Animation has been one of the most consistent money makers in recent Hollywood history, to the point that we almost take it for granted. Each new big animated movie is guaranteed an impressive worldwide gross, right? That’s just the law. Good year, bad year, it doesn’t matter. The animation game always goes like this: Disney banks serious coin, DreamWorks and Universal do alright, Warner Bros. and Sony are hit and miss and all the smaller studios usually struggle in the fight for what’s left. In the end, at least two or three animated films pop up in the year’s top 10-grossing movies. Always, forever and ever and ever.
Funny thing about that. When we weren’t looking, 2017 turned into an uncommonly down year for animation at the box office. Regardless of their individual merits as films, Cars 3 ($360 million worldwide on a $200m+ budget), Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie ($110m worldwide on a $40m budget) and The Nut Job 2 ($40m on a $40m budget) all underperformed. In fact, Cars 3 and Captain Underpants are respectively among the lowest-grossing Pixar and DreamWorks films of all time. The latest casualty of the year, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, sits at just $58m worldwide, $35m domestic on a $70m budget after 10 days (compared to the $69m domestic The LEGO Movie pulled down in its first 3 days in 2014).
To be fair, Sony’s decision to back cheaper fare proved to be a profitable one, but none of their especially kid-leaning titles this year broke out in any kind of meaningful way, with Smurfs: The Lost Village earning $197 million on a $60m budget and The Emoji Movie following it with $185m on a $50m budget. The Weinstein’s modestly produced (budget=$30m) Canadian/French drama Leap! excelled in Europe and the rest of the world ($81m) but bombed in North America ($23m). And most people still haven’t heard of LionsGate’s Rock Dog ($9m) nor do they care to.
We all assume these movies, or at least most of them, are just glorified toy ads, and the toy divisions of their respective corporate owners are doing just fine meaning maybe everything balances out in the end. However, on some level you need enough people to come see your movie to help build up interest in your toys.
And only three animated movies this year have had success in getting enough people to show up – The LEGO Batman Movie-$311m worldwide versus $80m budget, Boss Baby-$498m worldwide versus $125m budget and Despicable Me 3-$1.02 billion versus $80m budget. Even that doesn’t look quite as good as it might seem since The LEGO Batman Movie actually made 33% less than its quasi-predecessor, The LEGO Movie.
Still, on a big picture basis 2017’s bomb/underperformer/tweener vs. blockbuster hit ratio is roughly the same was what we saw through the first 9 months of 2016. In that case, however, Zootopia, Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets combined for $2.92 billion worldwide compared to LEGO Batman, Boss Baby and Despicable Me 3’s $1.83b. The final months of 2016 brought three additional box office wonders – Trolls, Moana and Sing – whereas the final three months of 2017 offers up one likely hit, Pixar’s Coco, due 11/22, and three also-rans – Lionsgate’s My Little Pony (10/6), Sony’s faith-based Star (11/17) and Fox’s John-Cena-as-a-bull comedy Ferdinand (12/15).
Now, like seemingly everything else at the box office in 2017, animation is going to post a big collective year-over-year decline. The question is why. 2017 has been a bad year for live-action sequels, reboots, remakes, sequels, but the same has been true of other years where animation still managed to thrive. So, what is it about this year and this particular crop of films that has translated into a downturn? Is it a quality issue, especially since several, though not all, of the poorer performing films simply aren’t that good? Are more families staying at home now that Disney and DreamWorks have been putting their animated movies on Netflix faster than ever before? Is it a volume issue, with this year’s animated fare perhaps being too bunched up on the calendar (e.g., only 3 weeks separated Cars 3 and Captain Underpants)? Is it simply a product issue, i.e., last year’s animated movies were better and more anticipated than this year’s?
Yes. Yes to all of that. However, Forbes has an additional explanation that might have factored into this:
What if the animated movies that do well are the ones that best target adults rather than (or at least in addition to) kids? Sure, there are kid moviegoers who want to see whatever the latest big animated feature happens to be, and there are parents who will drag their kids to whatever the big animated feature happens to be. But with all the talk about younger people not flocking to theaters and average moviegoers getting somewhat older, perhaps a generation raised on VOD and unlimited kid-friendly content at the push of a button doesn’t necessarily consider another Smurfs movie to be a must-see event. That would somewhat (Boss Baby benefiting from Trump connection, LEGO Batman playing on adult’s nostalgia for all things Batman) though not completely (Despicable Me 3 stands as the outlier) explain what has and hasn’t broken out this year.
So, has 2017’s animation problem simply been that too many of these kids movies have seemed like, I dunno, actual kids movies, not ones which can be enjoyed on different levels by different age groups? Certain parents will take their kids to see the new animated movie no matter what, but might some others be having second thoughts if the movie in question doesn’t look bearable? That would certainly help at least partially explain the modest performances of Smurfs, Captain Underpants, Ninjago, Cars 3 and several others.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
For the record, here’s what 2018’s animated lineup currently looks like: