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The Oncoming IP Era of Animation
Plus: a death-defying assignment!
Elemental, the latest from Disney/Pixar, hits theaters this weekend. It’s fine—of the pandemic and post-pandemic efforts from Disney, I’d probably rank it as either the best or second-best, after Soul, and it’s roughly a thousand times better than Strange World or Lightyear—and the reviews are okay, but it’s about to die an ugly death at the box office. Tracking has its three-day numbers in the low-to-mid $30 million range, meaning that even if it holds well, as kids’ movies often do, it’s going to have a tough time recouping its budget.
Much ink will be spilled about this film’s failure, if that failure comes to pass. Is it because Disney has gone woke and is now going broke? (Probably not, judging by The Little Mermaid’s $239 million and counting, domestic.) Is it because Disney has destroyed their business model by moving so much of their product to Disney+ during the pandemic in an effort to jumpstart their streaming audience, thus training audiences to stay home? (Maybe, though Universal/Illumination has demonstrated that pictures like The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Puss in Boots can coexist digitally and theatrically.) Is it because the movies simply aren’t as good as they used to be as a result of Pixar’s internal creative dynamics? (That certainly applied to Lightyear and Strange World, which were bad, though I’m always hesitant to conflate “what audiences show up for” and “what is good.” After all, there are 11 Fast and Furious movies.)
Gun to my head, I’d say it’s some combination of the last two things: audiences have been trained by Disney to stay home for Disney movies and the Disney movies that have gotten theatrical releases recently have not been very good. That said, audiences have demonstrated that they’re willing to show up for animated movies. And here are the animated movies they’ve shown up for: Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse (a sequel that is at least tangentially related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe); The Super Mario Bros. Movie (which is based on arguably the most beloved video game franchise of all time, with multiple generations of fans clamoring to see Chris Pratt voice their beloved plumber on the big screen); and Minions: The Rise of Gru (the fifth movie in the Despicable Me series).
In other words: they’re showing up for intellectual property they recognize.
Here’s the thing: animation is pretty expensive. All of those movies reportedly had budgets around $100 million, before marketing. Pixar movies are even more expensive, which helps explain why they typically look so great: Elemental and Lightyear reportedly cost $200 million each; Turning Red around $175 million; Soul another $150 million. I don’t need to run you through too much box office math to explain why that kind of spending on movies that make a pittance from theaters isn’t really sustainable.
Note that, with the exception of Lightyear (the connection of which to the Toy Story movies was so convoluted audiences couldn’t figure it out, thus defeating the purpose), these are all originals. And for years now, animation has been one of the few reliable avenues for big-budget, non-franchise fare to find an audience. Pictures like Encanto, Coco, Moana, Zootopia, Inside Out, Frozen: all hits, all originals, all fairly expensive to make. If you get lucky, they might spawn a franchise like Frozen. But they can also stand on their own.
That’s different from getting people to show up for Mario or Spider-Man or the Minions. People came to theaters for these films because they feel like events in the way that a MCU movie or a Fast and Furious movie or a Jurassic movie feel like events. People have demonstrated repeatedly that they will show up to theaters for events. They are less likely to show up for original stuff they don’t recognize and that will be on streaming in a month or two anyway. All of which is to say that if you’re going to spend nine figures on an animated movie, you’re looking at these results and thinking to yourself that there’s no universe in which you’re risking it on a non-franchise picture.
Welcome to the IP era of animation.
Speaking of IP, on Across the Movie Aisle this Friday, we discussed toys we want to see made into movies. Or, in some cases, don’t want to see.
How is The Flash kinda-sorta like Volcano? Glad you asked! Read my review to find out. (Warning: some spoilers for the movie in this week’s review, so don’t click through if you’re going to get cranky about that sort of thing.)
I had a really fun time at the Dallas Fan Expo last weekend to do Aaron Reynolds’s Bootleg Safari show. The Simpsons knockoff t-shirts I brought to bear are … outstanding. And tasteless. Outstandingly tasteless, some might say. Give it a watch!
Hope you enjoyed last week’s Bulwark Goes to Hollywood with Arthur Smith, the exec behind Hell’s Kitchen and American Ninja Warrior. This week I’m talking to Brooks Barnes about his great NYT piece on Universal’s foray into premium video on demand (PVOD) and how it’s helped them find what they believe to be a brand-new audience segment.
Look, everyone knows that certain elements of biopics are, shall we say, massaged to help create narrative momentum. Still, it’s very funny that Fox Searchlight made a movie out of the guy who claimed to invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos but, in fact, totally made up his story.
RIP Cormac McCarthy. Make sure to read Bill Ryan’s essay on his final two books. For what it’s worth, my favorite of his works is the screenplay for The Counselor, which has, in recent years, been reevaluated a bit with more people coming to the position I held at the time of its release: it’s a dang masterpiece.
Assigned Viewing: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (Paramount+)
I’m rewatching all of these because, aside from the first, I’ve only seen each of them once, during their initial release. It’s kind of interesting to watch the series evolve from an auteurist showcase in the first (Brian De Palma), second (John Woo), and third (J.J. Abrams) to a Tom Cruise showcase in Ghost Protocol on. I think the moment the series fully switches gears is during the Burj Khalifa climb: before that, most of Tom Cruise’s stunts (the helicopter tunnel chase in the first, say, or the bridge sequence in the third) are obviously green-screened to a certain extent. But with the Khalifa sequence the camera is frequently on him, on his face, watching him climb. And, importantly, the movie was marketed as “look at Tom Cruise doing insane stuff! He might die! For your entertainment!” That continues through to Dead Reckoning, which has been sold to audiences by having us see him jump off a mountain on a motorcycle.