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Toon Tuesday : Will "Robinsons" lackluster box office actually help speed the return of traditional animation at Walt Disney Studios?

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Toon Tuesday : Will "Robinsons" lackluster box office actually help speed the return of traditional animation at Walt Disney Studios?

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I spent the better part of yesterday on the phone with folks at Walt Disney Studios. Each of whom put their own special spin on "Meet the Robinsons" 's No. 2 finish at the box office this past weekend.

Okay. So $25.1 million in ticket sales isn't exactly something to sneeze at. Particularly when you consider that -- just the weekend before -- "TMNT" claimed the No. 1 spot at the box office with an opening weekend gross of $24.3 million.

But if you were to compare "Meet the Robinsons" opening to that of "Chicken Little" ...

Opening Weekend Gross
Per Screen Average
"Chicken Little"
$40 million
$10,960 per screen
"Meet the Robinsons"
$25.1 million
$7361 per screen


Copyright 2007 Walt Disney Enterprises

Or -- better yet -- were you to compare what Disney Feature Animation's latest CG production made this past weekend to what other recent computer-animated features (Which were also released during the month of March) earned over their own opening weekends ...

Release Date
Opening Weekend Gross
Per Screen Average
"Ice Age : The Meltdown"
March 31, 2006
$68 million
$17,162 per screen
"Ice Age"
March 15, 2002
$46.3 million
$13,966 per screen
March 11, 2005
$36 million
$9545 per screen
"Meet the Robinsons"
March 30, 2007
$25.1 million
$7361 per screen

... We're not exactly talking about stellar numbers here.

Oh, sure. "Meet the Robinsons" easily out-performed WDFA's last two traditionally animated features ...

Opening Weekend Gross
Per Screen Average
"Meet the Robinsons"
$25.1 million
$7361 per screen
"Brother Bear"
$19.4 million
$6404 per screen
"Home on the Range"
$13.8 million
$4505 per screen


Copyright 2007 Walt Disney Enterprises

... But it's that 35% difference between what "Chicken Little" earned over its opening weekend versus "Meet the Robinsons" earned over its own opening weekend that's now troubling Mouse House insiders.

Okay. Admittedly, there were some contributing factors here. And -- believe me, folks -- I heard about each & every one of them yesterday. Everything from " ... We knew going into this past weekend that 'Blades of Glory' was going to be No. 1 at the box office" to " ... There's no denying that we lost a lot of potential 'Meet the Robinsons' customers to 'TMNT' " to " ... Our animated releases always do better in November than they do in March." I even had Mouse House officials telling me about how the Final Four had a significant impact on this past weekend's box office.

Mind you, for every justification that I got for "Meet the Robinsons" 's opening weekend grosses being sub-par, I then heard about how " ... This is just a momentary dip in the road." That -- given how this coming weekend is Easter (More importantly, given that a good part of the country will soon be out on school vacation) -- that we can then expect WDFA's latest CG production to continue to pull strong numbers throughout the month of April. And that -- thanks to the 581 theaters that are now showing "Meet the Robinsons" in Disney Digital 3D -- that this Steve Anderson film is sure to develop strong legs. Which is why it's quite likely that -- before the month is out -- that "Meet the Robinsons" will officially achieve blockbuster status (I.E. Earned over $100 million during its initial domestic run).

Which I might have believed. If the box office for the second weekend of "TMNT" hadn't just fallen off by 62%.

Copyright 2007 Walt Disney Enterprises

Which is why I'm now quite reluctant to predict what "Meet the Robinsons" 's final box office tally might be. So instead of climbing out on that particular limb ... Why don't I share a story that I heard yesterday? Where a WDFA vet told me about how "Meet the Robinsons" not doing as well as "Chicken Little" might eventually turn out to be a good thing. Particularly for all you traditional animation fans out there.

How so? Here. I'll let my unnamed source spin out this intriguing scenario for you:

"By the end of this summer, when people in the industry are looking at what 'Ratatouille' and 'Shrek the Third' earned, that $100 million that 'Meet the Robinsons' had to struggle through the entire month of April in order to earn is going to look pretty paltry.

