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Can "Cars" crash through the $75 - $80 million barrier?

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Can "Cars" crash through the $75 - $80 million barrier?

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By this time next week, we'll know.

By that I mean: By this time next Monday morning, we'll finally have the preliminary box office results in hand for the opening weekend of "Cars." And then we'll know for sure if John Lasseter's newest film has actually met Wall Street's expectations.

"And what exactly are Wall Street's expectations for 'Cars' ?," you ask. Well, I just spent this past weekend working the phones. Talking with various investment analysts & entertainment industry observers about what the magic number might be. As in: What's "Cars" actually going to have to earn over its opening weekend in order to please the investment community?

Mind you, none of these folks were willing to go on the record with me. Supposedly out of concern that something that they'd tell me might then come back to haunt them, offend the Mouse in some way.

But – that said – there was a fairly strong consensus among these folks about what the magic number for "Cars" had to be. And that was that Pixar Animation Studios' latest release has to earn at least $75 million over its opening weekend in order to be seen as a box office success.

Copyright Disney Enterprises LLC

"And how did these people come up with that number?," you query. It's simple, really. They started by looking at how Pixar's last six pictures did over their opening weekends. And – as you can see by the chart below …

Film Title

Domestic Opening weekend gross

"The Incredibles"

       $70.4 million

"Finding Nemo"

       $70.2 million

"Monsters, Inc."

       $62.5 million

"Toy Story II"

       $57.3 million

"A Bug's Life"

       $33.2 million

"Toy Story"

       $29.1 million

… at least two of this animation studio's films (I.E. "The Incredibles" & "Finding Nemo") have earned over $70 million during their initial weekend in domestic release. So – taking into consideration the rise in theater admission prices well as adjusting for inflation -- $75 million in 2006 dollars is roughly the equivalent of $70.2 / $70.4 million in 2003 / 2004 dollars.

So – in order to maintain the status quo (I.E. Not show any significant erosion in the perceived value of the Pixar brand) – "Cars" has to sell at least $75 million worth of tickets during its first weekend in domestic box office release. To earn anything less would send the wrong message to Wall Street. Like "Pixar's hot streak is now over." Or – worse than that – "Disney really did over-pay when it shelled out $7.4 billion for Pixar Animation Studios."

Mind you, some investment analysts that I spoke with said that "Cars" has to earn over $80 million in order to totally silence the nay-sayers.But that was mostly because of what this film's competition had already earned.

And when I say "competition," I mean both what other non-Pixar computer animated films have earned over their opening weekends …

Film Title

Domestic opening weekend gross

  "Shrek II"

      $108.0 million

  "Ice Age: The Meltdown"

        $68.0 million

  "Shark Tales"

        $47.6 million


        $47.2 million

  "Ice Age"

        $46.3 million


        $42.3 million

  "Chicken Little"

        $40.0 million


        $38.8 million

  "Over the Hedge"

        $38.4 million


        $36.0 million

… as well as what other major motion pictures that have been released during the first half of 2006 have earned over their opening weekends.

Film Title

Opening Weekend

That weekend's gross

   "X-Men: The Last Stand"

   May 26 – 28

   $102.7 million

   "The Da Vinci Code"

   May 19 - 21

     $77.0 million

   "Ice Age: The Meltdown"

   March 31 – April 1

     $68.0 million

   "Mission Impossible III"

   May 5 – 7

     $47.7 million

   "Scary Movie 4"

   April 14 - 16

     $40.2 million

   "The Break-Up"

   June 2 - 4

     $38.0 million

   "Ice Age: The Meltdown" (2ndweekend in release)

   April 7 – 9

     $33.8 million

   "Madea's Family Reunion"

   February 24-26

     $30.0 million

   "Inside Man"

   March 24-26

     $28.9 million

   "Big Momma's House 2"

   January 27-29

     $27.7 million

The message that I kept hearing over & over wasn't that "Cars" had to be No. 1. As in: That it had to beat either "Shrek II" 's $108.0 million and/or "X-Men: The Last Stand" 's $102.7 million. But – rather – that Pixar's latest animated feature had to finish in the No. 2 position in order to be taken seriously. Or – at the very least – as a very strong No. 3.

Okay. Obviously, that's a pretty high goal to shoot for. But given that there's already pretty good buzz going about "Cars" (More importantly, that all the initial reviews for this new Pixar film have been generally positive) … That $75 - $80 million target for an opening weekend gross is still very achievable, right?

