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Box Office ReportBusiness

Did Guardians “Underperform”?

First the good news: Dreamworks’ Rise of The Guardians opened this holiday weekend, grossing over $32 million dollars in five days, coming in fourth place at the US box-office.

Now comes the bad: industry observers are already declaring it a failure; that it’s “underperforming” compared to previous Dreamworks releases. How can it be that a film grossing over $30 million in a few days is already being written off by Hollywood know-it-alls? The answer: because it’s animated.

If an animated feature doesn’t start out at #1 and go on to gross over $100 million dollars – it’s not only a disaster, but threatens to wipe out studios and halt future production.

But why is animation held to such a higher standard? Guardians did business any live action film would be envious of; but because it’s animated and didn’t achieve #1 status, it’s “underperforming”? Seriously?

I say hold on – let’s give it a chance. Playing in 3,653 screens, Rise of the Guardians is presently the nation’s number-one family film, was the top film with a PG rating (the three films that did better are more adult-oriented fare, rated PG-13) and running ahead of strong competition from The Life Of Pi and Wreck-It Ralph (in its fourth week and doing fine with $149 million already in the till).

Nikki Finke is still scratching her head. “There’s still the chance Guardians might build momentum the same way (How To Train Your) Dragon did as its coveted ‘A’ CinemaScore helps word of mouth,” she writes. “It’s hard to pinpoint what went wrong…”. The fact is, nothing is wrong. The film is popular with its target audience, and word-of-mouth may indeed propel it through the holiday season. It’s too early to say where it will go.

I’m not saying the film is perfect (though I dug it), nor am I an expert on the movie business (though I was a film distributor in an earlier life). Guardians may indeed “underperform” ultimately, but I wish industry reporters would at least give paying audiences a chance to see the work before declaring it a disaster – and without basing their opinions on the grosses of this family film’s first playdate (which in this case, last Wednesday, was a school day).

  • This seems to be happening more and more in the US, and not necessarily always animated films either. Like you say in the article, if a film doesn’t do well on opening weekend then it is deemed a failure! Why the continual emphasis on Box Office taking on the opening weekend?!

    Take the example of John Carter. Out in March (yes it’s main competitor was Hunger Games), and was even labelled a failure before it got released. Mainstream media (and Disney?) essentially killed it off and it made around the same amount on opening weekend. Yes, it was a fraction of the reported budget, but the international ‘market’ essentially saved it with around 70% of the BO coming from overseas. Not forgetting the home DVD/Bluray release too.

    I think the US needs to realise (and maybe not for the first time) that there is more than just a domestic BO and just because a film ‘failed’ at home does not qualify it as a failure. But you’ve had films that are so mind numbingly awful that take much more at the cinemas. I think that might actually say something about the cinema going public than the quality of the films. Look at the quality, or lack of, programming on TV these days!

    ‘Guardians’ is released here in the UK this week, so it will be interesting to see how much difference there is in the reaction here than in the US.

    • John Carter is considered a failure because since it’s release it still hasn’t made back the money it cost, which stands to date at $280m.

      On top of the $250m it was reportedly cost to make the film, there would have been easily another $50m – $75m in marketing (many would call that a conservative figure). So the total cost of the film would hover around the $325m mark. Oh, and add another few million for film prints (not all theatres around the world have digital yet).

      Now I am not sure you know this or not, but after all of the complicated percentage deals theatres make with studios, the studios will receive very roughly 50% of the total box office amount (the rest, obviously, go the the theatres). That means JC would have had to earn somewhere in the vicinity of $650m to “break even”. Finally, I haven’t overlooked other revenue streams such as home video, rentals, VOD and TV broadcasting rights, but the would probably generate maybe…what…another $50m in total? That’s still not even close to becoming a profitable (read: successful) film.

      Sure the international market is becoming more important as time goes on, but when it comes to the mega block busters, a strong domestic market is required to ensure a film will become successful.

      • I believe that the main point that Andy was saying was that John Carter had been named a failure MONTHS before it even got to the screens.

        Movie critics/media can destroy a movie by calling it a failure because of their influence on theatre goers.

        I really enjoyed the John Carter movie, and am sad that so many people want to emphasize how much of a failure it was when they never even gave it a chance on the first place.

