Pixar, the studio that introduced the world to blockbuster franchises Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Cars, has a problem: an original film it spent seven years nurturing bombed at the box office.
The weak opening of Elemental this weekend has thrust the Walt Disney-owned animation pioneer into unfamiliar territory: being a laggard among rivals. Universal’s The Super Mario Bros. movie and Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, both animated films, have racked up big ticket sales this year.
Pixar’s love story, about overcoming outward differences, was the second-lowest domestic opening in studio history, taking in roughly $30 million in the US and Canada over the weekend.
The results represent a conundrum for the animation hits factory, say experts and former employees: How will Pixar launch new properties when moviegoing audiences only have time for well-known characters?
“As an industry, we need original IP to work,” Tony Chambers, Disney’s head of theatrical distribution, said in an interview over the weekend, using shorthand for “intellectual property.” “If we, as a studio, don’t take a swing for it, which is what we did with ‘Elemental,’ you don’t create franchises,” Chambers said.
To be sure, the challenge for originals is not Disney’s alone. Universal Studios will confront it later this month with DreamWorks Animation’s coming-of-age fantasy, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken.
But the trend packs a big wallop at Disney. New cinematic franchises power the entertainment conglomerate’s profit machine, feeding the pipeline for consumer products and theme park attractions, which accounted for over 60% of its segment operating profit last year.
Tom Sito, a veteran Hollywood animator whose credits include The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King and who teaches at the University of Southern California, said audience tastes are changing.
“The generation now flexing their economic muscle were raised on games and anime,” Sito said. “Their sensibilities and timing are different. Witness the new Across The Spider-Verse movie.”
The successes of Super Mario Bros. and Spider-Man also reflect a new post-Covid-19 trend at box offices, Hollywood insiders say. Audiences have been spoiled by three years of direct-to-streaming releases of original animated features on services including Netflix, Disney+ and Apple Inc’s Apple TV+ at home. These viewers are now more likely to open their wallets at the cinema only for familiar franchises.
All top 10 movies at the box office in 2022 were sequels — such as Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick — or reboots such as The Batman. This year, Super Mario Bros. was the first film to break through the $1 billion mark and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, a sequel to the 2018 Academy Award-winning movie, has beaten expectations at the box office and is already being talked about as a repeat Oscar contender.
“People went for their comfort zone, which is ongoing sagas,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. “Pixar trying to drop an original piece like ‘Elemental’ was always going to be a challenge in the middle of this sequel-fest.”
Interviews with four current and former Pixar senior managers depict a studio caught in transition and still finding its way under new leadership.
In his book, Creativity, Inc., Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull credited Pixar’s brain trust with the studio’s early box-office triumphs. He described how the five men who led the creation of its first feature-length animated film, Toy Story — John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich and Joe Ranft — would give candid feedback to elevate films “from suck to not-suck” in an unforgiving process.
Catmull and other members of the original brain trust are gone, though Docter remains, now in the role of chief creative officer. Under him, the studio is placing bets on young directors who bring fresh perspectives — if not extensive resumes — to the screen, such as Turning Red’s Chinese-born director, Domee Shi, who was the first woman with a sole director’s credit, or Soul’s Kemp Powers, Pixar’s first Black director. “What we’re seeing is (Pixar) reinventing themselves,” said the former Pixar director.
Competitors, meanwhile, have swooped in to raid Pixar’s talent, including Brad Bird, director of the Oscar-winning films The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, and Academy Award-winning producer Darla K. Anderson, whose credits include Coco and Toy Story 3.
Former studio executives and insiders also blame former CEO Bob Chapek with training new audiences to expect big-budgeted Pixar originals to break on Disney+.
During the pandemic’s peak, when many cinemas were closed, Disney launched three Pixar films directly to Disney+ in the US, bypassing theatres. While the strategy boosted the subscription streaming service’s subscriptions, it sent a message to viewers: It’s OK to wait, said one veteran studio executive who worked at both Disney and Pixar, and worries this decision degraded the perception of Pixar movies, which cost as much as $200 million to make, as must-see theatrical events.
“In the long run, there’s been a bit of a mixed blessing because we’ve trained audiences that these films will be available for you on Disney+,” Docter told Variety. “And it’s more expensive for a family of four to go to a theatre when they know they can wait and it’ll come out on the platform.”