After that, all eyes are going to then be on 'Enchanted.' To see how well a new Walt Disney Pictures release that features traditional animation does. If that Kevin Lima film turns out to be a genuine blockbuster (Which -- these days, allowing for inflation -- means that you actually have to pull in over $200 million during your domestic release) ... Well, the pressure's really on then for 'America Dog.'

And God forbid if that Chris Williams movie makes less at the box office than 'Meet the Robinsons' eventually does ... If that were to happen, there are people here at this studio that would view that box office slump as a sign that moviegoers don't really like WDFA CG films. That they'd prefer it if Disney left the computer animation to Pixar.

Copyright 2007 Walt Disney Enterprises

Which would then put an awful lot of pressure on 'The Frog Princess.' To see if that Ron Clements & John Musker film actually delivers on the promise of 'Enchanted.' Giving people not just 10 or 15 minutes of a traditionally animated fairy tale. But a full-blown feature-length traditionally animated feature along the lines of 'The Little Mermaid,' 'Beauty & the Beast' and 'Aladdin.'

If 'Frog Princess' is a smash ... Well, that would then be pretty much all she wrote for CG at WDFA. Executives here will then use that event as an excuse to turn this studio back into a traditional animation operation.

Alright. Even I have to admit that the above scenario seems like a pretty iffy proposition. Particularly given that John Lasseter & Ed Catmull keep talking about how that they themselves aren't pushing for WDFA to return to its traditional animation roots. But -- rather -- that these two Pixar vets are going to let the directors of each upcoming Disney Feature Animation production decide for themselves if their film should be traditionally animated or produced in CG.

Which seems like a perfectly reasonable explantion. Except that ... Given that it's John & Ed who now have final say over which films WDFA actually puts into production ... Wouldn't it stand to reason that they could then deliberately choose directors who were championing traditionally animated projects?

Copyright 2007 Walt Disney Enterprises

This is why a lot of folks in Burbank are now wondering if "American Dog" and "Rapunzel" might be WDFA's last official CG projects. That -- once those two films make it all the way through Disney's production pipeline -- that Feature Animation will then revert to being a traditional animation studio again.

I would imagine -- over the next five years or so -- that we'll finally have a definitive answer to that question ... Which makes me wish that Wilbur Robinson would drop by with that snazzy flying time machine of his. So that we could then all journey to the future and see how this whole WDFA / Pixar merger - reorganization thing actually plays out.

Copyright 2007 Walt Disney Enterprises

But -- for now -- all we've got are these early box office returns as well as some bits & pieces from behind-the-scenes. Sooo ... Does the above scenario sound at all likely to you folks? Or instead does it come across as too much wishful thinking by a guy who really misses working with his pencil?

Your thoughts?

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  • I haven't seen the completed film yet.  But from the promotional stills it seems clear that Disney is re-using secondary characters from Chicken Little, as well as some background design.  (This may be because I've only seen the promotional materials, which perhaps were assembled with old material to give them a finished look.)  But can someone tell me if, in fact, Disney did recycle secondary character designs and some backgrounds into this film from CL?


  • The film itself was one of the better Disney Animated films released recently...which I suppose doesn't speak to its strengths, despite the fact that it's really got some nice ones.  The heart of the film shines through and really, thats the biggest improvement - at least to me. I actually haven't seen a non-Pixar animated film from Disney since 2002's Treasure Planet (which, I actually enjoyed a lot!). So it was a refreshing experience to actually like the film - and the short before it was an added bonus.

    Regardless - Box Office numbers are always tricky and can be twisted in so many ways, speculation as to what will, won't, and may happen is hard.  Granted the Scenario Jim lays out here is entirely plausible.  In fact, I'd have to agree with the sentiment that this film might have to struggle to make up its budget, which really is a shame considering it deserves more.  Easter weekend/week proves to be a test, and I'm just as eager as Disney to see how many people go out to see the film.