    • Thank you for mentioning John Carter, which is exactly the film I was thinking of. One could argue that this is an extension of the whole framework of American reporting today, which is to choose a narrative and make the story fit it. For John Carter, the narrative was that the movie was a failure and that’s what the media was sticking to. It didn’t at all help that Disney threw it under the bus before the first weekend was even done, but the media declaring it officially suckworthy without giving it an actual chance played no small part in that. The story about John Carter became the story, instead of the actual movie. Looks like they’re having another round at it with this.

  • Doz Hewson

    You’re right: give this film a chance. This film will ultimately rule – but solely on its own terms, not those of the…industry observers.

  • Amen!

  • Alfred von Cervera

    The trouble is not only how much money they make, analists always consider the budget. That kind of movie may be cost more than 100 million dollars. Also, the opening weekend is the best score a movie will get. After that its earnings diminished almost by 30 %. I do not think they are being unfair, the problem is those wonderful films cost more money as time goes by.

    • wever

      A simple solution would be to make the films cheaper, but that will not sit well with the hundreds who are working on it and expect the most competitive pay!

      • Barney Miller

        Are you suggesting that the only way to bring down the cost of animated films is to stop paying people a competitive wage?

        • axolotl

          They could employ less people and stop making terrible decisions…nah.

  • Isn’t it well-known at this stage that Nikki Finke has it in for DreamWorks?

    She wrote this article just in September before the distribution deal with FOX was announced:

    It’s so bad, I felt compelled to harpoon it on my own blog:

    Either way, I wouldn’t write the film off yet.

  • wever

    This viewpoint on how to judge of an animated film is a success is ridiculous. How out of touch critics and companies are today.

    • Funkybat

      Exactly. “Paranorman” by the financials is a “failure” and will probably remain one unless it becomes the next “Iron Giant” of DVD/Blu Ray. Business considerations aside, as an animated work of art, I would say Paranorman was one of the strongest things released all year.

      That kind of divide has haunted live action film and especially live-action TV for ages. No legit critic would call “Arrested Development” anything but a creative success, but money-wise, ratings-wise, it was never anywhere near “King of Queens” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.” With animated films, this kind of critical/financial divide doesn’t happen as often, but when it does, it’s usually very lopsided, such as with “Iron Giant” or the US releases of Miyazaki’s films. I think “Guardians” will come in just fine financially, there is going to be an audience for it for at least 3-4 more weeks, and the bean counters will not have anything to carp about once its had its run.

  • wever

    Also, what WERE the other 3 that beat it?! One of them HAD to be the last Twilight film!

    • The three films grossing more than Guardians this weekend were:
      Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, the James Bond flick Skyfall, and Spielberg’s Lincoln.

  • LadyViridis

    I went to see the film this weekend, and while it’s by no means perfect (and was, I think, not quite as good as Wreck-it-Ralph), it was still a solidly enjoyable kid’s film with interesting characters. And its fandom online has certainly exploded– honestly, the main reason I went to see it was because the people on Tumblr would not shut up about this film and how amazing it was. I mean, there’s a whole swath of teenagers going out to see this film in Jack Frost cosplay. The enthusiasm is there, it just maybe needs to be tapped.

  • E. Nygma

    Wreck-it Ralph was way more inventive than this with much better story writting. This film seemed to try way too hard to cash in on the holidays with not much attention to the story quality. Just my opinion. I feel dreamworks is way too focused on quantity not quality.

    • J

      to their credit, at least they’re going in the direction of making more serious dramatic films(as compared to what movies Dreamworks is ususally known for) with good animation and lots of new contributions to the 3D movie scene. I always try to think that a good, new 3D animated movie does something that hasn’t been done before or uses something as it’s main sparkly feature, in this case, maybe particle effects or a more referenced, realistic animation style.

      Gotta give them credit for trying, and I’d hate for them to take away from this that RotG-type movies “aren’t successful” and that they need to make more, pop singing, crass animal movies or something.

      • E. Nygma

        Good point, I can agree with that.

  • Damn!..30 million only? it’s time for Dreamworks to stop all other pictures and shut down….sad sad day

    • Mike

      If that meant not being subjected to The Croods or Turbo…I think I’d be OK with that.

