Are moviegoers tired of Pixar and superheroes?

Twin box office flops this past weekend involving pillars of modern moviegoing—Pixar and superheroes—paint a concerning picture for studio execs trying to get butts in theatre seats.

What happened: Pixar’s Elemental had the worst opening weekend ever in Canada and the US for the fabled animator, earning just US$29.5 million on a $200 million budget. DC’s latest The Flash also disappointed, falling ~$15 million short of the studio’s expectations. 

Why it’s happening: One explanation is that families who would have seen these films already spent their moviegoing budgets. Another is that these brands have lost their lustre.

  • Disney withheld theatrical releases for recent Pixar films Luca and Turning Red to help prop up Disney+, which may have devalued the Pixar brand.

  • Similarly, Warner Bros. may have damaged the DC brand last year when it decided to cancel the release of the Batgirl movie. 

But there’s a simpler explanation: Neither film excited the public. Theatre attendance has rebounded this year, but streaming is making it hard to actually get people off the couch. 

So what do audiences want? Looking at the biggest hits of the year, audiences want characters they already know and love. Of course, you need to replenish the well by creating new franchises, but Pixar’s recent attempt signals how hard it’s getting to break through.

  • “If you don’t swing for original stories, you can’t make new franchises, and we swung really hard,” Tony Chambers, a Disney executive told The New York Times.

  • The only film in the top 15 of this year’s North American box office that’s not a sequel or based on existing intellectual property is the surprise horror-comedy hit M3GAN

But running with familiar franchises isn’t enough all on its own. The Flash suffered troubles (like an alleged crime spree by its lead, Ezra Miller) that likely hurt its box office, but three recent major superhero flicks also underperformed, suggesting wider superhero fatigue.

  • Recent super-smash Spiderman: Across the Spider-verse succeeded in part because it’s different—lauded for its unique animation style and clever storytelling.    

Bottom line: The tides have changed in Hollywood. As streaming revenues stay rocky, even industry upstarts agree that good ol’ fashioned theatrical distribution is a key moneymaker. The trouble is putting out products that audiences won’t just wait to see at home.—QH