    As for recycling Secondary character designs and backgrounds from Chicken Little...eh.  I haven't seen enough of CL to know for sure, but all (well...most) the characters in Meet the Robinsons are either Frogs, Humans, or Robots - none of which I recognized from any advertisements or PRs regarding Chicken Little when that came out.  I would say no, but I'm interested to know how right I am considering how unfamiliar I am with CL.

  • Having seen the movie Sunday night, I can honestly say it's one of the better animated films I've seen of the last 5 years. The film has an amazing level of heart, the Bowler Hat Guy was a perfect villain (which makes me wonder what he was like before Lasseter ordered that he be retooled. can we get that story now, Jim?), and if you're a Disney dweeb like me, the end is very touching. All in all, Meet the Robinsons is a fantastic night at the movies and I look forward to seeing it in 3D this weekend.

    And believe me, if guest reactions that I saw during my shift at the Disney Store on Saturday are to be believed, this movie will have great word of mouth and legs. The store was running a promotion that offered guests free kaleidoscopes with their MtR ticket stubs. I made a point to ask each such guest what they thought about the movie. The children raved and the parents went on about how much they themselves enjoyed it too. I had one family come in with four children, who immediately ran to the MtR table of merchandies, excitedly shouting out the names of characters and getting pretty excited that toys from this great, new movie were available.

    And regarding TMNT's drop at the box office. While I didn't see it my brothers did. Their word of mouth has me out of the cinema. I'm just saying.

  • My gosh, not this again...

    Yes, I'm sure Meet the Robinsons' 'lackluster' numbers were due to the film being CGI.  If it had been a traditionally animated picture, it probably would have opened with at least $40 million.

    And yes, if Robinsons has strong legs, I'm sure it's because of the 3-D.  Never mind the film's humor, engaging story or powerful emotions.

    Could it be that the Ice Age films, Chicken Little, Robots, etc. all opened with bigger numbers because, I don't know, maybe they had MUCH better marketing campaigns.  Seriously, pretty much every single commercial and trailer for Robinsons centered around two jokes: the caffeine patch and Tiny.  Had it not been for my interest in animation, I would have had zero interest in seeing the film.  Instead, I would have seen Blades of Glory.  

    None of the ads even hinted at the strong emotional core of the film, with the exception of that one international trailer.  Instead, I kept thinking Everyone's Hero 2.

    Then, where were the store promotions?  I mean, Chicken Little was in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade - twice!

  • Seems to me that is the same bass aackwards line of thinking that led to 2D "dieing" to begin with....gee I guess people don't like 2D anymore since 3D is outperforming it.  No one ever think that story and general appeal have anything to do with it? And NOT the medium.......

    I will go see Robinsons at some point but honestly, the trailers didn't do much for me in terms of making me WANT to go see it.  Shrek3, Ratatouille and Surf's Up look way more fun and interesting than "boy goes to the gee-whiz future..look kids a funny dinosaur"...again I have not seen it and the film might be quite good, however the trailers didn't get me jazzed about it....

    So now the cries of the end of 2D at Disney has turned into the end of 3D....how totally predictable....

  • I saw MTR on opening day in Digital 3D, and I must say that I really liked the film! It surprised me how much I ended up enjoying it and I loved that in its heart, it really is a tribute to Walt Disney himself. But honestly, up until a few weeks ago, I had no desire.. no intention to see this film at all. After watching the trailers and all the ads, it didn't look interesting at all. I could see a bunch of wacky looking characters that I could in no way connect with any kind of plot that caught my interest. I feel this is one of the biggest mistakes with this movie... the marketing campaign does not touch the film's plot, which is what drives the film. It only showcases the CG characters and backgrounds.

