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Monday Mouse Watch: Excuses abound as to why "Cars" under-performed

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Monday Mouse Watch: Excuses abound as to why "Cars" under-performed

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The good news is ... "Cars" was No. 1 at the box office this past weekend, raking in $60.1 million. Which (according to Box Office Mojo) gave this John Lasseter film the second highest opening weekend gross ever for a film that was released in the month of June (Only Warners' "Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban" -- which debuted back in June of 2004 -- earned more. Taking in $93.6 million over its opening weekend).


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The bad news is ... $60.1 million is a figure that's significantly south of what had originally been projected for this Pixar Animation Studios production.

You may recall how -- early last week -- I reported that various unnamed industry insiders were looking for "Cars" to pull in $75 - $80 million over its opening weekend. But by Friday afternoon (Reportedly based on internal projections that Disney Studio staffers had begun discreetly sharing with various investment analysts), box office estimates for this new animated feature were already being revised downward. With Jessica Reif Cohen of Merrill Lynch stating that she expected "Cars" to earn just $70 million over its opening weekend, while Marc Sharpiro of Banc of America took a more conservative approach. Suggesting that it was far more likely that Pixar's latest release would gross between $65 million to $70 million during its first three days in release.

Copyright 2006 Disney/Pixar

But -- in the end -- all three of us were wrong. With $62.8 million being the estimate as of Sunday afternoon. And then -- late Monday afternoon -- came the devastating news: The film's final official tally was actually $60.1 million. $2.7 million less than had originally been reported.

Given that Shapiro reportedly said that -- were "Cars" to earn less than $60 million over its opening weekend -- that this new Pixar film would be viewed by the investment community as a real disappointment ... Well, it's hard to understand how a gross of just $60.1 million could still be seen as a cause for celebration.

Mind you, that didn't stop Disney from breaking out the party hats. According to Chuck Viane, president of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution:

"This is John Lasseter's biggest opening ever. We are so thrilled for John and everyone at Pixar. Which is now seven for seven at the boxoffice."

Of course, what Mr. Viane neglected to mention is that -- while $60.1 million may be the most money that a motion picture that was personally directed by John Lasseter has ever earned over its opening weekend -- "Cars" is not, in fact, the strongest opening movie that Pixar Animation Studios has ever produced. That honor should actually be awarded to Brad Bird's "The Incredibles," which sold more than $70.4 million worth of tickets over its opening weekend back in November 2004.

Film Title
Opening Weekend Gross
"The Incredibles"
$70.4 million
"Finding Nemo"
$70.2 million
"Monsters, Inc."
$62.5 million
$60.1 million
"Toy Story 2"
$57.3 million
"A Bug's Life"
$33.2 million
"Toy Story"
$29.1 million

Truth be told, in spite of being released during the summer months (A period when motion pictures traditionally do better, in comparison to tickets sales for similiar films that are released during the spring, fall & winter months), "Cars" still managed to do almost 17% less business than both "The Incredibles" and "Finding Nemo" did over their opening weekends. A fact that Wall Street is unlikely to ignore.

Then when you factor in how "Cars" did over its opening weekend in comparison to all the other top grossing CG features that have been released over the past 10 years ...

Film Title
Opening Weekend Gross
"Shrek 2"
$108 million
"The Incredibles"
$ 70.4 million
"Finding Nemo"
$70.2 million
"Ice Age 2: The Meltdown"
$68 million
"Monsters, Inc."
$62.5 million
$60.1 million
"Toy Story 2"
$57.3 million
"Shark Tale"
$47.6 million
$47.2 million
$42.3 million

... To be honest, this John Lasseter film isn't looking all that strong, now is it? Particularly when you check out the per-screen average for "Cars" opening weekend.

