How 'Peter Rabbit' Won Over the U.K. Box Office (Beating Spielberg on the Way)

PETER RABBIT Still_2 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Despite mediocre reviews, Sony's adaptation of the beloved children's character toppled 'Black Panther' and held off 'Pacific Rim: Uprising' and 'Ready Player One' to claim the top spot for three straight weeks.

In the end, it wasn’t a rebooted and more suitably clothed Lara Croft that toppled Black Panther from its record-breaking spell at the top of the U.K. box office. After a four-week run, Wakanda’s eventual dethroning came via a far more diminutive and unlikely challenger wearing a little blue jacket and literally nothing else: Peter Rabbit.

Sony’s live-action-meets-CGI adaptation of the beloved Beatrix Potter character — voiced by James Corden and also starring the likes of Daisy Ridley, Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie — took a stunning £7.3 ($10.2 million) on its opening weekend after launching in cinemas March 16, the second-biggest British debut of 2018 after Black Panther. The figure put the film ahead of recent U.K. openings for fellow family titles Coco and The Boss Baby, but — understandably — behind established franchise sequels Paddington 2 and Despicable Me 3.

However, with the Easter break in its sights, Peter Rabbit didn’t just cement its position at the top, but took several other major scalps in the process.

Week two saw it earn £4.6 million ($6.4 million), comfortably more than the challenge of John Boyega and Pacific Rim: Uprising, which slumped with a debut of £1.7 million ($2.4 million). The following week, buoyed by the start of the Easter Holidays (a decidedly damp affair that no doubt saw parents desperate to entertain their children) and Sony giving the film its widest ever release across some 694 locations, Peter went one better, staying at the top with £5.61 million ($7.9 million) — a 22 percent rise — and holding off Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (£5.11 million including Thursday previews).

On Monday April 2, a rain-soaked public holiday, Peter Rabbit scored its third-best day after its opening weekend, and on its 18th day of release. Its success over the Easter Weekend brought its total revenue up to an astonishing £23.3 million ($33.7 million), not just making it Sony Pictures Animation’s most successful film in the U.K. (beating Hotel Transylvania 2), but seeing it track well ahead of Zootopia, Paddington and now Paddington 2.

Given the film’s somewhat mediocre critical reception in the U.K., where a property such as Peter Rabbit is — much like Paddington Bear — rooted in the country’s cultural DNA, having been written by local author and illustrator Beatrix Potter in 1893, the film's success came as something of a shock to the industry.

But not so at Sony, where its president of international distribution Steven O’Dell says “ambitions were pretty high.”

Initial noise may well have proved worrying. Early reviews didn’t fall for Corden’s “cocky” and “cheeky” incarnation of Peter, picking out one scene where the animal actually twerks Miley Cyrus-style. The film was also accused of “allergy bullying” for a scene in which a group of bunnies attacks a man with blackberries, knowing he is allergic to them, and provoking calls for a boycott.

But the #boycottpeterrabbit hashtag didn’t shake the studio.

“Our U.K. office was resolute from day one when they started seeing the film, even in rough form,” says O’Dell. “They said, ‘The market is going to love this film.’ You never really know, but they were resolute — they said, ‘People are going to get this film, they’re going to really love this film in the U.K.”

Sony also deployed a unique marketing strategy that looked to very much tap into the U.K.’s long-standing love of Potter’s rabbit.

“We went for a focus on older audiences,” says Michael Horn, Sony’s president of international marketing. “We wanted to communicate in some way that we were still rooted in the tradition and wanted to do right by the tradition of this beloved franchise.”

Part of this approach came in February and March with a partnership with The Daily Telegraph newspaper that saw several content pieces and vignettes explain the characters and had the various voice talents and stars discussing their own memories of growing up with Peter Rabbit (Robbie revealed she had “little teacup and saucers” with him painted on them). Members of the Potter estate were also involved.

“That went a long way to connecting audiences, because we know how important voices are in animation and the special talent we had on this film,” Horn says.

Another tie-in was with the famed Harrod’s store in London’s Knightsbridge neighborhood, which actually features in the film. “We took over the store front — that was massive,” Horn says. “We had one English icon associated with another.”

The tactic — coupled with a release date two weeks ahead of Easter that gave the film a chance to gather word-of-mouth steam — clearly worked. And while Peter Rabbit now stands as the 10th most successful film of 2018 globally, with an imposing total haul of $229 million, it’s in its spiritual homeland of the U.K. where the results are most impressive.

And it’s in the U.K. where the figures look only set to increase in April, with one week of school holidays almost complete and another still to come.

Just as Paddington is becoming an every-three-years British Christmas tradition, Peter Rabbit could well mark Sony’s domination of future Easters.

“There’s so much goodwill around the film that I imagine production heads are already sitting thinking about [a sequel],” O’Dell says.