Lessons From a Giant Box Office Bomb, and Why Its Creator Still Believes
At the very least, give producer Kenn Viselman some credit for his grip on reality.
"You don’t have to be delicate," he says, inviting honesty about his recent failure in the same way a sickly person might joke about his or her own illness to break the tension around cautious friends. "Don’t worry. I’m just giving you permission, you don’t have to worry about the politics of it."
And so, here is the blunt truth: Viselman's kiddie film, The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, had one of the worst opening weekends of all time last September, opening to a meager $443,901 on 2,160 screens, for an average of $206 per screen. The face-plant was made even more painful by Viselman's lofty ambition, which he insisted was nothing short of redefining family entertainment and the movie-theater experience.
Now, the movie is getting another shot at life on DVD -- the medium that it perhaps should have been in from the beginning.
The film was released on DVD on Feb. 5. Viselman reached a deal with Walmart, which has a six-month window of exclusivity on first-run store sales. He insists that the film will be a success on home video; when reached for comment, Walmart only said that it's always looking to add children's titles to its shelves.
The movie's initial failure, he says, came down to poor marketing, not a bad product. He had $20-30 million in marketing funds from investors in Michigan and was ready to roll the movie out, but the account was frozen until just a week before the scheduled release. That, he says, doomed the movie.
"In the end," he says, "people didn’t know the movie was even playing in the theaters."
And those who did know about the movie didn't get a very good impression. A romp starring plushy-costumed characters that invited children to move and dance around the theater, it was trashed in newspapers, magazines and blogs, snarkily ridiculed by some for its concept and plot-line: The big, foam-costumed Oogieloves have to find five balloons for their pet pillow Schluffy's birthday party. The A.V. Club called the characters "demented, demonic jesters out of a pneumonia-ravaged toddler’s agitated fever dream," striking a tone that rang throughout the web.
"It was really, really difficult, to just be blatantly honest, it was really difficult because even the reporters that were writing the nasty things that they were writing didn’t really believe the things that they were writing," he says. "And many of them apologized to us, many of them said they were gonna do something to make up for it. That never happened. And so it was, it was painful for me because I know that children loved the movie, and I was watching the media just kind of have a field day."
Perhaps surprisingly, Viselman says he had no problem with one of the most widely-read reviews of the film, which came from New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who wrote from the perspective of a toddler. It read like a takedown from a confused kid, but Viselman didn't see it that way.
"I had tremendous respect for him. He knew that if he wrote that review as himself, that he would have to compare it to Argo and Schindler’s List and then whoever else," Viselman explains. "And it wouldn’t be fair to this film. So what he did was he made fun and he did it as a seven-year-old, and it’s pretty accurate that the kid likes the movie, that if it were an adult, an adult might not. But it wasn’t made for that adult."
Bloggers, he insists, came to test screenings -- and he tested the movie in front of 2,000 children -- and saw how much the kids enjoyed it. Later, they'd file nasty reports that piled on the decimated film, Viselman says.
Critics treated "this film as if we were trying to make Schindler’s List!" he laments. "That we were trying to make a movie that was out to win an Academy Award for best film! I never said we were making Argo, I said that I was making a fun movie for kids and their families. We were trying to make a movie for the youngest possible viewer, and somehow to compare that film on the same level that you would some dramatic piece was just, it was nonsense."
"I know how kids respond to it. So it’s like, we had tested children, we had so many different children with so many different things going on in their world, and I know how they respond," he offers, still stung. "And I’m not saying every kid in the world has to like this movie, because they don’t and they won’t. But there’s no way that the number of people who were making the comments they were actually went to the movie; they just jumped on the bandwagon."
Viselman disputes reports that the film's budget was as high as $60 million; it was $12 million, he says, before tax credits and incentives brought it down to $3 million. He already has scripts prepared for two sequels and says he is close to a big deal overseas for the nascent franchise. And while he says he'd do a home-entertainment series with Netflix "in two seconds," he has no regrets about sending this film to the big screen.
"I know so many broadcasters in America, I could’ve just made it into a major TV film and put it on on a holiday weekend and done something different," he says, framing himself as a risk-taker (and it'd be hard to argue otherwise, for better or worse). "Do you know what I mean? There were so many options available to us, but we believed that the P&A was there and because of it, we were gonna be able to have this extraordinary independent experience where, as an independent producer with an independent film, we could actually go wide and actually have a box-office success."
Before he turned to producing, Viselman was a toy licensor, a showman who marketed billion-dollar properties that became cultural phenomena. He was known for his antics -- faking a hunger strike to get an executive's attention, cutting his hair in public -- and an up-and-down career, but his past successes -- he helped turn Thomas the Tank Engine into a marketing machine and helped sell the Teletubbies to PBS -- meant he at least stood a chance of making it to the top once again. And despite Oogieloves' failure, he insists that his business is still going strong, with reality TV shows and other children's projects in the works.
"It feels like people are saying, whoever this dude is – because no one had heard of me before – whoever he is and however he did it, he’ll get it right one of these times. We better get on his side instead of competing against him. I’m grateful for that. I’m very, very grateful for that."