Film Title
Opening Weekend Gross
Numbers of Screens
Per-Screen Average
"Shrek 2"
$108 million
"Finding Nemo"
$70.2 million
"Monsters, Inc."
$62.5 million
"The Incredibles"
$70.4 million
"Toy Story 2"
$57.3 million
"Ice Age 2: The Meltdown"
$68 million
$60.1 million
"Ice Age"
$57.2 million
"A Bug's Life"
$33.2 million
$38.8 million

Now I know, there are those of you out there who are saying: "Now wait a minute, Jim. We're just talking about a single weekend here. 'Cars' will undoubtedly develop some legs. This Pixar film is almost certain to run all summer long. So wouldn't it be wiser to wait until Labor Day -- to see what this John Lasseter movie earns over the next 12 weeks -- before labeling this motion picture a disappointment?"

Well, that's certainly the scenario that Chuck Viane is now trying to sell to the press. Here's a quote from yesterday's press release:

"It's going to be fun watching how quickly the grosses add up for 'Cars' because during the summer, (where) every day is a holiday."

Expanding on "Cars" box office potential, Viane went on to say:

"On Monday, 61 percent of (the children in the U.S. will be) out of school. Then a week from Monday, 81 percent. That's the great thing about the summer. It's not just about the weekend. The week takes on the aura of being a seven-day playdate."

But what Mr. Viane is neglecting to mention is that -- over the past eight months -- the drop-off in ticket sales that top-grossing films have typically experienced during their second weekend in release has been brutal.

Don't believe me? Then take a look at the chart below:

Name of film
First weekend's gross
Second weekend's gross
Percentage of drop-off in ticket sales
"X-Men: The Last Stand"
$102.7 million
$34.1 million
"Madea's Family Reunion"
$30 million
$12.6 million
"King Kong"
$50.1 million
$21.2 million
"The Da Vinci Code"
$77 million
$34 million
"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"
$65.5 million
$31.8 million
"Ice Age 2: The Meltdown"
$68 million
$33.8 million
"Mission: Impossible III"
$47.7 million
$25 million
"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"
$102.6 million
$54.7 million
"Over the Hedge"
$38.4 million
$27 million

You see, in this era, where studios frontload films (I.E. Place as many prints as possible in theaters for a motion picture's opening weekend. With the hope that this move will then allow that movie to achieve a record-breaking box office total during its first few days at the multiplex), it's very rare that a film develops legs nowadays.

And then when you factor in that -- on average -- tickets sales for a Pixar picture tend to drop off by 37.6% from that film's opening weekend to its second weekend in release ... Well, that indicates that Mickey probably doesn't have another "The Incredibles" or "Monsters, Inc." -sized hit on its hands right now.

Which perhaps finally brings us to the real problem here. That Wall Street had unrealistic expectations for "Cars." That -- given the $7.4 billion that the Walt Disney Company just paid out in order to acquire Pixar -- that the investment community had just assumed that box office totals would continue to climb. That this animation studio's string of smash hit films would just go on forever.

Well, instead of having another "Finding Nemo" -sized home run on its hands, Disney now appears to be dealing with another "A Bug's Life." A film that did rather well when it was initially released to theaters back in November of 1998, earning $162.7 million domestically & an additional $200.6 million when it was released overseas. For a final total of $363.3 million.

Which ain't exactly chump change. At least to Chuck Viane's way of thinking. When asked if he was disappointed by "Cars" only earning $60.1 million over its opening, the president of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution said:

""To me, a home run is a home run. Once it goes over the fence, it doesn't matter how far it goes. And a $60 million opening is over the fence in anybody's ball park."

And what Chuck says is true. A $60.1 million opening weekend for a motion picture is something that really should be celebrated. Until you remember that "The Incredibles" made $70.4 million over its opening weekend and "Finding Nemo" made $70.2 million over its opening weekend ...

Then -- when you take into account the box office performances of these two previous Pixar pictures ... Well, it's easy to understand why some on Wall Street might already be calling "Cars" a disappointment.