Well … In theory, yes. But according to a number of folks that I spoke with this past weekend, there has recently been a perceptible softening of audiences' interest in animated features. Which could possibly have a significant impact on "Cars" opening weekend gross.

Don't believe me? Okay, then check out the chart below. Which lists all of the significant animated features that has been released to theaters over the past 12 months.



Film's total Domestic Gross to date


    $193.5 million

    "Ice Age: The Meltdown"

    $191.0 million

    "Chicken Little"

    $135.3 million

    "Over the Hedge"

    $112.3 million

    "Curious George"

      $58.3 million

    "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit"

      $56.1 million

    "Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride"

      $53.3 million


      $51.3 million

    "The Wild"

      $35.3 million


      $19.4 million


        $7.4 million

Admittedly, the grosses for "Madagascar," "Ice Age: The Melt Down," "Chicken Little" and "Over The Hedge" are below impressive. But - if you look just below those four film titles - you should be able to quickly pick up on a pattern.

Yep, at least seven of these animated features actually ran out of gas before they were able to cross the $60 million threshold during their initial domestic releases. With two of these films crashing & burning before they were even able to sell $20 million of tickets.

Now as to why exactly that happened … To be honest, it's hard to say. Given that four of these under-performing pictures were done in CG, two others were stop-motion while the seventh & final film was traditionally animated … Blanket statements like "Movie-goers have grown tired of seeing feature length cartoons like this" really don't work in situations like this.

But that said … A significant number of animated films have already been released to theaters this year. And right behind "Cars" comes Sony's "Monster House" & Warner Bros. "The Ant Bully" & Paramount's "Barnyard" & Fox's "Everyone's Hero" & Sony's "Open Season" & Dreamworks' "Flushed Away" & Warner Bros. "Happy Feet." And given that there's now the Cartoon Network as well as Toon Disney along with animated television series in prime-time like "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and "American Dad" … Well, how much animation is too much animation? When does all this stuff stop seeming special?

I'll say this much: Based on survey work that the Walt Disney Company has done, Pixar's animated features are still considered appointment cinema. As in: A lot of movie-goers make a point of heading out for their local multiplex whenever a new Pixar picture is released. Rather than waiting 'til that same film is released on VHS & DVD. Which is evidently what happened with Disney's last two traditionally animated features, "Brother Bear" and "Home on the Range."

And Disney Company officials are certainly hoping that "Cars" turns out to be appointment cinema too. Given that the studio is currently trying to shake off a six-month-long box office slump.

"How long it been since the Mouse House has actually had a hit?," you ask. "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was released to theaters back on December 9, 2005. And that elaborate fantasy epic was the very last Disney film to achieve blockbuster status. Everything else that the studio has released since then …

Film Title

Release Date

Film's total domestic gross (to date)


   January 6, 2006

         $11.3 million

    "Glory Road"

   January 13, 2006

         $42.6 million


   January 27, 2006

         $17.1 million

    "Roving Mars"

   January 27, 2006

           $3.4 million

    "Eight Below"

   February 17, 2006

         $81.5 million


   February 24, 2006

           $2.8 million

    "GOAL! The Dream Begins"

   March 3, 2006

           $3.4 million

    "The Shaggy Dog"

   March 10, 2006

         $58.1 million

    "Stay Alive"

   March 24, 2006

         $22.7 million

    "The Wild"

   April 14, 2006

         $35.3 million

    "Kinky Boots"

   April 14, 2006

           $1.3 million

    "Stick It"

   April 28, 2006

         $24.7 million

    "Keeping Up with the   Steins"

   May 12, 2006

           $2.1 million

… have under-performed. Mind you, "Eight Below," "The Shaggy Dog" and "Glory Road" all did fair-to-middling business. But of the 13 films that Walt Disney Studios has released through its various production arms (I.E. Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures & Miramax Films), not a one of them became a blockbuster. As in: Selling over $100 million worth of tickets during its initial domestic release.

So Disney officials are really counting on "Cars." Not only to silence all of the company's critics who say that the Mouse paid far too much when it spent $7.4 billion to acquire Pixar. But also to arrest the studio's slide at the box office.

Mind you, one wonders how much "Cars" will actually be able to pull in this summer. Given that – just 19 days after this new Pixar film first rolls into theaters – "Superman Returns" flies into your local multiplex (A full two days ahead of when this $300 million Warner Bros. film was originally supposed to debut). And then – just nine days after that – here comes Disney's other big movie for the summer, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

I'd told that the folks at Pixar aren't all that pleased that – just four weeks after it hits theater – "Cars" finds itself in direct competition with Captain Jack Sparrow. Which perhaps explains why – in the Summer of 2007 – this situation will be reversed. With Disney's third "Pirates" picture (Tentatively subtitled "World's End) bowing on May 25, 2007, while Pixar's next animated feature, "Ratatouille" (A Brad Bird-directed opus which deals with the gastronomic adventures of Remy the Rat, who wishes to become one of France's greatest chefs) will debut on June 29th.

