Trolls, the new DreamWorks film, opened quite well against the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe’s newest epic installment Doctor Strange.
It seemed like the apocalypse, in a way. Doctor Strange is a PG-13 Marvel Studios movie, and it’s true that a lot of families actually go to see these movies, regardless of the ratings they get. Kids love Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America, et al. There are a good many parents out there who don’t take their kids to PG-13 movies, which is sometimes why these distributors pick the dates they pick: The classic “counter programming” strategy.
Sometimes, it works in a movie’s favor. Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie cost $99 million to make, and was put out the same weekend as SPECTRE, the James Bond follow-up to a billion dollar smash. Peanuts, thankfully, had some decent marketing behind it and the series’ legacy. SPECTRE charged out of the gate with $70 million, Peanuts made a very respectable $44 million. Trolls took in $45 million, while Doctor Strange soared to $84 million.
Trolls, like the many DreamWorks films that came before it that were products of Bill Damaschke’s tenure as a creative head, cost over $120 million to make and probably a pretty penny to market. Up until now, I really scoffed at the idea of having it open against a Marvel titan like Doctor Strange. Universal is going to release an upcoming DreamWorks musical called Larrikins against Marvel’s Black Panther, another sure-to-be-smash. Now I worry a little less about that, because a well-marketed family film can hold its own against a blockbuster.
The marketing is the thing that I keep an eye out for. It makes or breaks a movie at the box office, not critical reception. If reception meant anything, than DreamWorks’ own Home (which got a meager 47% on the be-all end-all of movie criticism, Rotten Tomatoes) would not have opened domestically with $52 million over a year ago. Trolls‘ marketing was just enough to get it to open with a decent amount, now the legs and overseas gross matter from here on out. Moana comes at Thanksgiving week, which should slow Trolls down a bit, but if audience reception on Trolls is strong, it’ll co-exist with Disney’s big musical. There’s no such thing as animated films cannibalizing each other.
Animated movies usually score great multipliers, ones that are much better than what blockbusters settle for. Most blockbuster flicks open huge, they’re frontloaded, but the legs aren’t anything to really write home about. Animated films on the other hand are like slow burners, unless they really, really don’t tick with the audience. The usual multiplier is a good 3 1/2. Say Trolls makes 3 1/2x that opening weekend gross… You get a solid $157 million domestic gross, which isn’t too bad. Now it needs an equally fine worldwide gross to get the film into the black.
But not every animated movie is meant to do that, because of the current movie climate we live in. An $120 million-budgeted film requires a very good-sized gross, but not all animated movies are meant to pull those numbers out of a hat like magic. Warner Animation Group likely knew this with their latest, Storks. That film was outsourced to Sony ImageWorks up in Vancouver, cost $70 million to make, and has passed $168 million worldwide. It’s not blockbuster material by any means, but it has currently made 2.3x its budget. Not too bad! If WB considers that a success, then I think this should set a precedent… And DreamWorks is a perfect example of a studio that should learn from this.
Trolls could’ve been made on Storks‘ budget and still look as great as it does. Why wasn’t it? The Boss Baby, the next DreamWorks film – opening in March, doesn’t look like it needed a huge budget either. Now that DreamWorks’ management has shifted and a lot of overhead has been cleared, maybe the budgets for their films will finally be whittled down? This is something I’ve brought up ad nauseum since roughly 2013, when Turbo had gone belly-up at the box office. From what I’ve heard over the years, too much overhead added to these budgets. Greatly.
Development on an animated feature can surprisingly cost quite a bit. Just look at Walt Disney Feature Animation’s ill-fated Kingdom of the Sun, which they poured $25 million into before its shutdown in 1998. In its ashes rose a brand new feature that used several elements from the cancelled film: The Emperor’s New Groove. That’s why the irreverent buddy comedy cost $100 million to make, a quarter of that came from an unmade movie that it evolved out of. A lot of DreamWorks’ past few films, I hear, have gone through a process where things are not solved or are tinkered endlessly. Get this, those films cost around $135 million to make! They were able to get the budgets down just $10 million, that says a lot right there I think.
What they need to do is get a system where they lock the story before going ahead with the animation itself. Larrikins, Shadows, and all the upcoming non-sequels don’t need to cost more than $100 million to make!
At the same time, I should know – as a writer – that this isn’t something you can simply request. Illumination’s process is what I just described: Lock story, then animate. No major changes are made to these things during actual production, but what if a change needs to be made? Not all of Illumination’s films have gotten good reviews, but they have undeniably attracted lots of audiences. Other studios may not have that luck. Writing is not easy, and at inconvenient times, you suddenly discover something in your work that’s a major problem.
