In the early days of the pandemic, when the studios shifted their theatrical releases to PVOD and streaming services, we all knew there was a chance that behaviors would change forever. The fear was that audiences would grow used to seeing theatrical-quality films at home and, possibly, never return to the big screen. Perhaps, it seemed, we had crossed the Rubicon.
Nearly four years removed from the early days of Covid, we have a greater perspective on the impact of theatrical shutting down through most of 2020 and 2021. Some audiences haven’t returned. Some will only show up for unique events like BARBIE. And, with WISH being the third Thanksgiving animated film to open below $30M, it’s becoming clear that families are being much more selective about what they will see in a theater.
But wait. THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE will be the #2 film of the year, just behind BARBIE. And SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE will end the year at #3. It seems like animation is doing just fine. Agreed. But it’s a very different story when you look at animated films that are NOT based on existing IPs. None of these films have opened above $30M since the pandemic. WISH is just the latest to fall below that mark. Illumination’s MIGRATION, now less than a month away from release, looks likely to continue that trend.
We’d probably be having a very different conversation if Covid appeared a few years earlier. But in an odd bit of timing, the pandemic arrived just months after the November 2019 launch of Disney+. Suddenly, there was an outlet for films like ARTEMIS FOWL, MULAN, and RAYA AND THE DRAGON. PIXAR, in particular, was hit hard. ONWARD arrived a week before theaters closed. Then, SOUL and LUCA shifted to Disney+.
You can’t argue with Disney’s decisions to shift those titles to streaming. But all the studios—not just Disney—are paying for two major unforced errors. First, Disney decided not to release TURNING RED theatrically even though the film was scheduled to open in March 2022, three months after SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME proved that people were ready to return to theaters. Second, Disney failed to recognize that people wanted to see HOCUS POCUS 2 on the big screen. The sequel was developed for Disney+, but rather than spotting an opportunity for box office revenue, they stuck with a streaming-only release.
Now as we approach 2024, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that original animated films are struggling given that the studios—Disney in particular—have trained families to watch these films at home. Factor in shrinking windows, and the calculation is easy. Audiences—families in particular—are being far more selective about what they see in a theater, given that they only have to wait a few months to see it at home.
Things have become so dire that the seemingly bulletproof animation studio Illumination is struggling with its upcoming MIGRATION. Of the 13 films released by the studio, all have grossed over $100M, with ten topping out at over $200M. While we wouldn’t expect MIGRATION to reach the same heights as any of the five films from the DESPICABLE ME franchise, Illumination’s holiday offering looks to land on the low end of their box office filmography.
While it’s reasonable to lower expectations for its upcoming release, let’s not forget that Illumination successfully launched the original film SING during the holiday season in 2016. That film ended up grossing over $270M. So we know that they can launch new IP. But that was seven years ago before the launch of the streaming wars and collapsed distribution windows.
Just how dire do things look for MIGRATION? We’re comparing it to WISH, which opened to a three-day of $20M, and PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH, last year’s big animated release. That film pocketed $56M through New Year’s Eve but ran well into 2023, eventually legging out a $186M in total.
Looking at awareness, MIGRATION sits at 27%. That’s well below the two comps. It’s worth noting that PUSS (brown) is part of a larger franchise, so we would expect it to track at a higher level. But, it is surprising to see MIGRATION (dark yellow) sit below WISH (light yellow).
In fact, if we rewind to 100 days before release, WISH and MIGRATION had nearly identical awareness. From there, WISH began a steady upward climb. That has yet to happen for the Illumination title.
Things look the same on the interest side. MIGRATION (dark blue) sits below the other two at the same distance from release. Worse, the film has been trending down to 41%.
So, yes, it’s rather odd to see Illumination struggle with a film when they have a near-perfect batting average. Let’s cut them some slack, though. We are in a different environment now. The studios that are able to build urgency for unfamiliar IP in the animated space will end up winning the box office sweepstakes. That may be easier said than done.