Has Disney Cornered the Family Film Market as Rivals Hit Summer Slumps?

August 15, 2019, 1:00 PM UTC

Sometimes, when they talk about the “dog days” of August, where Hollywood dumps its least wanted, that expression can be taken literally. The Art of Racing in the Rain crashed hard at the summer box office this past weekend, taking in a dismal $8.1 million that hurts even worse when one considers the reported $50 million Fox 2000 spent before marketing.

The talking-dog flick arrived the same weekend as two other family-oriented offerings—Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ($20.8 million, a solid return) and Dora and the Lost City of Gold ($17 million, on the lower side of expectations)—and one week ahead of animated sequel The Angry Birds Movie 2, on track to open with $17 million, far below its predecessor (which had a $38.2 million kick-off).

As Hollywood aims to fill seats in what’s typically one of the least exciting months of the year for moviegoers, turning to family entertainment is a tried-and-true tactic. But, this year, family films have been met with profoundly mixed results at the domestic box office.

Disney, long a conqueror of the four-quadrant movie space, has unleashed a particularly deafening roar across the movie business over the past few months. And every other studio releasing family fare has undeniably felt it beneath their feet.

“It’s a competitive marketplace, and Disney by virtue of owning all these big brands is able to put out all these massive movies from different points of view,” says Comscore analyst Paul Degarabedian. “They have all these silos and can ping-pong from live-action to animation, superhero to outer-space opera. Every studio right now is figuring out how to compete.”

To recap Disney’s domination, April saw the release of Avengers: Endgame, which was always going to be a smash given the mighty launchpad offered to it by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but still wowed with a nearly $2.8 billion box office take. Endgame stands as the highest-grossing movie of all time, not adjusted for inflation.

With Marvel in its back pocket, Disney has since averaged one billion-dollar baby a month, with Aladdin (released in late May), Sony co-production Spider-Man: Far From Home (the Fourth of July holiday frame), and The Lion King (July 19) all crossing that lofty benchmark in a matter of weeks. Notably, Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 4 is right behind that pack in the year’s number six position, having grossed $990 million worldwide thus far.

But for studios not named Disney, at least at this point, the summer season’s turned out to be especially tumultuous in terms of family programming.

STX Entertainment flopped hard with their first animated effort, UglyDolls, an intended franchise-starter that audiences avoided in droves; it ended up making just $27 million worldwide against a $45 million budget, a stinging loss for the floundering company.

Fox, beyond Art of Racing in the Rain, has been roundly thrashed across the season, starting with its most monumental failure: Dark Phoenix. Instead of sending the X-Men franchise off in a blaze of glory, the PG-13 film flamed out in spectacular fashion, making just $65 million domestically and $186 million abroad. That film’s the main reason, according to Disney CEO Box Iger, that the studio took a $170 million write-down in its last quarter.

Universal/Illumination’s animated Secret Life of Pets 2 was still a disappointment for its studios, opening at $47.6 million domestically (down 56% from the first film’s $104 million launch in 2016). The series’ sophomore entry may have done just well enough for the studio to invest in a third installment, but the end result was nonetheless considered a let-down, given that the first Secret Life of Pets (a $875.5 million grosser against a $75 million budget) was the most profitable movie of its year.

The same can be said for Men in Black: International, Columbia’s failed attempt to carry on one of its flagship series without stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Excoriated by critics, it fell short of expectations with a $30 million bow on the way to a total $250 million haul (one considered a sizable disappointment given the $94-110 million pricetag and Columbia’s franchise hopes). For comparison’s sake, the third Men in Black made around $624 million.

Warner Bros., Disney’s biggest rival, is the only other studio to launch a bona fide family hit this summer in Detective Pikachu, which called on the popular multi-media franchise’s decades of pop-culture permanence to summon a $431.5 million gross (against a $150 million budget). That title, likely to launch a franchise, may be a sign of things to come in Hollywood, as studios search far and wide for existent properties well-known enough to attract a big crowd, domestically and internationally, on opening day.

The other lone bright spot for Disney’s competitors could be Universal/Working Title’s Yesterday, a fuzzy Beatles rom-com that grossed $125.1 million against a $26 million budget. Though it didn’t finish atop the box office when released, it collected a tidy little sum for Universal without demanding it give up a fortune.

“It becomes about profitability,” explains Degarabedian. “If you have a lot of entities chasing the same family audience, you don’t have to make a billion per movie to be profitable. A lot of movies are number one and do very well but they’re so expensive that it’s tough to make financial sense of them.”

Degarabedian notes that Hollywood continues to pursue family movies in part because their universal audience can negate the importance of middling reviews.

“When there’s several family films in a row over several weeks, they all tend to do well, unless they’re horribly reviewed,” he said. “These films are typically inoculated, because kids aren’t going do say, ‘Mom, Dad, it got 20% on Rotten Tomatoes.’ Those aren’t the main deciders for PG films.”

Still, he does cite “bad movie fatigue” as one reason some studios’ family movies have tanked while others have succeeded. Terrible word-of-mouth for Men in Black: International, Dark Phoenix, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and others certainly didn’t compel moviegoers already on the fence with so many other titles competing for their attention.

“Audiences can tell,” opines Nell Minow, better known as the Movie Mom, whose views on family film are nationally respected. Minow notes that marketing campaigns for family-centric sequels can often fail to communicate anything other than “more of the same,” never a strong message to send about follow-ups to movies that weren’t particularly well-reviewed the first time around.

“Reviews matter,” she says. “People listen to their friends, but they read reviews.”

Has Disney changed the definition of what makes a family movie? Yes and no, says Minow. The studio’s superhero movies have shifted the landscape toward more violent, conflict-filled fare, in which morally upright good guys trade blows with sometimes brutally violent bad guys.

The superhero movie boom, says Minow, has rearranged a great many pieces on the film-industry’s chessboard, opening up a new four-quadrant genre.

One downside of the Marvel craze, she says, has been studios advertising to kids much younger than those emotionally prepared for the films’ increasingly dark storylines.

Minow recalls a young child sobbing in his seat next to her at a screening of Avengers: Endgame as he watched the death of a beloved character he’d most likely been watching save the day for most of his conscious life. “I was more traumatized by his reaction,” Minow cracks.

Still, edgy and dark content is nothing newfangled for family fare; before the PG-13 rating carried by Marvel movies, PG flicks like Gremlins, The Goonies, and Jaws tested the limits of what could be shown to kids in theaters. Marvel films, says Minow, are subtly doing the same for a new generation.

And Disney has, in other ways, reified the genre by dusting off its animated classics and finding box-office glory with live-action remakes. Even before The Lion King‘s runaway success, new takes on Beauty and the Beast ($1.2 billion) and The Jungle Book ($966 million) had reaffirmed that the studio’s storied animated catalog could still enchant new generations.

Sums up Degarabedian: “What’s better as a family movie than the tried-and-true brand that helped put Disney on the map?”

Studios will keep courting the family market no matter how many times they fail to connect, both Minow and Degarabedian agree. It’s not even a question. Aside from giving families an always-valued opportunity to get out of the house, these properties often enjoy lucrative merchandising tie-ins, thanks to products ranging from action figures and lunch-boxes.

“Every year, this same headline runs, which is ‘Everybody is shocked family movies outperformed everything else this year,'” says Minow. “But it happens every year. The good ones do very, very well.”

Adds Degarabedian, the audience will undeniably always be there for family entertainment, for whenever Disney’s competitors can catch up. “As long as people keep making kids, they’re going to keep making family movies,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.”

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