Mind you … If both "Cars" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" under-perform … Well, Walt Disney Studios still has a few cards up its sleeve. I've heard that Mark Wahlberg's "Invincible" (Which tells the story of that unlikely NFL star, Vince Papale) has sleeper potential. Also Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause III" ….

Copyright Disney Enterprises LLC

… and Mel Gibson's Mesoamerican epic, "Apocolypto," both look like they could make the Mouse's holiday season brighter.

But – for now – all eyes are on "Cars." To see if Pixar's newest animated feature not only meets its initial box office projections (I.E. $75 - $80 million), but also to see if this automotive motion picture has legs. As in: Will "Cars" actually go on to earn as much as Pixar's earlier pictures did?

Just to refresh your memory, here's a chart that lists how well Pixar Animation Studio's first six films did:


Domestic Gross

Overseas Gross

Combined Gross

     "Finding Nemo"

     $339.7 million

     $524.9 million

     $864.5 million

     "The Incredibles"

     $261.4 million

     $369.9 million

     $631.4 million

     "Monsters, Inc."

     $255.8 million

     $269.4 million

     $525.3 million

     "Toy Story 2"

     $245.8 million

     $239.1 million

     $485.0 million

     "A Bug's Life"

     $162.7 million

     $200.6 million

     $363.3 million

     "Toy Story"

     $191.7 million

     $170.1 million

     $361.9 million

So what do you folks think? Will "Cars" actually be able earn more than $75 million during its initial weekend in domestic release? Or is it even fair of Wall Street movers & shakers and entertainment industry observers to set such a lofty goal for a film to achieve prior to its release to theaters?

Your thoughts?

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  • Pixar has created what Disney had in the early nineties... When a new Disney movie came out... my parents took me to see it. I dont think I ever needed to ask.

    And when Cars comes out Friday. My mom will have fandangoed tickets for our whole family. I havent even talked to her about it yet. I just know she will. And I know I'll be there. its tradition.

    Lots of familes are doing this. Familes who arent Disney fanatics like my family.

    Not to mention... aside from the Pixar/Disney effect, there's the Nascar/Larry the Cable guy effect. Lots of Nascar/Larry the cable guy fans who arent Disney fans, will go see it as well.

    In short, Disney/Pixar should have NO trouble with this movie. Or at least I dont think so.
  • I saw the film at a studio preview on Saturday.  Pixar and Disney have nothing to worry about.  This film is fall-down funny, and should appeal to a very broad base.  I think it will open huge, and keep strong legs for at least six weeks.

    There is so much detail, and some of it goes by so fast, that I plan to see it a few more times before it hits DVD.  Just the bit of business during the end credits is worth the price of admission alone.
  • Once upon a time, movies were judged by their entertainment value. If the movie told an interesting story in an entertaining way, people came to see it, and money flowed. People (at least the general public) didn't ask about opening weekend numbers on Pinocchio to determine if they should see the movie or not. A musical made by Paramount could be far more profitable than one made at MGM, but no one would suggest Paramount made better musicals than MGM.   No one would have suggested Chicken Little was a hit either.

    Today we have analysts that tell every publicly-traded company what to do. These analysts have rarely held a production or service job, and certainly have never formed a company themselves. The analysts tell companies that even though they made billions in profit last quarter, if they just fired a few people they could have made billions plus one dollars in profit. Next quarter, they tell the company to eliminate their pension plans to make billions plus two dollars.

    All this because the leaders of the companies aren't creative people. They don't know what to do if their widgets aren't selling. They didn't found the company, they just temporarily manage it, and they need to keep their millions in bonuses coming. If the company leaders could think up new widgets to sell when old ones stop selling, profits would keep growing without having to constantly fire people to stay afloat.

    Now we've finally got a creative person - with a proven track record - in charge or close to in charge at Disney. The first time that has happened in over 40 years. (No, I'm sorry, Eisner was not creative, nor did he foster a creative atmosphere. He simply knew how to strip money from the company to his own bank account.) To suggest that an opening weekend take of $65 million means the movie is a failure, but $75 million means its a hit is a short-sighted bean counter's perspective. Especially when Cars merchandise has already outsold all the Chicken Little merchandise, and Cars still hasn't opened. Regardless of how the numbers get posted, Cars is going to make a boatload of money. It's pointless to see if we can numerically set John up for a so-called "failure."

