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Don't be too quick to judge whether "Frankenweenie" is a box office mutt or a pure bred

Jim Hill

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Don't be too quick to judge whether "Frankenweenie" is a box office mutt or a pure bred

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Director Rob Reiner told this great story earlier this month at the 50th New York Film Festival about how he didn't want "The Princess Bride" to wind up like "The Wizard of Oz."

"And why exactly would he say something like that?," you ask. Given how popular that fantasy film is today, few people realize that "Oz" wasn't exactly considered a hit when it originally opened in theaters back in August of 1939. Sure, it won two Academy Awards and got lots of great reviews. But "Oz" cost so much to make & market that MGM actually lost money on this motion picture during its initial domestic release. It was only when "Wizard" was re-released to theaters in 1949 that this now-legendary film finally recovered its production costs. More to the point, it wasn't 'til "Oz" began airing annually on television in 1956 that the public really began embracing this classic studio system product.

Copyright MG Studios. All rights reserved.

"I didn't want to wait 15 - 20 years for 'Princess Bride' to be recognized as a classic. I wanted this movie to be a smash hit right out of the box," said Reiner from the stage at Alice Tulley Hall. "But that's not what happened."

Indeed, when this 20th Century Fox release arrived in theaters in September of 1987, "The Princess Bride" only earned $4.4 million over its opening weekend. And over the course of its entire domestic run, "Princess" only pulled in $30 million. Which was hardly what Hollywood would have considered a smash hit, even back during the late 1980s.

That said, once "The Princess Bride" was released on VHS by Nelson Entertainment in 1988 (more to the point, once this Rob Reiner film began airing regularly on cable), that's when the perception of this now-beloved motion picture began changing. It gradually went from being this box office disappointment to a cult classic to what it is today; one of the more highly quoted movie comedies / love stories of the past 50 years.

"I guess you can't tell an audience when it should fall in love with your movie," Reiner concluded.

(L-R) Rob Reiner, Robin Wright, William Goldman, Wallace Shawn on stage at Alice Tulley Hall in New York City.
Photo by Florence Doyle

I bring this up because -- in this Twitter / Facebook age -- everyone seems to be in such a big rush to be the first to get online and then weigh in with their opinion. And given that "Tim Burton's Frankenweenie 3D" isn't exactly racking up record grosses (to date, this Walt Disney Pictures release has only earned $22 million). Which has many in the entertainment industry now calling this stop motion movie as a disappointment or -- worse yet -- a flop.

Me personally, I think it's touch premature to label "Frankenweenie" a failure. Especially since this Tim Burton movie (which allegedly only cost $38 million to make) has yet to open up in most overseas markets. Which is where this director's films traditionally make the bulk of their box office.

But you know what I find particularly interesting? The number of movie critics & film fans who have been so quick to say "Well, 'Frankenweenie' is certainly no 'Nightmare Before Christmas.' " Which suggests that they think that that Henry Selick film was a hit straight out of the box.

Which wasn't exactly what happened. Those of us who are old enough to remember what really happened when "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" was originally released to theaters back in October of 1993 will tell you that this Touchstone Pictures release had kind of a rough go during its initial domestic release.

Copyright 1993 Skellington Productions,  Inc.

And -- to be honest -- part of the problem was that Disney Studio execs didn't have all that much confidence in "Nightmare." As early footage for this Tim Burton production began trickling back to Burbank from San Francisco in 1992, Mouse House managers just didn't know what to make of "Nightmare." Seen in bits & pieces like this, "Nightmare" looked ... Well, nightmarish. This Henry Selick film just seemed too dark & weird for the traditional Disney audience. Which is why -- a full year before "Nightmare" was supposed to be released to theaters -- a decision was made internally that this Tim Burton production would now go out into theaters under the Touchstone Pictures banner, rather than as an official Walt Disney Pictures release.

Which -- based on what some Company insiders have told me over the past 15 years or so -- might have wound up costing "Nightmare" $20 - $30 million at the box office during its initial domestic release. That -- without that Disney label out in front of this Henry Selick film -- a significant number of parents hesitated when it came to taking their kids to see "Nightmare" during its original theatrical run.

