It’s hard to escape the disheartening feeling that Disney’s “Lightyear” remained stubbornly earthbound in its box office debut. At least, that’s the prevailing sentiment that greeted the latest Pixar film’s $51 million opening weekend in North America.
To industry analysts, these lackluster ticket sales were confusing because Pixar had been box office royalty and “Lightyear,” a spin-off from the cosmic hit “Toy Story” franchise, received decent — if not euphoric — reviews. Additionally, audiences (who gave the film an “A-” CinemaScore”) seemed to revel in the animated otherworldly adventure, in which Chris Evans replaces Tim Allen as the voice of Buzz Lightyear.
Sure enough, a $51 million opening weekend is far from catastrophic; in fact, “Lightyear” got one of the best debuts for an animated children’s movie in times of COVID. The family audience has returned in leaps and bounds, but it’s a demographic that is virtually absent during the pandemic. However, Disney certainly expected the $200 million movie to rake in more coins in its first weekend in theaters. For Pixar, “Lightyear” is one of the studio’s lowest debuts, behind 2017’s “Cars 3” ($53 million) and ahead of 2015’s “The Good Dinosaur” ($39 million) and “Onward.” ” of 2020 ($39 million). It’s also one of the rare Pixar films not to take the number one spot at the domestic box office, coming in at number two.
So what stopped “Lightyear” from going to infinity and beyond at the box office?
“[‘Lightyear’] is struggling with the limitations of the spin-off format,” says David A. Gross, who runs film consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “This is still elite business, it’s just not defying gravity anymore.”
One such restriction is that “Lightyear” had an oddly confusing premise, which probably sounded far more captivating in Buena Vista’s boardrooms than it did in the film’s intriguing marketing materials. Do you know Andy’s favorite action figure from “Toy Story”? No, not the cowboy voiced by Tom Hanks. The other. Well, this is the movie about the fictional astronaut who (stay with us…) inspired the piece of plastic that later became best friends with Woody and Mr. Potato Head. Try explaining this to a 6 year old. Heck, try explaining this to an adult. Except for the character itself, “Lightyear” had only a tenuous connection to the four films in the popular children’s franchise. And in turn, nostalgia wasn’t as potent a force as Disney might have imagined.
“[The film’s] marketing never made the connection to Andy’s favorite toy very clear until the last second. And they’ve been marketing this movie for some time now,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro.
At the same time, Disney has spent the past couple of years putting Pixar movies — “Soul” and “Turning Red” among them — directly on Disney+, which may have inadvertently conditioned people to expect to see the animation studio’s newest releases. at home. “Lightyear,” the first Pixar film to play on the big screen since “Onward” in March 2020, may have been burned by this pandemic-era experiment. Given the muffled word-of-mouth, “Lightyear” struggled to excite people to go to theaters in the same way as, say, “Top Gun: Maverick” — a movie that could have relied on its branded status, but also managed to more carefully evolve the property.
“Disney has trained a lot of parents to expect Pixar movies at home,” says Robbins. “I wonder how much ‘Lightyear’ paid the price for that.”
For years, Disney has achieved enormous commercial glory by diving into its historic vault to revive and remake old properties like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.” The studio has also suffered some high-profile failures, like 2019’s live-action “Dumbo” and 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” a spin-off set in a galaxy far, far away. “Lightyear” sits somewhere in the middle and serves as the ultimate reminder that brand recognition is certainly helpful, but not every makeover has the potential to succeed. Box office experts also emphasize that Disney has, in some ways, become a victim of its own box office success.
“Disney’s mistakes are sometimes better than other studios’ best hits,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “Did they spend a lot? Probably. But ‘Lightyear’ has all summer to play out.”
It helps that “Lightyear” doesn’t face notable competition among family audiences until Universal’s cartoon sequel “Minions: The Rise of Gru” debuts on the big screen on July 1. back triumphs of “Jurassic World Dominion” and “Top Gun: Maverick”. As these films proved that the box office can finally accommodate more than one major movie in a single weekend, there’s reason to believe there was room for “Lightyear” to soar.
“If a movie catches on fire, people will see it,” says Bock.
With “Lightyear,” it’s clear that the intergalactic adventure hasn’t had enough.