      • J

        hey, hold out hope for the Croods. The name might mislead you, as with most of the trailer, but it looks GORGEOUS and Chris Sanders of Lilo and Stitch and HTTYD is involved. I can’t be the only one who raised an eyebrow at Lilo and Stitch’s trailer, only to be surprised and really end up enjoying it.

  • Hank

    Wreck-it-Ralph is in it’s 4th week–doing OK but has quite a way to make it into the black.

    Life of Pi, however, performed better than Guardians in 700 less theaters.

    • I’m wondering how many of those theaters that are showing “Life of Pi” are showing it in 3D though? I would assume that contribute to it’s box office.

      • Hank

        Fewer than guardians in 3D–tracking down numbers.

  • Pedro Nakama

    A lot of people skipped the movies and went shopping this weekend because if you didn’t go shopping you hate America and the terrorists have won.

    • Robert

      Actually this was the best Thanksgiving weekend on record. Friday was especially strong at the box office. That’s why you see so many new releases in this period.

  • Anyone notice how the marketing switched up in the last 2 months?

    When the early trailers came out, it portrayed the film as a darkish but wildly imaginative view of the holiday mascots, a too-clever-by-half kind of film that seemed “so crazy it just might work!”.

    But in the last few months, the trailers emphasized the sillier, kiddie elements – not only the annoying elves, but the “cuteness” of the Easter Bunny (as opposed to his badassery), and the more lighter side of Santa (as opposed to HIS badassery). The most recent trailer even has a kids-talkback thing going on, making it seem like its specifically for a MUCH younger audience, versus being a film for a broader demo.

    • Bingo. If you market a family film as sweet and cuddly, it’s the kiss of death. I don’t even think most kids really want that; it’s based on an abstract marketers’ concept of what will look acceptable/safe to uninterested parents and grandparents.
      Effectively, they’re plugging the film as “the ideal babysitter for someone other than you.” This method may work with some DVDs, but not in cinemas.

    • Sarah J

      It seems to me that a lot of animated films have been doing that. Maybe the “serious” trailers are there to draw in the older audiences who like films and actively seek out trailers online and such, while the sillier, more slapsticky trailers that show up on TV are there to appeal to kids and parents who assume that their kids would rather see the crazier animated movies.

  • Mike K

    This certainly is a case of industry know it all’s jumping the gun. Sure, the film came in at #4 and banked a solid $32 million which is a really respectable opening weekend box-office. I think this film is going to continue performing well the closer Christmas comes. I keep recommending the film to everyone I speak to, it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had with a Dreamworks film yet.

    • Jim

      The problem is that any animated film has to go on to earn triple it’s budget in worldwide gross in order to break even.

      At a budget of $145m, that’s $435m, which is highly unlikely with a $32m 5-day holiday weekend domestic.

      It’s not a prejudice against animated fair, it’s just the economics of Hollywood animation.

  • John Andrews

    I loved Rise of the Guardians and agree with most of the comments above. But I did feel that the film was promoted poorly. I think, to reach a wider audience, there should have been more emphasis on Santa in the poster with maybe a lighter sense of connection between Jack Frost and the other guardians. Then the trailers should have emphasized the humanity of the piece more rather than pushing the action. The mystery played well in the theater but was somewhat off-putting in the promotion. Maybe it also needed an explanatory subtitle.

  • Chris Webb

    The movie business is so silly. The truth is that this film will not lose money. It will make a ton of money, and after pay per view, home video, and all of the product licensing money is counted, the film will be very, very profitable.

    The studios got caught up in all of this talk about box office and weekend grosses once they became public companies. But they don’t act like other public companies… Does Apple announce its sales figures every weekend? Coca Cola? General Electric? No, they don’t. As far as I can tell, there’s no real benefit for a movie company to publicize their weekend grosses. (I can only guess that an ad saying “It’s the number 1 comedy of the summer” actually brings in customers.)

    The studios really ought to start to change the culture… get back to defining a “successful” film as one that makes audiences happy, and perhaps has an effect on the culture at large.

    That way they can get back to job number 1: pleasing audiences. Please audiences, and you make money. You don’t have to tell people how much money you make.