Of course, what's kind of ironic about all this is -- that while Walt Disney Studios was extremely reluctant to embrace "Nightmare" back in 1993 -- the Disney Store had no such qualms. That retail chain had tons of Tim Burton-inspired merchandise available for purchase in and around the 1993 holiday season. But again, because "Nightmare" went out into theaters under the Touchstone Pictures banner rather than Walt Disney Pictures, Disney Store customers kind of turned up their noses when it came to Jack Skellington & friends. Which is why a lot of that first wave of "Nightmare" merch wound up being remaindered and/or returned.

Now jump ahead 19 years or so, and those initial pieces of "Nightmare" merchandise now command top dollar on eBay. All because very few people actually purchased these items when they initially appeared on Disney Store shelves back in the Fall of 1993.

Copyright Walt Disney Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Anyway ... Getting back to "The Nightmare Before Christmas" 's initial box office performance in 1993: This Henry Selick film only wound up earning $50 million. Now if you compare that to the $312 million that "The Lion King" made when it bowed in theaters just seven months later ... Well, you can understand why Disney execs didn't originally consider this Tim Burton production to be all that successful.

"But what about when 'Nightmare' was re-released to theaters?," you ask. "Particularly those 3D versions, when audiences had to pay extra in order to see a dimensional version of this movie, Surely those versions of 'Nightmare' helped bump up overall box office totals for this Tim Burton production."

Well, yeah. They did. But not by as much as you might think. If you took "Nightmare" 's original box office take from 1993 and then combined that amount with all of the money that this Henry Selick film has earned over the past six years when it's been re-released in 3D, you'd still only wind up with $75 million domestic. Which is still well short of the $100 million worth of tickets that a movie must sell before industry insiders will then consider that project to be a genuine Hollywood blockbuster.

That said, if you were to ask any executives at The Walt Disney Company today if they considered "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" to be a success, they'd immediately say "Yes." Pointing to the tens of thousands of people who make special trips to Disneyland Park and/or Tokyo Disneyland every year so so they can then experience "Haunted Mansion Holiday." Or -- for that matter -- all of the WDW Guests who stood in 3 hour-long lines at Downtown Disney earlier this month during "Frankenweenie Weekend," just so they could then get their picture taken with the walk-around theme park versions of Jack Skellington & Sally.

And let's not forget about how many copies of "Nightmare" have been sold over the past 18 years on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray. Or how well t-shirts, coffee mugs and other collectibles featuring Jack's boney face continue to sell today.

In short, when it comes to some Tim Burton films, there's often kind of a time release factor involved. That it can sometimes take moviegoers quite a while before they finally cozy up & then embrace his characters.

Of course, it's worth noting here that the characters associated with the other stop motion movie that Tim Burton made with Henry Selick -- 2007's "The Corpse Bride" -- have yet to be embraced by audiences in the way that Jack & Sally have. But that may be because "Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride" was produced by Warner Bros. And the folks at Warners just lack Disney's skill (more importantly, don't have the same sort of promotional machine in place. Or -- for that matter -- have access to the same assortment of stores, theme parks and cable channels. The sort of platforms that are absolutely essential if you're looking to leverage an IP) when it comes to keeping franchisable characters like Jack Skellington & friends evergreen.

So when it comes to "Frankenweenie 3D," I wouldn't be so quick -- if I were you, that is -- to label this Tim Burton film a failure or a flop. Given that there currently isn't a single Sparky plush available for purchase at any of the stateside Disney theme parks (the only huggable version of a character from "Frankenweenie" that's still in stock is Persephone, that black French Poodle with the Bride-of-Frankenstein-like white streaks running through her hair) ... It's pretty obvious that there are plenty of people out there who already have a soft spot when it comes to this stop motion movie.

Copyright 2012 Walt Disney Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mind you, it's not that I'm saying that "Frankenweenie" will eventually come to be seen as the next "Wizard of Oz" or "The Princess Bride." But given what "The Nightmare Before Christmas" has taught us about Tim Burton's stop motion projects (especially those that have been released by the Mouse House) ... Well, we all might want to wait a few years -- like at least 3, more likely 5 -- before the popular culture verdict finally comes in as to where "Frankenweenie" stands in the cinematic pantheon. Whether this motion picture is a purebred or a mutt.

