Flop Talk: The Inconsistent Reporting on Box Office Failures

THE GOOD DINOSAUR

Box office flops…

One thing they are good at: Making the press race to do autopsies.

“What went wrong?” they bellow, “here are the reasons!” they declare.

Let’s look at two box office flops: The Good Dinosaur and The Legend of Tarzan. Let’s look at a film that performed similarly to them, but broke even – The Angry Birds Movie.

The Good Dinosaur‘s actual figures, unusual for a Pixar film, haven’t been revealed. The press said the picture cost around $175-200 million to make, which isn’t odd because Pixar’s films usually cost this much nowadays. Sequels Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters University and Finding Dory all cost $200 million to make, originals Brave and Inside Out hovered around $180 million. The Good Dinosaur is somewhere between the two, as that one saw a big delay, a director change, and a whole movie that had entered physical production thrown out the window.

The Good Dinosaur was met with mostly positive critical reception, but the reviews weren’t glowing. Mere months earlier, Pixar unleashed Inside Out and that got the treats: Near-perfect reviews, boffo box office, Oscar nominations, you name it. Perhaps opening a quieter survival-adventure picture like Good Dinosaur next to the ambitious, cerebral Inside Out inadvertently sent that movie into a darkened corner. A few months later, Disney Animation released the equally ambitious fable Zootopia, further driving The Good Dinosaur into the “subpar” bin.

It’s been made clear many times on the Internet: Simply good is not acceptable when it comes to Pixar, though it’s totally okay if other studios coast. Apparently not much “rides on them” to begin with, but I think that’s all rubbish. Every big studio, from Pixar to Disney Animation to DreamWorks to Blue Sky and so on, is capable of making greatness. They have all shown it, too.

The Good Dinosaur‘s box office problems have little to do with the movie, which – if you look at the legs and its home media sales – was actually pretty well-liked. No, Disney’s marketing department dumped this Pixar adventure in the Thanksgiving slot with little-to-no marketing love. The few trailers and ads for it gave audiences no idea of what it was even about, or why they should see it. The Pixar name alone was not a guarantee. Many people also didn’t know that it was even out! Disney poured all the marketing effort into Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

A $39 million opening isn’t bad by any stretch, but when your movie cost near-$200 million to make and an additional $100 million to market (Disney reportedly needed it to make $500 million at the worldwide box office to break even), it’s not a good number. Even in the face of Star Wars and other holiday competitors, The Good Dinosaur still made a good 3.2x its opening weekend gross. That’s not terrible, not great by any stretch, but it showed that there was some audience appeal. Perhaps The Good Dinosaur, an adventure not heavy on spectacle and hyper-imaginative tricks, didn’t need to cost that much in the first place…

The film finished its American run with $123 million, the worldwide intake was $331 million. Not bad at all… Not every animated movie, or movie for that matter, is meant to pull ridiculous numbers out of hat just like that.

Now, an animated film released this year performed almost exactly like it… The Angry Birds Movie.

Angry1

The difference? The Angry Birds Movie cost $73 million to make, so the expectations were not super-high. Angry Birds opened with $38 million, and it looks to make less than $110 million stateside. Unlike the well-received The Good Dinosaur (yes, 77% on the almighty Rotten Tomatoes is pretty darn good), Angry Birds got very mixed reception, a lot of it veering towards negative. But did the press say anything about “audiences not liking it”? Nope. Anything on the picture being “doomed from the start”? Nope. If Angry Birds cost $200 million to make, the narrative would definitely be “Oh no! What went wrong?! A disaster of epic proportions! The movie’s really bad! Audiences clearly aren’t digging it!”

Audiences saw both of these movies, a good chunk of them liked what they saw. One of them just happened to cost way too much.

Warner Bros.’ live-action ape-man retelling The Legend of Tarzan by contrast was expected to sink like a stone on opening weekend. Projections had the three-day opening gross at less than $30 million… But lo and behold, the $180 million-costing tentpole made $38 million on its opening weekend. The narrative was “Oh it surprised!” That’s because it’s not doing as badly as they expected.

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The Legend of Tarzan looks to finish up with around $130 million stateside, and its worldwide gross is still well below what WB wants. Pretty good legs. The movie was also pretty poorly-received… But where are the “What went wrong?!” stories? Where are the eulogies? Where’s the talk of the film not being good? There’s little to none of it, because The Legend of Tarzan is doing way better than the hungry shark pack press anticipated.

Box office reporting is wildly inconsistent. They’ll sway one way, or they’ll sway another way… But in the end, there’s a money-losing box office flop, and there’s a film that people don’t go and see.