  • Nik

    I’ve never understood why people are in such a hurry to write off a film, but film studios do it too. In 2002, at the Disney board meeting on December 4 (held just six days after its release), the animated film “Treasure Planet” was deemed a failure because of poor box office over opening weekend. Opinions vary as to whether the film is good or bad, but after a substantial amount of time and money ($140 million) had been spent on a project, you would think at least Disney would support their own film. Instead, the Disney Co. immediately issued a press release announcing that “Treasure Planet” was a failure and the news outlets automatically picked up the story. The ‘Disney film flops!’ story was all over the news that week and no doubt it influenced some people to not go see the film.

    Richard Cook, Disney’s Chairman at the time, later admitted that they did a bad marketing job for Treasure Planet, but it is noted that Treasure Planet went up against “Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets” and “The Santa Clause” that weekend. There was also a rumor that Disney Co. purposefully pushed the ‘Treasure Planet flops’ story to call media attention away from the SEC investigation of several Disney board members that was occurring at that same time.

    • Blues

      This wouldn’t be the first time either. In the documentary “Waking sleeping beauty” there’s a heart wrenching scene where the director of “Rescuers Down Under” is being informed via telephone that the company is planning to pull all advertising for the film after its first week basically dooming it to flop-dom. Once again, this was the result of executives deciding to cut their losses early.

  • There is also the consideration of what Rise of the Guardians was going up against. We’re talking about Skyfall with James Bond, Breaking Dawn (Twilight), Lincoln, and a whole host of powerful releases that are coming out the same time as DreamWorks’ film. So sure, 30 mil is not bad, but not awesome to others. At the same time, there is still chance to work up a comeback, depending on marketing and support it’ll get from its fans.

    I’ve seen the movie twice already, and I enjoyed it each time btw.

  • guardian of childhood

    If, like DreamWorks, you only release two movies a year – they all have to be hits.

    • James

      True, Dreamworks is more independent than the majority of animation studios, so there is likely a greater expectation for their film to make more profit to compensate for the smaller release calendar compared to Disney or Sony.

  • James

    I think it has more to do with the high expectations of animated films to make hundreds of millions of dollars in the Fall and Summer seasons, so those that fall short are considered failures or under-performers.

    I believe it was the same situation Ratatouille ran into, though that one may have had more to do with the speculation of a downturn in Pixar’s profitability and the Pixar brand.

    • E. Nygma

      Yeah, and I think that was Pixars best film!

  • Tim Elliot

    If you’re trying to make a point that animated features need to live up to a higher standard, I think Guardians is a bad example.

    If its final opening numbers are $24M, then it had the worst opening for a DreamWorks Animation production since that bomb, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas ($10.1M).

    I’m sure that’s what many people are referring to when they say it “underperformed” over the weekend.

  • Sarah J

    Oy, I agree with the notion that the industry is jumping the gun when writing off this film. It didn’t make #1, but it did have competition from some pretty big flicks. Twilight, a new James Bond movie, AND a new Spielberg movie? If “Guardians” DID manage to hit #1 with that kind of competition, I’d send a congratulatory bouquet of roses to whoever was in charge of the marketing.

    Quite frankly, I expect that “Guardians” will keep a steady profit. As a Christmas film without competition from other Christmas movies in theaters, more people will probably see it as the holiday approaches. Especially when Christmas break comes around and parents will have more time to take their kids to the movies.

  • dbenson

    A perennial Hollywood mystery is how much a movie actually costs, since creative bookkeeping often weighs hits down with “overhead” and the losses of genuine failures. Art Buchwald won a lawsuit over the script for “Coming to America.” The studio then asserted that the huge hit made no net profit, so Buchwald’s cut was zero. One could do a “Producers” takeoff where a studio head actually needs a big official “flop” to quietly carry a lot of other questionable spending off the books, and has to fight good word-of-mouth and reviews.

  • Greg Jones Jr

    I imagine we’ll keep getting premature reports like this until ultimately someone decides that animated films aren’t profitable anymore and all the big players start ceasing production. Then a big hit will come along, be it 2D or 3D, and the whole cycle will start all over again.

