Don’t expect Playmobil to recoup its expenses overseas. It has already opened in most major territories around the world, and has scrounged up a meager $12.4 million internationally.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Dimitri Rassam and Aton Soumache’s On Animation Studio announced the project back in in 2015, they were coming off the successful adaptation of The Little Prince. They had Bob Persichetti, head of story from The Little Prince, on board as the writer-director. And they were prepared to spend $75 million, making it one of the most expensive European animated features ever made.
The miscalculation they made was trying to cash in on The Lego Movie wave, which turned out to be not so much a wave as a drip. Since that 2014 box office wonder, no toy-based animated film has even come close to capturing it success, not even Warner Bros.’s own Lego sequel or spin-offs.
Shortly after On Animation announced their director, Persichetti made arguably the best animation industry career move of the decade when he left the project in late 2015 to become the director on another animated feature: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. When I interviewed Perscihetti last year, I asked him a little about the transition from Playmobil to Spider-Verse.
Playmobil hit other bumps along the path to completion, including the bankruptcy of its American distributor Open Road Films. The film was subsequently released by STX Entertainment, under a “service deal” agreement (as confirmed by Deadline), which means that the film’s producers had to pay STX an upfront fee and a percentage of box office just to get the film into theaters. This protects STX, which flopped earlier this year with its own toy-based film Uglydolls, from incurring a big loss on Playmobil and further deepens the woes of On Animation, which is owned by French media conglomerate Mediawan. (Wild Bunch and Pathe were also investors in the film.)
One unique aspect of Playmobil’s U.S. release was its “variable pricing” experiment, a deal that STX worked out with a majority of U.S. theater chains. As part of that experiment, most chains offered Playmobil for a flat $5 ticket, about half the price of a normal ticket. STX put out a statement today explaining its rationale for the experiment, as well as subtly absolving itself of responsibility for the film:
“For STXfilms, Playmobil is a no-risk opportunity that allowed the studio to collaborate with key exhibition partners to offer a holiday movie for kids and families. Major exhibitors and regional chains were supportive about using a date traditionally not programmed with new first run movies and offering special variable pricing of $5 a ticket to experiment with the model and encourage and incentivize audiences to see the film, while allowing theaters to begin to explore value pricing for a first-run movie.”
The simple lesson here is one that European producers often learn the hard way: Don’t try to compete with Hollywood studios for global blockbusters because you can’t beat Hollywood at its own game.
The European producers who have succeeded with mainstream cg animated films are those who aimed their films at non-U.S. markets. Successful examples are Mikros Image’s Asterix : The Secret of the Magic Potion from France ($46 million global), Nwave Pictures’s The Son of Bigfoot from Belgium and France ($41 million global), and Lightbox Entertainment’s Tad, The Lost Explorer from Spain ($61 million global).