Your thoughts?

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  • My thoughts exactly.  An out of town visitor friend of mine hesitated on buying the Sparky plush and when we went back to purchase the next day, he was gone, and has not been re-stocked since.  Never underestimate the power of merchandise.  Jack stuff sells almost as well as Princess crap 19 years after his movie release.

    As far as Disney Store first wave NBC merch, it's too bad.  Merch was so much better and more varied twenty years ago than it is today; I'm sure fans of the film would jump to purchase higher end collectibles if they still existed.

    IMO Corpse Bride is a slightly better film than NBC, and it's a shame that it's not put more out there.  I, for one would snatch up a lot of merch based on this film.

  • Not sure what source is being used... But I feel as though Frankenweenie has adequate presence in the theme parks. There are Plushes available at WDW as well as Frankenweenie was plastered on every Not So Scary halloween bag. PLUS.. the emporium has a whole section just for Frankenweenie. People just aren't embracing it that's all.

  • I haven't seen the stop motion Frankenweenie yet. I would like to see Disney push the original live action film. That film is hilarious!

  • But, main difference between 'Nightmare Before...' and 'Frankenweenie' and 'Corpse Bride' is that 'Nightmare is a VERY good movie (the story is great, the characters are memorable, the songs are amazing..). and 'Corpse' and 'Franken..' aren't as good. I'm not saying that they are bad movies, just not as good as 'Nightmare...' For some strange reason I even found them a little boring; and their characters flat compared to those of 'Nightmare'.  I don't believe that it will become what 'Nightmare' is right now.

  • Emily I was at the Magic Kingdom yesterday and could not find the spark plush only the poodle.

  • Emily... he's not saying that Disney didn't put any merchandise out there to buy (or that people aren't buying it). He's saying that you can't find any because they are sold out.

    I had to read it twice myself at first because I didn't get what he was saying... it becomes clearer later in the story.

  • I dunno...I saw Frankenweenie this weekend, and the main problem with it is it just doesn't seem to DEVELOP very many things. It introduces characters and doesn't make much of them. It introduces the pompous and rigid mayor and seems to be setting up a conflict, then pretty much forgets about him until nearly the end. It introduces the mayor's niece and seems to be setting up a friendship between her and Victor (as well as a conflict between her and her uncle), then neglects HER until nearly the end after only a few lines of dialogue between them. Everything seems rushed and skipped over. Maybe it's a by-product of being a short in feature's clothing?

  • I saw Frankenweenie last  week on board the Magic. The normal "broadway musical style" live show for that night was canceled due to a cast member illness, so they showed Frankenweenie instead. I was surprised at the low number of people in the audience. The theater was not empty by any means, but I would be surprised if it was more than half full.

    I never liked Nightmare Before Christmas. I find its songs endless and repetitive and the characters annoying.  I though that Corpse Bride went a long way to fix those problems, but Frankenweenie is easily the best of the three in my opinion. I will grant that the plot is not very complex and that the movie just seems to stop rather than end. However, those who are upset about the plot issues may  be missing the point. Frankenweenie is a mood piece and a character study.  Its not afraid to be strange and dark (very, very dark) and that's were it finds it's strength. This dark environment provides a perfect setting for the strange, twisted and sometimes down right creepy kids, pets and teachers who inhabit the town. It also allows the film to delivers the many hilarious old horror movie parodies that it contains.

    <<Warning, very small mini spoiler ahead>>

    The problem is that the film is so strange and so dark  that many parents might  not want their kids to see it.  Would you really want your kids to see a movie that features a cat which excretes prophesies?  The movie also contains a ton of old movie references that kids are not going to get. Certainly the parents on the Magic  did not seem to be rushing to take their kids to it. Honestly, I don't see this as a family film, which means that its association with Disney may actually hurt it at the box office, and that's a shame, because its a great movie.

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