Let’s pause for a moment on this, International Women’s Day, to pour one out for Tina Fey’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Thus far, this newly released dramedy about an American female war correspondent during the Afghanistan War has been but a mere background player to the larger story of how Zootopia conquered the domestic box office. Foxtrot under-peformed (just $7.4 million after being projected to end more in the $12-$14 million territory) while Zootopia ($75 million) over-performed.
Disney’s brilliant buddy cop comedy about a rabbit and a fox who eventually come to ask why it is that we can’t all just get along (read my review) posted the fourth biggest opening weekend in March history. Variety says it’s further proof that Disney Animation Studios has now supplanted Pixar as the go-to source for “originality and extending the boundaries of what is possible in animation.” Disney pulled this off by efficiently marketing Zootopia to adults as well as children, since 46% of the opening weekend audience was over 25 and 21% of all ticketbuyers were adults on their own, argues MovieFone.
Zootopia is exactly the kind of movie we should be championing. It is smart and clever in ways it didn’t have to be, and bold and risk-taking in ways you wouldn’t expect from a big budget movie, animated or live-action. It has already and will continue to inspire many thinkpieces, reflecting its ability to intellectually engage with its all-ages audience while also entertaining through cute animals wearing tiny clothing acting out a solidly executed buddy cop plot. Moreover, it’s a completely original property in an age where animated sequels and spin-offs reign supreme.
By comparison, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t nearly as good nor is it even an original property. Frequent Tina Fey collaborator Robert Carlock adapted the screenplay from Kim Barker’s memoir. What they made is
It nails the feeling of journalists who are involuntarily cooped up together far away from home, and it nicely conveys why war coverage could be just the thing for adrenaline junkies. There’s even a stab at romantic comedy here and there. But the movie never quite escapes the central flaw in its premise. And even worse, it doesn’t even have the courtesy to own it, since it spends so little time with our hero in her prewar New York City life that we don’t get a real sense of why she needs to change.
With reviews like that screaming “maybe wait to rent it,” it’s not particularly surprising to see Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stumble out of the gate. It’s apparent financial failure simply continues the narrative that “star + concept” isn’t good enough on its own to sell movies anymore (e.g., Bradley Cooper’s Burnt and Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand Is Crisis).
You can argue if Tina Fey even qualifies as a film star (her successful movies have always been team-up comedies), and Variety pointed out that “war films and political comedies can be tough sells — witness the financial failures of Charlie Wilson’s War, Our Brand is Crisis, and Jarhead.”
Paramount isn’t giving up hope, though, telling Variety, “We were hoping for more. But Tina’s last movie played to a good multiple and we had a good Saturday, so we have a chance of playing for a little while to a reasonable outcome.”
Sisters, Fey’s team-up with Amy Poehler, debuted to a muted $13m opposite Star Wars: The Force Awakens last December, but it now has a domestic gross of $87m (worldwide of $104m). Foxtrot might be in store for a repeat of #YouCanSeeThemBoth, just on a smaller scale. However, this uncertainty is sure to cause unease among the various investors who contributed to the film’s $35m production budget.
Zootopia, on the other hand, was always going to have a huge opening weekend and slaughter the competition. Disney Animation Studio’s three most recent movies – Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 – averaged a domestic opening weekend of $57.3 million. In fact, the average animated movie distributed by any of the major studios (Disney, Universal, WB, Fox, Paramount, Sony) since 2012 made $50.2 million on opening weekend, with Universal’s Minions ($115m) being the high and Disney’s ill-fated George Lucas indulgence Strange Magic ($5m) the absolute low. Not surprisingly, sequels (average opening=$55m) fare better than non-sequels (average opening=$38.3m), but even then the major studios have consistently shown an ability to open animated movies to big initial returns.
That doesn’t mean all of those big animated movies have been financial success stories, e.g., DreamWorks has struggled mightily and The Good Dinosaur was Pixar’s lowest-grossing title ever by quite a wide margin. However, the marketing power behind these movies usually dwarfs the marketing & production budgets of adult dramas and comedies. Zootopia was a slam dunk compared to Foxtrot, and while its success is absolutely worth celebrating it’s also business as usual. Sure, no animated movie has ever done this kind of business in March before, but the same was true for the month of February before The LEGO Movie premiered two years ago. Such distinctions as “month of release” don’t matter as much anymore.
Analyst Doug Creutz recently warned that Hollywood’s reliance on blockbusters will inevitability lead to contraction and further isolation of wealth devoted to fewer films, backing up his argument with stats, “Last year, over 25% of total box office came from just five films, well above the average of roughly 16% from 2001-14 and the prior peak of 19% in 2012. The top grossing films each week accounted for 33% of total box office in both 2015 and 2016, almost twice the average of 18% that prevailed in 2011-13.”
If we’re lucky, we’ll keep getting movies like Zootopia. Meanwhile, Tina Fey just opened a movie on her own for the first time in her career, and it might become another example someone can use in an argument about how female-led adult dramas don’t sell. That’s a consistent charge risk-averse financiers level against potential female-led movies (as Sally Field discussed in a recent KCRW interview).
That’s not to suggest Foxtrot’s soft business will somehow mean the death of female-led dramas or comedies. It just might become another brick in the wall built against such movies. To be fair, though, it’s disingenuous to hold Foxtrot up as a noble failure among female-led movies when, in fact, Zootopia is also a female-led movie, albeit led by a female bunny voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. Plus, Foxtrot‘s current struggls might actually speak more to the pitfalls of selling war movies, or the breakdown of the old Hollywood star system whereby the George Clooney’s, Bradley Cooper’s and Sandra Bullock’s of the world no longer draw audiences if their movies doesn’t deliver quality.
Ultimately, Zootopia is one of the best movies of the year so far, and Foxtrot is not. As such, the extreme heights of the former and regrettable lows of the latter at the box office seems about right. However, at the same time Zootopia‘s success as a major studio-distributed, big budget animated movie is business as usual, but, sadly, so is Foxtrot’s failure as mid-budget adult drama struggling to convince audiences that movies like this are still worth seeing in theaters.