Now as to why this new John Lasseter film failed to break any records ... Well, what I find fascinating is the wide variety of excuses that Disney insiders are already offering as to why "Cars" didn't do better over its opening weekend. The rationalizations for the animated feature's underwhelming box office performance include:

  • The Cuddle Factor: To most people, cars are cold, metallic objects. Which is why -- in spite of the fact that the folks at Pixar had anthropomorphized all of the autos that appear in their latest motion picture -- these characters still left a lot of potential movie-goers cold (FYI: This is also supposedly why 20th Century Fox's "Robots" didn't do better than it did last year when this Blue Sky Studios film was released to theaters. Audiences supposedly prefer their animated features to star warm-blooded creatures like Manny the Mammoth from "Ice Age" & "Ice Age 2: The Meltdown").
  • "Cars" running time: Some folks at Disney are attributing this weekend's disappointing box office returns to the movie's running time. Given that this John Lasseter film clocks in at a whopping 1 hour & 56 minutes ... Well, "Cars" excessive length supposedly made it difficult for the multiplexes to get in multiple showings of this motion picture each day.

Which is an interesting theory. Until you realize that "The Incredibles" was 1 hour & 55 minutes long. And given that that Brad Bird film had little or no trouble racking up $70.4 million in ticket sales over its opening weekend ... Well, I hardly think that that one extra minute of running time actually had that significant an impact on "Cars" box office performance over this past weekend.

  • The film lacked female appeal: With much of the emphasis in "Cars" trailers & TV commercials being placed on the film's racing sequences (With the hope that these ads might then convince the NASCAR crowd to come out & see this new animated feature), Disney's PR department may have accidentally sent the wrong message to female movie-goers. Convincing this rather large market segment that "Cars" had little if anything that would appeal to and/or entertain women. Hopefully, a new set of commercials might be enough to turn that particular misconception around.

  • The World Cup: Given that Americans are probably the only people on the planet who aren't paying strict attention to what's been going on inside of Munich's Allianz Arena this past weekend, I find it kind of laughable that some people at Disney are actually insisting that ... Well, if all the people in the U.S. who had been watching (via satellite) those football matches in Germany had gone to the multiplex instead, "Cars" would have had a much healthier box office for its opening weekend.

Looking further on down the line now ... There are already those at Disney who are expressing some serious concern about how "Cars" will play internationally. Given that this John Lasseter film stars a NASCAR racer who eventually comes to appreciate life in a small town that's been bypassed by a super highway ... Well, one wonders how foreign film-goers (Who aren't all that familiar with NASCAR or our country's car culture) will actually embrace a motion picture that celebrates this distinctly American institutions.

(Though -- to be fair here -- I guess that I should also mention that there are folks at Dreamworks Animation who has expressed similiar concerns about "Over the Hedge." How that animated feature -- which gleefully sends up the suburbs & America's consumer culture -- may have a real problem connecting with movie-goers overseas.)

Anyway ... Getting back to "Cars" now. With the opening weekend performance of this John Lasseter film now officially being labeled a disappointment by Wall Street (Want proof? Once word got out that Pixar's latest movie had failed to meet its initial box office projections, Disney's stock price actually dropped by 3% when the New York Stock Exchange opened for trading on Monday morning), now all eyes turn to how "Cars" does over its second weekend in theaters.

A lot of people at Pixar & Disney are now hoping and praying that moviegoers prefer Lightning McQueen over the more realistic street racers that will be seen in "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" (I.E. That Universal Pictures release that rolls into theaters next Friday. Which will offer this Pixar film some considerable competition for the young male audience over the coming weekend).

Because if this new John Lasseter film actually follows box office trends and sees its ticket sales fall off by more than 50% during its second weekend in theaters ... Well, Disney could find itself with some pretty serious "Cars" trouble on its hands.

Your thoughts?

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  • Wow, this has become the most cheerful spot on the internet lately.

  • I thought the movie was great by the way, I'm sorry a $62.8 million is not an underperformance if this were a dreamworks film none would speak of an underperformance whatsoever. Knowing how good it is I think word of mouth will be very good and it will do just fine against "tokyo Drift".
  • So where were you when Over the Hedge under perform.I even took you to task over it on the forum! http://jimhillmedia.com/forums/thread/2523.aspx

    Oh thats right you had that freak streak of bad luck with the storm etc.And you wonder why people give you such a hard time where it comes to you being critical about Disney.