    So what finally drove me to pay to see this movie on opening day? This website, actually. Once I read the report on Lasseter allowing the director to tell the story in his own way, a story about a young child trying to find his birth mother after being abandoned at an orphanage as a baby... well suddenly THAT sounded intriguing. THAT sounded interesting. And THAT ALONE put me into my theater seat with my 3 kids on Friday. If I was looking at the trailer and tv commercials currently running, I would have never gone near this film. The problem here is that (Sorry, Jim) 99.99% of the world don't know this site exists and never read that column. I fear that a large majority have no clue what this movie is about, and because of this, it is not a priority for them to spend their hard earned money or take time away from their Easter weekend. If Disney's marketing team spent more time actually telling people what this film is about, rather than just showing eye-candy, they might generate more interest.

    I see the film struggling, I would be surprised to see it reach $100 million. But I think that is the fault of Disney Marketing, rather than the quality film that it is. I don't want to Meet the Robinsons.. I want to connect with a child who needs a family.

    Thanks for the great insight, Jim. By explaining that Disney Directors are finally getting some freedom to tell stories, instead of having story telling taking place with business executive dictates, you helped this film earn an additional $40. Mine. The money that I wouldn't have spent had I not been an avid reader here.

  • 1) How about some fair comparisons for MTR. Instead of picking key films over the past 5 years (that all conveniently grossed a lot of money), lets look at the glut of recent animation....

    Doogal - $3.6m

    Everyone's Hero - $6m

    Arthur and the Invisibles - $4.2m

    Happily N'Ever After - $6.6m

    Valiant - $5.9m

    The Ant Bully - $8.4m

    The Wild - $9.6m

    Hoodwinked - $12.4m

    Flushed Away - $18.8m

    Barnyard - $15.8m

    See what I mean? Even the more major films like Monster House & Open Season managed only $23m weekends. CGI films are no long "the rage." They are going to dip back down to "normal" animation levels.

    2) On the more optimistic side, the 480 someodd theaters showing it in 3D brought in $7m of that opening weekend (which is huge considering it premiered in 3400 theaters).

    3) Moving more towards opinions, I thought MTR was a truly wonderful movie. Best animated movie since 2001's Monsters Inc and best WDFA movie since 1999's Tarzan. This movie had true "Disney Classic" written all over it. From the opening Steamboat Willie logo to the movie's emotional moments to the ending quote from Walt, this film truly was a step 'forward.' The movie made me laugh, made me cry and was truly awesome all around. Great job STEPHEN ANDERSON! (and yes, I challenge anyone to use the word 'truly' more often in one paragraph) :)

  • I couldn't agree with you more, askmike.

  • I saw it in 3-D in a pre-noon Saturday performance.  There were not a lot of people there.  However, kids really "ooohed" when the 3-D began.  There was a lot of "wow" factor in the animation.  Unfortunately, my theatre was also plagued by a substandard sound system (only one speaker working), so the 3-D was limited to visuals only.

    I know Disney is promoting the film in certain ways, such as offering free soundtrack CDs to those who take a quiz after viewing the movie, and offering "points" for those who enter their ticket stub numbers.  Nonetheless, I don't recall seeing a lot of commercials (unlike Blades of Glory), and when I checked the Disney Store website yesterday they had no specialty merchandise or listings for MTR.  

    The story was good, although some jokes fell rather flat.  I thought the plot was more consistent with the Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd (a podcast), right down to the mumbling hat.  Funny joke, though: who Cornelius looks like, according to Wilbur.

    I also saw Blades of Glory the same day, and it was every bit as funny as I expected.  I suspect saturation marketing could have helped MTR. I wonder whether the orphan philospohy of the Disney animation studios, coupled with Disney's withdrawal from fast-food marketing, have led to less than spectacular results.  I do think when the Shrek numbers come in, people will practically forget about all the other CGs released in the past year - in part because I know Shrek (like all other Mike Myers films lately) will be promoted to the Nth degree with product placements and cross-promotions, saturation ads, toys, etc. - and because it has become a franchise, stocked with immediately recognizable characters that MTR lacked.

  • My answer to the question in the title: yes.