Walt Disney Animation Studios overhauled a lot of Zootopia as it was entering production, and added a second director to the project. Pixar stopped The Good Dinosaur right as animation and rendering work began, removed the director, and restarted the whole thing from scratch. DreamWorks pushed Me and My Shadow back, then cancelled it, replaced the director, and recooked it into Shadows. Disney Animation actually has the worst example of this: A few iterations of a Rapunzel retelling ballooned Tangled‘s final budget to a record $260 million! Those are a few examples of many…
Animated features are gambles. Even foolproof Pixar is not immune to this, for The Good Dinosaur lost money at the box office last year. While the press and Internet found great joy in seeing Pixar have their first flop for shallow reasons (“bring down the almighty!”), I felt that this was kind of a good thing in a way… because it shows the world that, no, not even the unbreakable can score at the box office every single time. Watch the budgets!
It’s… A… Gamble…
Inside Out was a gamble, as was Up, WALL-E, Ratatouille, and so on. All the new Disney Animation features? Gambles. You can’t just make a blockbuster out of every animated thing, which is why I think some studios need to be a lot more budget-conscious. This extends to live-action blockbusters too. Look at all the flops we saw this year! Alice Through the Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Ben-Hur, even Batman v Superman was considered a disappointment!
Back to Trolls.
Trolls is the third to last DreamWorks film that’s being distributed by 20th Century Fox. Originally, their deal was set to end in the summer of 2018 with How To Train Your Dragon 3. That film, plus Larrikins and the currently-undated The Croods 2 used to be in their grip. I personally feel that Fox hasn’t really done DreamWorks much favors, as only one of their releases opened with over $50 million. Others are positioned as a good counter-programming films, when an animated film should be more than that. Some posted very low numbers on opening weekend, others did decent business but nothing spectacular.
Universal on the other hand… Look at what they’re getting with Illumination’s films: The lowest, not counting Hop, opened with $56 million. Just… Wow… Original, not-based-on-a-book The Secret Life of Pets broke the opening weekend record for an original film. $104 million! Think of what they’ll bring to DreamWorks! I think they know how to market animated movies, Fox? Not these days, methinks. Blue Sky’s latest haven’t cracked $45 million on opening weekend either, but luckily for them they don’t spend as much on their films.
That being said, $120 million is too much for a studio like DreamWorks. They’re not Disney Animation or Pixar, though they do have a good-sized safety net in Comcast. See, if they are to have a loss, what will happen? Will Universal take action? Will the animators be affected like every other time? Or will that not be an issue? Will it just be “it flopped, moved on”? So many questions, but… Going forward, I think budgets should be kept in check. That way, they can make profits.
So back to that release date and Larrikins…
Larrikins, should Universal put their all into the marketing, can stack up fine against the Wakandan superhero. More than anything, I’m actually more concerned about the film that’s opening the week before it. Warner Animation Group intends to release Smallfoot on February 9, 2018. I think with animated family films, there should be some spacing out. You know? Again, I don’t believe in the whole “too many animated movies! Cannibalization!” thing, but at least give the films a little room to breathe so they can get the highest grosses they can get.
I think the real test comes next year, should everything stay in place. Three animated movies are currently set to open back-to-back in spring 2017: DreamWorks’ The Boss Baby on March 31st, Sony’s Smurfs: The Lost Village on April 7th, and ToonBox’s Spark on April 14th. I don’t think cannibalization will occur, but lots of families have to narrow their choices what with rising ticket prices and all. Will all three movies meet expectations? 2017 is not 1988, a year where Disney’s Oliver & Company and Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time could both open the same day and do very well at the box office.
Boss Baby is the one to worry about, as that will likely cost over $100 million. Smurfs? That should be in the $80 million ballpark, while Spark should cost around the same amount Nut Job did – low 40s. If all three do well, then Larrikins should have no trouble opening a week after Smallfoot. Since WAG is very budget-conscious, and since Smallfoot‘s being done in Spain, it should cost no more than $70 million – it should do fine if it performs like Storks. Larrikins? Not sure how much that will cost, but it’s probably the one to be a little more concerned about.
Animation gets bigger and bigger as more studios are entering the field, while others stay strong. That’s catching Hollywood’s attention more and more, and you’re going to see more and more animation. The European Union recently talked about wanting to really compete with our heavies, so it’ll just get bigger… But the battle for the box office takes a lot, and the studios need to buckle up, get smarter, and try hard!