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Disney knew it was in trouble before Strange World hit theaters. Tracking showed the movie, an original sci-fi adventure tale, opening to no more than $30 million over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday corridor, a miserable start. From there, things only got worse. Word-of-mouth was so bad that the movie’s five-day domestic opening came in at $18.9 million, meaning the film could ultimately lose $100 million or more for the studio.
Strange World’s abysmal start is another moment of reckoning for Disney’s animation empire, which has endured tough times of late. In past years, Disney Animation’s Thanksgiving offerings have provided a hearty feast. Even amid the ongoing pandemic, Encanto opened to $40.1 million over the five-day corridor in 2021. And in 2019, Frozen II earned a $125 million, a Thanksgiving record.
While Strange World received solid reviews — its current Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score is a fresh 74 percent — moviegoers felt differently and gave the film a B CinemaScore. In the 43-year history of the outside polling company, no other Disney Animation title has earned anything less than an A-. And the Rotten Tomatoes audience score for Strange World is currently 64 percent, also unprecedented. In summer 2022, Pixar’s Lightyear likewise earned a critics’ score of 74 percent; the audience Rotten Tomatoes score however was 84, however, while it was graced with an A- Cinemascore.
Word of mouth can sink a movie overnight, regardless of pre-release marketing. As a way of example, Disney’s original animated Disney film Ralph Breaks the Internet, released over Thanksgiving 2018, fell a scant 2.5 percent from Black Friday to Saturday. Strange World tumbled 12 percent from Friday to Saturday.
There’s no question the family marketplace is still rebounding from the pandemic as parents face inflation. The only studio animated tentpole to do impressive business was Universal and Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru, which earned $937.9 million globally after opening to $107 million domestically in late June.
Otherwise, it’s been rough going this year as the overall box office began to recover. Pixar’s Toy Story spinoff Lightyear, which opened in mid-June, grossed a muted $215.8 million globally after launching to $50.6 million domestically.
Some analysts believe recently ousted Disney CEO Bob Chapek created consumer confusion for families by sending three Pixar films — Soul, Luca and Turning Red — straight to Disney+ as the company focused on building its streamer. In March 2021, the company tried another experiment and released Disney Animation’s Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters (it was a success) and on Disney’s Premier Access. While some of the decisions were made during the heart of the pandemic, Turning Red was scheduled to open in theaters in March 2022, when moviegoers had begun returning to cinemas. “Families were trained to wait to watch Disney films at home,” says a rival studio source.
A hallmark of Chapek’s tenure was creating a mega-distribution division that dictated how all content would be released — such as sending a movie to streaming — instead of letting the movie studio decide. With the return of Bob Iger as Disney CEO, the distribution division, led by Kareem Daniel, is being quickly dismantled (Daniel was shown the door shortly after Iger’s arrival Nov. 21). One source inside Disney says Daniel’s division sparked confusion among creatives.
Alan Bergman, who oversees all film as chairman of Disney Studios Content, will once again have distribution under his purview, including for Disney Animation and Pixar, sources note.
“Are we licking our wounds? Yes,” says another Disney insider regarding Strange World’s poor performance. At the same time, the source says it’s important for Hollywood studios to make original films. “They took a shot, but I’m not sure who the movie was for,” says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of the misfire. “Fortunately for Disney Animation, it doesn’t happen very often.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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