    I also studied the box office results of past and present computer animated movies, and "Meet the Robinsons" did not good. I know only comparing it to big studio movies (DreamWorks, Fox/Blue Sky, Sony) seems unfair, but let's not forget (Askmike1 ;) ) that "Meet the Robinsons" is a DISNEY MOVIE. Usually that has a certain impact on people.

    But not any more obviously. I think the brand name has suffered erosion. The promotional combination "animation" and "Disney" isn't that strong any more. But wait, if that was the point, than "Chicken Little" shouldn't have grossed that much? That's true, but it was a completely other season. "Meet the Robinsons" didn't only suffer from brand name erosion, but also from being released in the wrong period.

    And of course, as Jim points out, next weekend and continuing though the months the box office results from "Meet the Robinsons" can stay strong. There aren't really big movies opening in the next week, maybe Fox's "Firehouse Dog" but I don't think that movie will do all that good.

  • Second note: I haven't seen the movie yet, but it is strange that everybody here loves the movie (well, maybe it isn't for Disney fans), since many critics online and print critics I've spoken with told me that it was one of the un-Disneylike movies ever. And that the story lacked sparks, strong characters, a good continuation of story lines and that the strongest part of the movie was it's animation. But story is king, so many of them spoke negatively to me about it.

  • What happened to the Jakks Pacific figures shown at ToyFair over a year ago? Was the license dropped? I'd had hoped to find more MTR stuff when I was in NYC this weekend but all I found was an opening day pin and Pez dispensers between World of Disney and Toys R Us.

    The MTR ads have been terrible, even down to the Movie Surfers... so it wasn't a saturation issue. And saturation can backfire. Doubt I'll bother seeing Blades of Glory in theatres because I've had my fill (elevator doors? every last bus stop in West Hollywood- on both sides?) and, well, I want to see MTR a 3rd time.

  • I loved MTR!  I prefer the look of traditional films to CGI films, but MTR is the best looking CGI film I've ever seen.  And the story was amazing.  I'd recommend reading "A Day With Wilbur Robinson" by William Joyce if you're unsure of seeing the film- it doesn't give anything away, but it gives you a feel for the film.  As for disneylandtour's question, Cody S. is right- there just aren't the same types of characters in CL and MTR for them to use the same characters.  As for the backgrounds, I'm not 100% sure, but the places in the film look nothing like Oakey Oaks or a spaceship.  I'm guessing that the movie will do better in a couple weeks when more schools are on vacation.  I agree that the marketing probably will play a part in the box office numbers- I was at the Disney Store a couple weeks ago, and the only MTR merchandise they had was some free stickers.  And the trailer should have focused on other aspects of the film.  But, read the book and you may see why (quite an interesting bunch of characters).  I absolutely loved MTR, and the 6 other people I went with (in ages from 7 to 30-something) all loved it, too.

  • MTR is Disney's finest animated film since Lilo and Stichand the best animated film since Finding Nemo IMO. The animation was easily the best we've seen in CG so far, the characters were well developed, it was hilariously funny, touching and had a great score. Whatever it is that John and Ed are doing over at WDFA, keep it up!

  • "empoor said:

    Second note: I haven't seen the movie yet, but it is strange that everybody here loves the movie (well, maybe it isn't for Disney fans), since many critics online and print critics I've spoken with told me that it was one of the un-Disneylike movies ever."

    Rotten Tomatoes has MTR listed as 'Fresh' with favorable percentage of 65% (BTW, Blades of Glory got 70%).

    From a critic, I'd take 'un-Disneylike' as a compliment.  Most critics I read have an easily descernable bias about the way they catagorize films - and Disney films are 'song-filled kids movies with princesses and talking animals'.  Well, aside from some supporting characters being talking animals (or, singing frogs and grunting dinos), MTR does not fit in to that bias.

    I think the biggest failure in Jim's analysis lies in the times the movies were released.  Chicken Little was released on November 4, 2005, for the upcoming holiday season.  This may account for a lot of the discrepancy between their respective opening boxes.

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