Frankenweenie opened this past weekend in the U.S., placing fifth overall with somewhere around $11.5 million. This result is widely considered disappointing, or worse.
A few thoughts.
On a personal level, it is disappointing, because as the writer I had hoped a lot of people would see the movie this weekend and enjoy it, perhaps beginning a conversation about black-and-white cinema, stop-motion animation or the perilous state of science education. That didn’t happen. Instead, the story is about how much money we made.
But my disappointment is tempered by extremely good reviews across the board. Critically-praised movies that underperform find a lot of champions over the years. This is a lesson I learned from Go. It’s a lesson Disney and Tim learned from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Quality plus time equal success.
It’s only the first few weeks that hurt.
On Larchmont yesterday, my daughter met up with another seven-year-old friend in front of the yogurt shop. “I heard Frankenweenie only came in fifth because of Hotel T,” the friend told my daughter. (Yes, she said “Hotel T.”)
Two things. Maybe three.
At least in the short term, people focus on rankings because they’re easy to remember and fit the narrative of the box office being a race. But if Rian Johnson’s terrific Looper had made just a little less, we would have swapped places. At a glance, Frankenweenie would have appeared more successful at fourth place than fifth, even if it earned exactly the same amount.
Also lost in the horse-race analysis is the fact that the box office expanded 41% percent this weekend. Last year, the #2 movie for the weekend was The Ides of March, which made $10.4 million. Had we opened a year ago to the same dollar figure, our $11.5 million would have put us #2 behind Real Steel.
Would that have been a disappointment? I’m not so sure. The take-away message might have gone like this: the first-ever black-and-white animated movie, with only puppets and no stars, opens at #2. The follow-up stories would be about how brave Disney was to risk making such an unconventional movie, and how it paid off. (Our budget is a fraction of most studio CG movies.)
My daughter’s friend is probably correct: Hotel Transylvania soaked up a lot of family movie money that might have gone towards Frankenweenie. I haven’t seen Transylvania, but I don’t begrudge its success. Sony Animation has struggled, and landing a hit means more movies can get made.
Nor do I begrudge Pitch Perfect, another risky movie that Universal managed to open. Like ours, it was a wild card.
Were we released on the wrong weekend? Probably. But you’re asking people to predict the future, and that’s an imperfect science. Taken 2 was a given, but six months ago, who would have predicted that the other movies ahead of us would have worked?
Whenever a movie doesn’t open to expectations, everyone turns on the marketing team. So let me say it: I really liked Frankenweenie’s posters and ad campaign, which walked the line of selling it as a family comedy while conveying its black-and-white oddness. Opening wide may have set expectations too high for what it was going to make, but I applaud Disney for trying.
The film itself is a challenging proposition: a goofy title, black and white, with no stars to promote on talk shows. Given the film, I don’t know that a different marketing approach would have changed the dollar outcome.
And that’s the end of my weekend analysis. Looking forward, I have a few thoughts:
- Disney is really good at making money from things. They have parks, publishing and kids’ networks. Frankenweenie is a great property, and it’s no surprise that plush Sparkys are selling out.
- The movie has yet to open in many markets. I’ll be particularly curious to see how it opens when not backed up against Hotel Transylvania. It opens the London Film Festival on Wednesday, and debuts in Japan before Christmas. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re a bigger title overseas than domestically, as Corpse Bride was.
- I worry that the film’s perceived failure will make it much harder to greenlight another stop-motion feature. Frankenweenie will outgross Fantastic Mr. Fox, but that movie had low expectations. Ours were comparatively high, and that may make studios think CG-or-nothing.
In the U.S., the movie will continue to chug along through Halloween and possibly into awards season. It has a long run ahead on the big screen before a very profitable second life on television.
So in no way to do I mean this to be a Frankenweenie post-mortem. Nothing died.
I’m writing this because bad news tends to poison joyful experiences. We run away from things we used to love, which is a mistake. It’s only by facing the unpleasant aspects that you can get back to being happy for the good stuff.
I’m really proud of Frankenweenie and the reception it received. I love that people love it, and that it exists in the world to see. I’m grateful to Tim, Disney and hundreds of people who worked to make it happen. That’s worth celebrating as much today as last Friday.