Box Office

Toy Story 4 Box Office: We Don’t Know How to Talk About Moderate Hits Anymore

It’s been interesting reading the headlines of all the weekend box office wrap-ups. “Toy Story 4 obliterates the competition” read one headline. “Toy Story 4 latest blockbuster to suffer from sequelitis” read another. Then there are these which have tried to split the difference, such as “Toy Story 4 both excites and disappoints at the box office.” Of course, you’re not supposed to straddle the line like that. Wishy-washy voices get lost in the content bubble. Take a stand and the more extreme the stand the better, dammit! Either Toy Story slayed and saved the summer or is the latest canary in the coal mine signaling the slow gas leak that’s going to eventually cause Hollywood to burn baby burn.

We’ve reached such a need for absolutes partially because the box office doesn’t seem to really mean anything more unless records are being broken. Thanks to rising ticket prices and Hollywood’s turn to year-round blockbusters with a heavy emphasis on eventivizing every new movie’s opening weekend, we have been conditioned over the past decade to expect box office records to fall on a monthly basis. A Titanic or Gone With the Wind type of cultural experience used to be a once in a generation thing; lately, we get two or three of those a year. That’s why out of the top 10-grossing domestic releases of all-time, 7 of them came out in just the last 4 years.

No. 10 on that list is The Incredibles 2, Brad Bird’s superhero sequel which exploded out of the gate last year with a record-setting opening weekend ($183m) en route to huge total business ($608m domestic/$1.24b worldwide). Released 14 years after the first Incredibles, this well-reviewed, crowd-pleasing sequel instantly lifted the summer box office and was a popular family outing option, particularly since its opening weekend coincided with Father’s Day. After that, it had more than enough legs around the world to pass Finding Dory ($486m domestic/$1.028b worldwide) and Toy Story 3 ($415m domestic/$1.067b worldwide) and become the biggest domestic AND worldwide hit Pixar history.

However, when you tell us about all of The Incredibles 2‘s records our eyes tend to just glaze over because, seriously, didn’t Finding Dory just do the same thing two years earlier? And isn’t Toy Story 4 going to repeat the act in 2019?

That’s certainly what everyone expected. Coming into the weekend, the pre-release projections had Toy Story 4 opening somewhere in the $140m-$160m range, possibly even catching fire enough to make a run at The Incredibles 2’s $182m. Instead, Toy Story 4 came in with just $118m.

What

The

Forky?

Everyone loves – or at least really likes – this movie!

Well, everyone who has actually seen it, that is, and there aren’t quite as many of those people expected.

Plus, the whole entire narrative this summer, nay, this entire year, has been Disney rules, everyone else drools. Despite the occasional bright spot (Us, John Wick: Chapter 3, How to Train Your Dragon 3), no one else knows what the hell they’re doing anymore in this rapidly changing marketplace, and only Disney can consistently pull people away from their damn phones long enough to pay to see a movie in theaters. Not that Disney is immune to disappointment – sorry, Dumbo – but they’ve still got the best batting average.

Now you tell me Toy Story 4 has to settle for a measly $118m, only the third best opening weekend of the year, behind Disney’s Endgame and Captain Marvel and just in front of Disney’s Aladdin?

When audiences rejected Dark Phoenix, shrug emoji.

When audiences gave MIB: International the cold shoulder, who cares?

But this? To deny Woody, Buzz, Bo, Forky, and pals their rightful place atop the record books? That’s too much man! Summer 2019 sequelitis, you have finally gone too far.

Except $118m for Toy Story 4 isn’t some kind of tragedy. That’s good enough to stand as the fourth biggest animated opening ever, behind Incredibles 2, Finding Dory and Shrek the Third. Plus, despite the underperformance in the States (and China) Toy Story 4 did well enough everywhere else to set a new worldwide opening record for animated movies.

Still, the big question is why? Why did Toy Story 4 falter domestically?

First of all, fuck pre-release tracking right in the ear. As I’ve previously explained, tracking is based on faulty methods/data and is given an outsized importance in framing every discussion about a major film’s opening weekend.