    If the company really wants to impress Wall Street, let's see them set an example and get executive pay and bonuses structered to a reasonable level - not a multiple of hundreds of times what most of the employees receive.   Oops, sorry  - that's just crazy talk - we don't want to impress Wall Street THAT much.
  • looks to me that disney films are going to have a very good year. im glad to see that disney/pixar (or dixar as i like to call it) are putting out good product.
    cars looks great and potc will be awesome. santa clause 3 though? ill give it a chance.

    ps- remember that scene in the first santa clause toward the end where they were getting ready, walking down the hallway and all of the sudden they stop and do this weird arms in front of them little dance move? never understood it.
  • Jim:  Why?...Why??...WHY?? do you have this thing about including MIramax films (and post-Weinsteins, at that) in the list of "Disney releases"?
    "Because they own them! :) "--BZZT!...No, sorry, ruling from the judges, we can't accept that answer.
    Once again, we have to point out that non-Weinstein Miramax is largely an independent distributor, not unlike at least half of the independent films ("Goal") that Disney releases in a year.
    In a word, all that Mel Gibson and "Santa Clause 3" have in common is having sound.

    Now, let's move on to that animated-grosses list...And please tell us, Jim, that you're not falling victim to the '02 Sinbad lure of "Every animated movie is the same, that's why audiences go to them!  :) "
    To break them down, "Shrek 2" and "Ice Age 2"--and, to a lesser degree, Shark Tale and Madagascar--largely had their openings funded by deranged and deluded cults...Shrek's, of course, is well known (enough for Shark and Madagascar to coattail on it), only to let its poor optimistic dreamers down in the final product--While IA2 is the somewhat more frightening cult, with its dark cabal of stalkers who dream of shooting Donkey to prove their love to the Squirrel.  To them, no other scenes in the movie exist.  And don't mind telling you, it's kind of creepy.   0_0

    Will "Cars" do well?  Look up any negative review of the other Fox and Dreamworks movies.  Go ahead, any one.  Now count how many contain some variation on  "Why can't they make them as good as Pixar?"
    Pixar--It's not just a studio.  It's an adjective.  :)
  • As far as competition between Pixar movies and the POTC movies, I think that families with younger kids will see both movies; POTC may not be for the youngest kids.  That said, I'm worried about people who have to choose; I have a hunch that POTC would get their ticket money.  There definitely is a lot of animation out right now; I know for myself, I don't touch anything unless it's Disney or Pixar; other "Disney Dweebs" may be the same way...a few?  My biggest concern for "Cars" is all the marketing being done.  I personally love seeing Lightning McQueen and Mater wherever I go, but some people may feel they've seen so much of the movie that they'll wait 'til it comes out on DVD.  It looks great, it's Pixar, so it will do better than most animated films out there.
  • I have one fear and one fear only.  I'm worried that they have hyped this movie to death.  If I see Lightning McQueen or Mater on another product that has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with the movie I think I'm going to scream.  For months, you haven't been able to buy as much as a matchbox version of one of the stars of the movie in my city, but you could get practically anything you wanted from the grocery store (not to mention the tire shop and insurance company) with the characters plastered all over it.  Disney has never done this much product placement with a Pixar movie and I'm afraid it might serve to just annoy or even scare off the movie fan who isn't necessarily a Pixar/Disney fan.
  • It's funny.  Pixar- with its focus on quality, innovation and story- has always been playing the long game.  They knew that making the best movies possible was going to secure their place in history and in the hearts of the moviegoing public.  It's just a happy coincidence that they also happen to be enormously popular.  I'll see POTC2 at least once.  If it's good, twice, like the last one.  Cars?  Twice at least.  If it's as good as we're hearing it is, I'll see it all summer long.  
  • OK Jim...let's at least add some context to your "animated grosses", thanks to rottentomatoes.com.

    I'll leave the top 4 alone, since they were blockbusters.

    "Curious George"  69%

    "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit"  95%

    "Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride"  83%

    "Hoodwinked", 47%

    "The Wild", 19%

    "Valiant", 28%

    "Doogal", 5%

    Now, I'd agree, your first 3 (which only did middlingly well) were vastly underappreciated films at the Box office (in particular, Wallace and Grommit).  But there were mitigating factors in eacy release that should be taken into account, too.