    Congratulations to Pixar & Disney on yet another massive hit.While not on the scale of Nemo or Incredibles,it just goes to show how investment analysts are clueless,because its still a solid number.And there shouldn't be expecting Pixar to top each film there make,its simply too much to ask of any studio!
  • If all they can do is look at the numbers and not at how good this movie actually was, that's very stupid of them. Typical, I suppose, but stupid. The movie is classic. I have already seen it three times and it only gets funnier. And anyone to call it a "lemon" or boring is so typical...and wrong. The movie sends out such a good message that bashing it and calling it a failure is so shallow and as I mentioned, typical.
  • Plus with such high expectations of the film, I'm sure people were sitting around just waiting to write up a negative review and call it a failure because it fell short of expectations just to throw Disney this, "You paid too much for Pixar!"
  • Following this path of thought - we best get rid of Lassetter as soon as possible - he's dragging this combined company down.

    I haven't seen any of those "expert" analysts point out this is almost a 2 hour movie - when you increase the running time up from 90 minutes, you lose one showtime per day. Now, take any of those other Pixar movies and subtract the grosses from three showings during opening weekend. It's a large chunk of change. Now I wouldn't expect an analyst to realize that, because they've never worked in a movie theatre or for a movie studio. All they did was compare opening weekend gross totals, without any "expert" analysis.
  • Sadly, Chuck, the high paid spin doctor, didn't point the running time difference out either.
  • Analysts go with the theory that each movie has to outgross its predecessor. It's a horrid system, but Cars was specifically positioned as a monster hit. The theatre I went to see it at today had 2 screens showing it at 4:30.
  • I don't get how this is a huge dissappointment either.  Just because it made a crapload of money instead of a s***load of money is rediculous.  I bet theta this will stay at number one next week too without any significan drop over 30% mainly because it's a lot better than any of the movies you set up on your drop off meter.  Heck, Narnia was one of the most successful of last year and had a very similar opening.  What's wrong with you Jim?  Cup half empty all the time?
  • Y'know, if we're gonna discount the thought process involving potential weekday grosses for days that haven't happened yet, I imagine we should also discount the thought process involving second weekend drop-offs for a film in its first weekend...
  • Anyone besides me feel like Jim already had this story written and just filled in the applicable dollar amounts before posting it?

    The film was awesome ... I think it took a bit of a ding from mediocre early reviews, but in this case word of mouth will be enough to compensate. It'll stay strong and it's final gross will be just fine.

    My opinion is this is the best Pixar film yet.
  • Join us Jim and you will discover just how powerful you can become.

    Seriously though, I have always scoffed at those mouse-wing wackos that say you always spin negatively about Disney.  This one was a stretch Dude, you really had to look and dig for this one.

    Remember, anger and hate are a path to the dark side.
  • I basically agree with everyone else. When you're at the top of the heap, knocking you down becomes a semiprofessional sport. To spin Cars, a wonderful movie beautifully made with a charming and touching story, as anything other than a triumph based on the fact that it might end up being just a hit as opposed to a _smash_ hit is bizarre, to say the least.
  • I don't know about anywhere else, but Friday, the theaters (playing Cars) were DEAD. I mean at our local 7:20 PM show, the theater was less than 1/2 full. By Sunday though, it was jumping. The 10:50 AM showing had an 80%+ house. I think that people were not really interested in another Incredibles or Finding Nemo (both good movies, but it gets a little old), but once word of mouth got out that Cars was much better (at least in the opinion of everyone I have asked) the theaters starting filling up. I think it is going to have a great first full week / second weekend. Just my prediction.

  • I don't know why Jim has been all over John and company lately. When I read the article last week, I could already see that Jim couldn't wait to write this type of article.
    I loved Cars! So much that I saw it twice, once on Friday and once on Saturday! And guess what? It got better on the second viewing.
    I hope this movie continues to do well this week. Maybe it will shut some of the more harsh critics up!
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