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Pixar as a Brand is Not a Box Office Guarantee

Cars 3 gave the studio one of its worst opening weekends.
By  · Published on June 19th, 2017

Cars 3 gave the studio one of its worst opening weekends.

Last year at this time, Finding Dory was crowned Pixar’s best opener of all time, having grossed $135M in its first weekend in the US and Canada. Today, Cars 3 has the dishonor of having one of the studio’s lowest-grossing debuts with only $56M (as estimated on Sunday, according to Box Office Mojo).

The only Pixar feature to make less in its wide-release opening (with all of them adjusted for inflation) is 2015’s The Good Dinosaur, with about $40M. The next on the chart above Cars 3 is 1995’s Toy Story ($59M adjusted), which debuted on far fewer screens and was Pixar’s very first movie, meaning it’s excused for not being an immediate hit.

From that beginning, Pixar movies kept climbing. A Bug’s Life did the equivalent of $63M in its first wide weekend, and Toy Story 2 grossed $100M (both adjusted; also, both movies opened on only one screen at first before going wide). Monsters, Inc. was about level with $98M, as were Finding Nemo and The Incredibles with $103M and $100M, respectively.

(Again, all these numbers are adjusted for inflation and will continue to be unless stated.)

Next, in 2006, after no Pixar release in 2005, Cars arrived and dropped the brand down with an opening of only $81M. And it wasn’t a one-time dip. Ratatouille debuted with just $60M, Wall-E picked up slightly with $78M, followed by Up with $81M. Fortunately, Pixar realized what they had to do and made another Toy Story, which gave the studio a new record opening of $124M.

Not all sequels improve upon the original, however, and next up was Cars 2. Its non-adjusted $66M bow looked better than Cars‘ non-adjusted $60M, but with inflation the difference is actually $73M against the original’s $81M. That’s still much better than Cars 3‘s figure from the weekend.

Pixar also saw a disappointing drop from Monsters, Inc.‘s number to Monsters University‘s $87M (again, the comparison is deceivingly the other way if you only look at non-adjusted grosses), but Finding Dory was a huge success over Finding Nemo. Especially after the studio previously saw its worst opening yet with The Good Dinosaur.

Other originals had been up and down before that, with Brave taking them down again to $72M in 2012. Apparently Pixar takes a dip after a Cars movie is released, which doesn’t bode well for this fall’s Coco. And Inside Out was a hit out of the gate with $97M the same year as The Good Dinosaur, released five months earlier.

As much as Pixar is looked at as a brand of quality and success, the numbers show that general audiences aren’t guaranteed to be drawn to the studio’s name alone. Just as with any studio or imprint, it’s how the individual movies look more than anything else (Marvel isn’t consistent, either).

But was there in fact a turn for the worse with that first Cars movie in terms of audience expectations with the Pixar name? And have the two sequels done worse and worse for the brand name with the continuation of their least popular property? It can’t be proven, but it does look that way.

The Cinemascore grades for Pixar movies have been much more consistent. Cars was the first release after a streak of ‘A+’ grades to get just an ‘A’. Since then, every movie has received an ‘A’ except Up with an ‘A+’ and Cars 2 with an ‘A-‘. Even at their lowest, those reactions show the opening weekend audiences are fairly satisfied with what they get, with regards to what they go in wanting.

And we can’t consider reviews to impact the box office too much, since the Rotten Tomato and Metacritic scores of Pixar movies don’t fully correlate with the opening grosses. Only the Cars movies have each taken a nosedive with critical favor. After the first one, reviews were back up but the grosses weren’t.

Later, there was possibly a connection, though, as BraveMonsters University, and The Good Dinosaur received more negative reviews and wound up with relative lower opening box office grosses, while Inside Out and Finding Dory saw bumps with critics as well as with first-weekend audience size. Cars 3, however, had better reviews than Cars 2 and still performed quite poorly.

Now, everyone knows that it’s the merchandise campaign that keeps Pixar producing Cars movies. Their $10B in sales is just below Star Wars and about four times higher than Toy Story, which is Pixar’s next best (Disney also Frozen in between). But does that mean the movies need to be equal in cost?

Perhaps there’s no way to really cut the budgets on Cars sequels without harming the Pixar brand even further, despite the studio’s likely awareness these movies don’t perform as well at the box office. All Pixar movies of the past decade have cost roughly the same, in the $170-$200M range. At least there’s that offset for the company when Cars movies flop.

Of course, Cars 3 will also do a substantial amount of business overseas. Cars 2 made almost twice as much in foreign territories as it did domestically, helping it to be an overall triumph over the first movie. Cars 3 opened significantly lower even outside of the US, though, than its predecessors, so clearly audiences all over the world are less interested in this series now.

Pixar had a good run there as at least a prestige brand in name theoretically, especially while it seemed like a higher-quality alternative to what Walt Disney Animation Studios was doing. But lately there’s no more guarantee of better reviews or box office for Pixar over Disney.

Most of the straight Disney brand animated features have opened in the $50m-$60m range this decade, on par with Cars 3, while Frozen and Zootopia have been in the $70M-$80M range, and we’ll surely see debuts above $100M for the Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen sequels.

It’s telling that Pixar’s next movie, Coco, which could be a hard sell to mainstream audiences with its Land of the Dead setting, will be joined in theaters by a new 23-minute Frozen short instead of a new Pixar short. Disney obviously is seeing a need to lure kids in with Elsa, Anna, Olaf, etc.

For the most part, Disney is still Disney and maintains a strong brand loyalty from its fans. Pixar is part of that, but it once had another level of distinction. Cars ruined that honor and its sequels have dragged their good name further down with each new installment. There can be no brand loyalty if the brand regularly, knowingly, puts out product its largest possible consumer and fan bases don’t want. Cars 3‘s opening numbers show that for sure.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.