    But to try to show any sort of "trend" including those last 4 movies...you might wanna rethink that.  Because I'd venture that the fact they were animated had less to do with their performance than the fact that they all stunk.  Stunk to high heaven.  Stunk, in most cases, to the point of being neigh unwatchable.

    That, I think, may have borne mentioning within your article...if for no other reason than to add a bit of pertinent context.
  • One of the things that bugs me most about a number of today's CGI films - and "Monster House" is a prime example, with "Polar Express" also fitting the bill - is that these films seem to feel the need to animate real human characters that could've just as easily been done with real human (child) actors.  Leaving the house, etc as CG projects.

    I watched the preview for "Monster House" yesterday and once again was struck how it seemed very "Goonies"-esque, which did just fine as a live action.

    If you want to CG-animate fish, cars, bugs, toys, monsters, even super-heros - fine.  Even sharks, ogres, prehistoric/zoo/barnyard animals, that's great.  But when the only characters in the movie are human, why bother?

    Oh, of course.  It's probably cheaper.  How silly of me.
  • I dunno, pilferk, I liked "Hoodwinked."

    But certainly the public is having a reaction to all the flood of crap that's trying to tap Shrek's success. I don't think it's a mistake to think that "Cars" might be tainted by it, particularly on opening weekend. Yes, I think the Pixar name makes a difference and protects the movie from sliding into the pattern followed by Chicken Little, Valiant, and Doogal, but on a gut level, those that aren't paying that close attention to the difference in studios and the nature of the industry will have gut-level nausea at first sight of any CG film.

    That's why I'm not worried about overmarketing - it makes the message clear to the fence sitters that "Cars" is a whole different kind of product. That this movie is a must-see blockbuster already. For some people, it might get on their nerves, but I can't imagine it would actually scare anybody away from the movie, unless they're so manic they would personally boycott a movie to make a point, knowing the message wouldn't ever be received. Sometimes marketing is meant to get consumers curious or hyped about a movie. In a few cases, it's to train the consumers that this movie will be so big, they simply aren't permitted to miss opening weekend.

    I will say, I think seeing the actors providing voices for the movie appearing on Leno and Letterman creates a more effective buzz than having Cars-themed fruit snacks, but that's just me. I would rather have seen more of that sort of thing.
  • Also--as usual--let's get a little historical perspective:
    Finding Nemo and Incredibles did runaway business, but they also had great competition to play off of.
    Nemo, of course, was infamous for trouncing studios' "Sequel summer"--"The year we didn't want to see anything else"--and seeing those expressions on the Hulk, Lara Croft, and the Terminator as they all went down, one-two-three, before the mighty orange fish..
    Incredibles?---Good, yes, but try remembering how good it was back then WITHOUT also mentioning its public pantsing of a certain creepy train conductor.

    Which is the biggest obstacle for Cars:  Not that this summer is too "good" to be competition, just that it isn't BAD enough--It just doesn't have that rewarding feeling of "victory" yet to bring that repeat business that Nemo had.   With X-Men, Superman and Pirates, this seems like not too bad a summer, and no reason to go running to Pixar for "safety".
    Oh, sure, there's "Monster Express", and "Antz Bully" (yes, same designs), to make us feel smug about rallying the flag for Lasseter, but this year, "Cars" is all out there on its own--There's just no flop big enough this year to get the same old comfortable nyah-nyah of "Going to see Nemo just to *p-ss Terminator 3 off!*...  :)  "
  • Barry, I know with Polar Express, they chose animation specifically because they wanted to duplicate the style of illustration in the book, and it was noticable and successful. I don't know about Monster House, though. But sometimes, it's just because it happens to be an animation rather than live-action studio that has the story to tell.
  • Makes for an interesting new category at the Oscars:

    Best Computer Generated Actor in a Leading Role . . .
  • "I dunno, pilferk, I liked "Hoodwinked." "

    Of the 4, it was certainly the best.  The other 3 were so incredibly awful...I'm suprised they made as much as they DID.  You could certainly "spin" it that way too.  That comparably BAD movies made considerably less money...I'm not sure you'd have much of a case, but then again...I'm not sure Jim does, either.

    But Hoodwinked  was no Monsters, Inc...or The Incredibles...or Finding Nemo...

    Even to put it in perspective of it's contemporaries:

    It was no Corpse Bride, or Wallace and Gromit, or even Curious George.

    That's just my point:  Attributing the movies poor performance SIMPLY to the fact they were animated might be a bit of a stretch.  I'd like to think that quality does still have SOME effect on a movie's BO take.  Maybe that's a bit naive' on my part, I'll admit.....
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