Secondly, Toy Story 4 actually has some competition out there for the family audience. Even though it is under-performing relative to the first film in the franchise, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is still out there, earning enough ($10.2m) to finish in the weekend’s top 5. By comparison, when Finding Dory came out the most-recent animated film before it (The Angry Birds Movie) had already left the top 10. And even though it’s not technically animated, at least not entirely, Aladdin is making a play for the same family audience as Toy Story 4 and it continues to be a big draw in its fifth weekend. Heck, it finished at #3 for the third weekend in a row!

That wasn’t the case for The Incredibles 2, which opened to a more wide open market (Solo: A Star Wars Story was its closest competition). Also, Incredibles 2 became such an event partially because Hollywood hadn’t put out a new animated film in 3 months. Considering the way families have been conditioned to expect a new one of those kinds of movies at least once, if not twice a month during the summer season, this bizarre scheduling quirk served to build demand.

Thirdly, the average American still only sees around 5 movies a year. With family friendly blockbusters like Captain Marvel, Endgame, How to Train Your Dragon 3, and Aladdin already out, Toy Story 4 newly arrived, and Frozen II and Rise of Skywalker still on the way, some families are going to be very selective.

Lastly, “the competition” can’t alone explain Toy Story 4’s failure to impress. The rest of the explanation might come down to a less-than-advantageous opening window – it would have been better to mimic Incredibles 2 and time the release to Father’s Day instead of waiting until a week later – and good, old-fashioned sequelitis.

For as good as Toy Story 4 is as a movie – and it absolutely is, read my review –  it is still the fourth one of these. Not helping things, Toy Story 3, ended on such a note of satisfying finality that it’s been hard for Disney to entirely explain why Toy Story 4 even needs to exist. A meta storyline about a spork-turned-toy struggling to understand why he even exists clearly didn’t get the job done nor did Disney’s often purposefully opaque marketing.

Of course, that’s if we think “getting the job done” means topping the box office record you broke last year which was itself an undoing of a record you set three years ago, all of which is being helped by the fact that ticket prices have doubled in the last 17 years. That’s the horse race nature of box office reporting now.

But, damn, a lot of people still went to see Toy Story 4 this weekend. They all seem to like it. They’re probably going to tell friends and family to go see it too, and just like that Toy Story 4 will add new audience members. It didn’t save the summer but the last time Pixar extended one of its franchise past a “Part 2” it got Cars 3, one of its lowest-grossing films of all time. Toy Story 4 isn’t that. Instead, it’s something we don’t always know how to talk about – a moderately successful, but not eye-popping hit.

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3 comments

  1. Honestly, I was kind of surprised. I haven’t seen a single Toy story movie in theatres because I never “got” the appeal, but I was kind of expecting the audience to ditch The Secret Life of Pets 2 (with its questionable reviews) and Aladdin in favour of the franchise movie which got by far the most reviews.

    1. Oh, it’s definitely surprising, for all the reasons you mentioned and more. I think Disney was far too reliant on brand recognition getting butts in seats for Toy Story 4 and ended up being a little too precious with its no-spoiler marketing plan. I mean, short, made-for-the-internet-and-not-actually-in-the-movie videos with Buzz and Woody shooting the shit with Key & Peele are funny but are also exactly the kind of disposable short form content people can enjoy on YouTube without being motivated to then buy a ticket to see the actual movie. Ads like that ask, “Look at these new characters. Don’t you want to see the movie to find out how they fit into the plot?” A lot of people said yes, but not so many that Disney gets another record-breaker.

      That’s the thing with Disney, though – there has been this ever-escalating sense of scale at the box office that it has created this expectation things will always keep rising. The record you set last year will be broken next year and previously unheard of box office benchmarks become commonplace. We fall into this trap because Disney usually always manages to top itself with just a couple of misses per year. Toy Story 4 is that rare example of a film which would be considered a giant hit in any other context were it not for the fact that Incredibles 2 slayed in a similar release lot last year. As such, we want to fit it into a narrative about the death of moviegoing and the related death of originality at the cinema. That argument can certainly be made on a “big picture trends” kind of level, but on an individual basis I think what Toy Story 4 showed is that in the age of perpetual franchises you do have to work a little harder when your last installment seemed to all the world to be the true end of the franchise.

      1. Well, Incredibles 2 had less competition. Plus, I get the sense that animation fans are getting tired of Disney serving sequel after sequel. God knows that I can’t wait for Pixar releasing two original movies next year, even if one of them looks awful animation-wise.

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