30 million units in the domestic market alone. The Lion King had all that time to climb past a then-gargantuan $300 million, its gross adjusts to over $600 million today! That's not the case anymore. If The Lion King came out in summer 2014, it would be a November 2014 home media release. Heck, Frozen continued to make boatloads of money when the Blu-ray and DVD were right around the corner!
Legs for animated family films are usually very good to begin with. 3.4-3.6x multipliers are very, very common, unless the audience really doesn't like the movie, but that's usually rare in this day and age. Rise of the Guardians, Turbo, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman all made over 3.4x their opening weekends. Lowest multiplier for a DreamWorks film released in the last 10 years was Shrek the Third, 2.6x. The only other DreamWorks film released after 2004 to miss 3.0x was Madagascar 2 in 2008.
For DreamWorks, they need solid, good opening weekends. Get a good multiplier, make over $140 million domestically, good! Worldwide totals are unpredictable when it comes to originals, you don't know what will catch on in other countries.
Home is DreamWorks' next film, and it cost $132 million to make. Originally it was going to cost $125 million, but the release date switch with Penguins bumped the budget up a bit. Since DreamWorks' animated films are expected to reel in the widest audience possible and since there are probably merchandising/marketing/tie-in deals to consider, the films should make around 2.5x their budgets. I think that's what DreamWorks is looking for, but I'm not really sure... This is where the confusion kicks in.
Consider... Rise of the Guardians grossed $306 million worldwide. That's double the $145 million budget. DreamWorks said that it lost $87 million, so obviously they're going to need more than double the budget. Maybe 2.5x, to be safe? With that, Rise of the Guardians would've have to have made at least $362 million to break even. Not too unreasonable of a number, but let's face it - not every movie is cut out to make that much. Animation may make big money, but not every animated film or concept should have to make such huge bucks. A studio like LAIKA can get away with films coughing up $100 million worldwide, since they spend reasonable amounts on their films and don't have such crazy merchandise/potential franchise deals hanging on their backs. Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls are meant to be standalone films, not meant to be franchise-ready.
So Home... Costs $132 million, right? It'll have to make around $330 million to break even. It has to perform well domestically just to be safe, and worldwide grosses will help from there if the picture is anticipated by foreign audiences. But nowadays, no computer animated movie is guaranteed to make that kind of money. It isn't 2004 anymore...
The solution? Like I said back in July... Dial down the budgets.
Right now, I think, is a good time to really consider this. You have three recent originals that underperformed, and you also have a franchise entry that's not doing so well here in the states... I think it's high time they reduce the production budgets.
Look at other studios. Blue Sky... They barely ever reach $100 million, and look at their line-up. Epic is crisp-looking and hyperrealistic, yet it cost around $100 million to make. All their other recent films, which go for a less hyperrealistic aesthetic, cost around the same amount. Sony Animation? Only the Smurf movies crossed $100 million, but not by much. Illumination? They're excellent when it comes to budgets. None of their films have cost more than $80 million.
I think it's time for DreamWorks to join those leagues. Disney Animation and Pixar can get away with $120 million+ budgets, DreamWorks and others? Not so much, really. Back in 2004 - when it seemed like almost any big budget all-computer animated family-friendly movie was a guaranteed moneymaker, yes. Today? No.
Home is probably close to completion with its $132 million budget, I'm not sure how much B.O.O. is going to cost. DreamWorks intended Home to be a $125 million film, so I'm guessing they wanted B.O.O. to be that way too... But B.O.O. is being delayed, and that'll probably make the budget rise, so $130 million+ again. Kung Fu Panda 3 can get away with a bigger budget, being a franchise entry and one that is sure to do some really good business overseas if it doesn't exactly fire on all cylinders domestically.
But I believe animation production hasn't even begun on Boss Baby, Trolls, et al. So before that happens, consider it DreamWorks... Consider it. Make them lower budget. Let B.O.O. be your last $100 million+ original film, for a while at least...
I'm sorry, but if somebody pitched something like Boss Baby to me in this day and age, the last thing I would do is throw a $100 million+ budget at it. In 2002 or so, I would've been open to giving it a big budget... Not today, though!
|"... in theaters on March 18, 2016"|
Boss Baby is actually a perfect example. It's about a baby CEO going up against an evil baby CEO, which is kinda weird and silly to begin with. Definitely not guaranteed to print money, that's for sure. I would call for a Despicable Me-sized budget for that film. With a $70 million budget, all you have to do is make around $175 million! I bet they can still create high-quality animation and visuals with a budget of that size. It works perfectly, and with a smaller budget, I feel that it'll give the filmmakers an opportunity to take some risks and make something pretty cool and different, rather than just another generic "CGI kids flick".
Something like Turbo, in my opinion, was kind of just that. Cost $135 million, didn't really take any risks. With a smaller budget, imagine the filmmakers going all out with that silly premise and make something really bizarre and different, or just something that's a little against the norm! Sure, it may not mean that the movie will be "good" per se, but at least it tried something different for once. Then it pockets some cash, and shows studios that going small scale is a great, viable option.
It could also give the filmmakers a chance to experiment with different styles of CGI, make something that breaks new visual ground like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Book of Life, and the upcoming The Peanuts Movie. And hey, maybe even with a lower budget, they can do a film in traditional animation and prove to the suits that it's still viable too! But that's asking for a little too much...