The Good Dinosaur and The Legend of Tarzan made over $100 million domestically, respectively. A few people must’ve liked what they saw. I’m sick of the quality card being pulled when a movie flops. Quality is very subjective in this case. I have friends who really enjoyed The Legend of Tarzan, and most of my customers – as I work at a movie theater – have shown up in droves to see it, and most of them walked away satisfied. The film is making over 3x its opening weekend, there was some love there. The same goes for The Good Dinosaur, a film with a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes. Since when is *that* bad?

You also never know with audiences. Lots of mediocre slop holds on well at the domestic box office, though sometimes audiences do reject bad movies. But a lot of times, audiences turn their backs on great, acclaimed films. In the past, they did so as well. Fantasia and Bambi, two of Walt Disney’s greatest achievements, polarized audiences back in the early 1940s. It wasn’t until their later re-issues that they would gain widespread popularity, Fantasia especially. Not too many audiences in 1982 showed up for the sci-fi masterpiece that was Blade Runner. The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Fight Club, need I go on?

Movies mostly flop because no one wants to see them to begin with, regardless of how good or bad they are. If a marketing campaign can’t get the public interested, they won’t show up.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice

There’s also a rare case of a movie opening big, but sinking like a stone afterwards. Batman v Superman opened with $166 million in the domestic market, as so much hype was behind it. The film was going to easily make its money back, right? Batman v Superman was a rare, rare, rare case where a majority of the audiences who saw the movie really didn’t like it. It made an abysmal 1.8x its opening weekend. When a movie makes less than 2x its opening weekend gross, you know something’s wrong… But that’s what the audiences thought. Some out there will argue with you (and HOW!) that Batman v Superman was actually a good movie that “wasn’t for everyone”, or was “misunderstood”.

The many flop sequels of this year? Those sequels flopped because audiences didn’t ask for them. Their predecessors all did well at the box office, so how come the sequels didn’t? Some movies are just one-and-done things. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland? That was a real “you have to see this!” kind of movie that was the flavor of the week. After it left theaters, it didn’t have much a life afterwards. The same goes for the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, 2013’s magician thriller Now You See Me 2, and the 2014 Seth Rogen comedy Neighbors.

Regardless of how those movies were all received by critics, some things are just one-and-done endeavors. Most sequels to movies dip below their predecessors, there are few instances where the sequel outdoes the original, or outright explodes. (That usually happens when the first movie is a tiny sleeper that no one really saw in theaters, but caught on thanks to TV and home video.) Spider-Man remains the most-attended Spider-Man film, and still has the highest gross. Star Wars sold more tickets than every single one of its successors, and that’s not factoring in the re-releases! Star Wars sold 142 million tickets in the late 70s, second place is The Force Awakens with 108 million. The rest – yes, even The Empire Strikes Back – all fall below 85 million. Most animated sequels fell a little below their predecessors: Madagascar 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Cars 2, Rio 2, the last goes on and on.

If the movie is beloved, some people will still show up for part deux. If the movie was just an “eh, I had a good time at the flicks but little else” experience, then the demand for the next installment won’t be too high.

Summer 2016 is a summer of sequels that no one really wanted. Finding Dory did fantastic. You know why that is? People still love the original, 13 years later. It didn’t make $867 million back in 2003 because it was a fad movie, it was a genuinely well-loved movie, and home media sales and TV airings kept it that way. Critics said it was high quality, but again, that’s all subjective. People move on from flavor-of-the-week blockbusters like Alice in Wonderland, they keep coming back for things like Finding Nemo. Sequels to Transformers do well, even though each entry in the series has gotten either mixed or downright terrible reviews, because audiences clearly loved what they saw and want more.

It’s not quality. It’s what the audience deems good. Do their views always line up with critics? No.

If the audience wants to see a movie, and if they really like a movie, it’s destined to be a hit…

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2 thoughts on “Flop Talk: The Inconsistent Reporting on Box Office Failures

  1. Very well laid out argument. I admit I hadnt thought of Angry Birds as the same as Good Dinosaur. Maybe because it opened 1st place makes it seem more successful.
    People forget that studios know not everything will hit. They should take a disappointment in stride. The problem with Dreamworks is when time and time again they spend more than they bring in.

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  2. The box office performance of TGD is one that still kind of escapes me. While they admittedly could have given it more of a push, Disney has done far worse marketing (BFG, John Carter, pretty much every single film that isn’t Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, or the Animated Canon). Perhaps had it not been released when the craze for a certain other film was still in full effect, it could have made its’ money back. Or even Bob Peterson’s vision could have been a lot more appealing audience-wide, who knows.

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