  • Marc Baker

    I may not have been a fan of Dreamworks since Katzenburg ‘declared’ that pencil animation was ‘a thing of the past’, but this is pretty depressing. Regardless of weather ‘Guardians’ was good, or not, it’s pretty sad when an animated film can’t compete with one of the worst ‘pop culture’ fads in recent memory. Yes, I have to blame ‘Twilight’ on this. Movie franchises like ‘Twilight’, and ‘Transformers’ have proven that no matter how bad you are as a movie, you will still succeed at the box office, and any movie, no matter how good it may be, won’t stand a chance against the rabid fan bases of said films. That downward trend has made me more cynical about people’s tastes in movies, and a sad reflection of how animation is losing out to badly made teenybopper junk. ‘The Hunger Games’, and ‘The Avengers’ were happy coincidences this year, and polar opposites to ‘Transformers’, and ‘Twilight’ in terms of quality. Still, the final ‘Twilight’ movie’s ‘success’ has sent a message to Hollywood that tween girls are now the major driving force at the box office, and that we’ll be getting more of the same, and the gossip rags in the media will declare this a victory while animation will have a more difficult battle to win people’s respect. 3D, 2D, or otherwise.

  • akira

    I guess cg animation and tyler perry films are over! we should go back to silent black and white films now since The Artist won best picture

  • Joe

    It’s true that just by the press calling it a “disaster” or “failure” at the box office, the average movie goer will see those words and think that means the movie is terrible. I worked at a movie theater for years and I saw it time and time again. People would walk by a movie that they heard underperformed at the box office and say, “I heard it only made x-million dollars last weekend. They’re saying it’s bad”.

  • Andreas Wessel-Therhorn

    It probably was a combination of a crowded opening weekend and marketing. I personally liked the film a lot.
    Marketing especially seems to be a key element, especially when it comes to new concepts and not a sequel, prequel or ‘re-imagining’. When I checked the BO numbers of PATF on its first weekend, i knew that this would most likely spell the end again of a traditional animation renaissance.I wish, disney had surprised me by going against expectations and had believed in the art form enough to keep the Snowqueen a hand drawn project.alas…

    • Marc Baker

      I know. I miss hand drawn animation, and Disney has always been the standard barer in that field, but the movie going public didn’t embrace it as much, and that’s sad. At this point, pencil animation has an uphill battle to regain it’s former acceptance in mainstream cinema.

  • Ted Herrmann

    It’s already being called a failure because it’s projected that it won’t be able to recoup its budget. The reason they pick on animation instead of live-action is because animation budgets are sky-high compared to an average live-action movie budget. $32 million isn’t gonna do it for Dreamworks – they’ll have to chalk it off as a loss. Yes, second-week miracles happen, but they are rare, family film or action blockbuster.

    • Sarah J

      At the same time, though, this movie did have a lot of competition, and as a movie with Santa as a prominent character, it’s highly likely that it will do better as we get closer to Christmas.

      • Ted Herrmann

        True – if it can “hang on” until Christmas vacation ,(what, three weeks from now?) it should get a huge boost.

  • Kristjan B.

    Based on this Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) was an ultimate falure. Jerry is correct in his criticism.

    • Ted Herrmann

      Disney’s Fantasia WAS a failure – it didn’t start making money until the 50’s – Walt was not a happy camper on that one.

  • Memo to Dreamworks:

    Hire Nate Silver.

    Aaaaaand my work is done.

  • wg

    I saw it and i thought the animation looked great but man, it sure was boring.

  • Lally~

    This is so sad and strange. I’ m italian and here the film in its first weekend ( 1 – 2 December) sold more ticket than Breaking Down (yeah the second there is from more days, but Rise of the guardians’ start was very awesome!)

  • As much as I like DreamWorks and hate to admit it, it is next too impossible for a standalone studio to survive these days, and that is basically what DW is. A studio (animation or live action) in that type of position is basically 3-flops-in-a-row from being bankrupt or sold. They simply do not have enough diversification to survive. That is why ALL of the studios are part of the larger conglomerate of companies. This is the sad truth. Studio movies cost way too much to make, which increases their risk by default and if you have little to no other revenue to fall back on you are taking even a bigger risk. The 1970’s of making smaller movies that did not have to perform as well are over. There is too many other things to do and see beside going to the movies unless your movie is a runaway hit or a big spectacular that will attract a wide enough margin to make a decent profit. I know Hollywood studio accountants have a way of always getting their money, but if enough people do not show up at the box office, after a while, no accounting trick is going to fix that.

    • GW

      I’m a little late, but I think that there’s one general exception to the blockbusters. If you can make a movie that appeals to genre fans you can produce films of a smaller budget.