Like I also said back in July, keep the big $100 million+ for the sequels and event films... Now here's where I get a little worried...
Going back to Dragon 2 and that $49 million opening, I still wonder how much the whole "why see this when I can watch it on TV for free" mentality factors into the opening weekend grosses. I mean, surely audiences can tell the difference between a film's TV series and a big theatrical sequel, right? I guess not. Why do I bring this up again?
Well, The Croods and Puss in Boots are getting TV shows. However, both will be on Netflix rather than channels. If both series are done in CGI, that could pose a problem, if the whole "see it on TV for free" mentality really does have an affect on sequels like Kung Fu Panda 2 and How To Train Your Dragon 2. Could Croods 2's opening be affected by a TV show? Ditto Puss in Boots, a film that had to climb its way past $140 million domestically. Madagascar 4 is safe since there's no Madagascar TV show featuring the whole zoo/circus gang. If a fifth Shrek gets greenlit, it also won't have a problem since there's no Shrek show. However, franchise fatigue... I can see 5, if it does happen, being a huge hit overseas while it does just okay over here. Either way, it's going to make money.
I essentially want DreamWorks to solve their problems, and then end up looking good to investors or anyone willing to buy them and function as a safety net. Then when all is said and done, they need to pick release dates that will be great/perfect for their movies. I had some suggestions...
While it's great to see DreamWorks trying their hardest to build a safety net in the form of Netflix shows, live entertainment, live-action production, theme parks, and other things, the animated movies still matter given that it's what the studio was pretty much built on.
I have my concerns over them doing 3-4 films a calendar year, but if they keep budgets down, I don't think there will be much of a problem. Have most of the originals be these lower budget but still good quality films (and/or films that the audiences likes/wants to see), save the big money for event films, and so on. Other studios that aren't Disney or Pixar save money, too.
Then you ask, why do some animated movies open higher than others?
Pixar, I firmly believe, is the only American animation studio in this day and age that has a built-in audience that trusts them. A sort of group that'll be there on opening weekend no matter what, similar to how a comic book film will usually open big. Remember how something like Green Lantern opened to $53 million even though there was a ton of bad buzz before it came out? I bet a good chunk of that gross was fans being there for it. (There are exceptions, I know.)
Anyways, I think after the likes of Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, Pixar built up a trusting audience. An audience that'll be there on opening weekend. Every post-Incredibles Pixar film except Ratatouille has opened with over $60 million at the domestic box office. Now adjusted, Monsters, Inc., Nemo, and Incredibles' openings are in the $90 million range. Cars, WALL-E and Up are in the 70s. Ratatouille? That $47 million opening adjusts to $56 million, which is still high for an animated film today, especially an original! $60-70 million openings for animated films have been something of a rarity these days (you get some biggies here and there like Frozen and The Lego Movie), the 40s are now more the norm. When an original tops $50 million, it's a bit a shock nowadays.
As for Ratatouille not opening on par with the other Pixar films from the time, my theory is that while the fans showed up, a good chunk of the general public was unsure about a movie about a rat (Rats?! Disgusting!) in a Parisian restaurant that's mostly a straightforward comedy. I can see why it didn't open big, but of course it had excellent legs because the film was damn great and people spread the word. WALL-E, with its cute titular robot and funny bits and space and a love story, looked a lot more accessible from the marketing hence its good opening. Ditto Up, it had adventure, funny talking dogs ("squirrel!") an exotic South American setting, and a flying house!
Other studios don't have that pull, I assume. Does DreamWorks have a loyal base? I don't think so. Disney Animation? Obviously not, not since the 90s, or else Bolt and The Princess and the Frog would've done very well on their respective opening weekends. (Like, above $40 million!) The other studios need their movies to be appealing to audiences. Tangled, Frozen, and Big Hero 6's opening weekend grosses went past $48 million for Disney Animation; what was in the marketing for those three films obviously struck a chord with the public.
The Croods looked cool to most of the public too, hence the healthy $43 million opening it scored last year. Sony Animation's Hotel Transylvania also appealed to the public, it opened well with $42 million. Illumination's Despicable Me, need I say any more?
Despite the success of Despicable Me, Illumination's second movie Hop opened with a decent $37 million. No repeat of $50 million+ on opening weekend, no "from the creators of Despicable Me" was enough, a chunk of the public skipped it. Blue Sky may have scored $45 million+ openings with the third and fourth Ice Age flicks,but that didn't mean Epic was destined to cruise past that too, that opened with an okay $33 million. How To Train Your Dragon, Madagascar 3, and The Croods may have been big hits for DreamWorks... But that didn't necessarily help Rise of the Guardians, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and Turbo.
But Pixar? I think they have a built-in audience, hence the consecutive $60 million+ openings. Cars 2 obviously didn't derail things, for Brave still opened with $66 million. Monsters University would inevitably make more than $60 million being a prequel to a beloved film of theirs... The real testers are Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. Will those open above $60 million next year? My guess is... Probably.
The climate has changed. DreamWorks, I feel, should join Sony Animation, Blue Sky, Illumination, et al and refrain from spending over $100 million on their films. Less flops, better morale at the studio, less artists being laid off, successful future... Please consider it DreamWorks, really look into it...