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The Abominable Financial State of Non-Disney Animated Features

DreamWorks Animation just had its worst opening in decades while Disney continues to increase its share of the theatrical animation market.
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on September 30th, 2019

When you look at the top 10 best openings for animated features, only six of them are Disney movies. That’s still a majority, but not as much as you’d expect these days. The other four are either DreamWorks Animation or Illumination, both of which are now subsidiaries of Universal Pictures. Two are Shrek sequels from a time when DWA was not part of Universal, one of them is the spinoff Minions, and finally, there’s the surprise 2017 blockbuster The Secret Life of Pets. Expand to the top 20, and we’ve got another Shrek sequel, another sequel featuring the Minions (Despicable Me 2), plus two from Fox animation — an Ice Age sequel and The Simpsons Movie, both of which are now part of the Disney library.

Clearly, Disney is dominating the animation game, and that’s not a shocker. They began as a studio based in animation and gave us the first animated feature 80 years ago. But at a time when they’re also ruling the live-action arena, it’d be nice to see other animation studios competing a little better. There have been periods when Disney wasn’t the biggest name in animation. In the 1980s you had The Care Bears Movie beating Disney’s The Black Cauldron and An American Tail topping The Great Mouse Detective in their respective years. And when DWA arrived on the scene in 1998, the studio proved to be a big player pretty quickly. Their Shrek franchise had the top-selling animated feature domestically in 2000, 2004, and 2007. And even the comparatively disappointing Shrek Forever After was among the top 10 movies of 2010.

Shrek wasn’t the only property giving Disney a run for its money, either. DWA’s Madagascar was the top-selling animated feature of 2005. And other studios made a showing, as well, with Fox’s Ice Age leading the pack in 2002. In the last 11 years, Disney has mostly been on top, though the studio gave up its crown in 2014 (to The LEGO Movie) and 2017 (to Despicable Me 3). And most of the decade has seen non-Disney animated features joining the Mouse House in their year’s top 10s. Especially where global box office attendance is concerned — Disney was defeated by other animation studios worldwide in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, and 2017. That won’t happen this year, which thanks to Toy Story and Frozen sequels plus the “live-action-style” but still totally animated The Lion King remake will see Disney dominate stronger than ever.

Here are the top 5 animated features by domestic attendance, 2009-2018:

2009: Up (Disney, 39.3M), Monsters Vs. Aliens (DWA, 26.6M), Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (Fox, 26.3M), A Christmas Carol (Disney, 18.1M), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sony, 16.5M)
Non-Disney share: 55 percent

2010: Toy Story 3 (Disney, 53.3M), Despicable Me (Universal, 32.6M), Shrek Forever After (DWA, 30.3M), How to Train Your Dragon (DWA, 27.6M), Tangled (Disney, 25.2M)
Non-Disney share: 54 percent

2011: Cars 2 (Disney, 23.9M), Kung Fu Panda 2 (DWA, 20.5M), Puss in Boots (19.1M), Rio (Fox, 17.8M), Rango (Paramount, 15.7M)
Non-Disney share: 75 percent

2012: Brave (Disney, 30M), Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (Universal, 26.9M), Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (DWA, 26.9M), Wreck-It Ralph (Disney, 23.6M), Ice Age: Continental Drift (Fox, 20.7M)
Non-Disney share: 58 percent

2013: Frozen (Disney, 49M), Despicable Me 2 (Universal, 46.9M), Monsters University (Disney, 33.2M), The Croods (Fox, 22.8M), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (Sony, 14.4M)
Non-Disney share: 51 percent

2014: The LEGO Movie (Warner Bros., 32.3M), Big Hero 6 (Disney, 26.9M), How to Train Your Dragon 2 (DWA, 21.5M), Rio 2 (Fox, 15.8M), Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Fox, 13.9M)
Disney share: 76 percent

2015: Inside Out (Disney, 42.5M), Minions (Universal, 40.7M), Home (DWA, 20.6M), Hotel Transylvania 2 (Sony, 19.5M), The Peanuts Movie (Fox, 15M)
Non-Disney share: 69 percent

2016: Finding Dory (Disney, 56.2M), The Secret Life of Pets (Universal, 43.3M), Zootopia (Disney, 39.6M), Sing (Universal, 30.7M), Moana (Disney, 28.3M)
Non-Disney share: 57 percent

2017: Despicable Me 3 (Universal, 29.6M), Coco (Disney, 22.9M), The LEGO Batman Movie (WB, 19.9M), The Boss Baby (DWA, 19.6M), Cars 3 (Disney, 17.1M)
Non-Disney share: 63 percent

2018: Incredibles 2 (66.3M), Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (Universal, 30M), Ralph Breaks the Internet (Disney, 22.3M), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Sony, 21.1M), Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (Sony, 19M)
Non-Disney share: 44 percent

At the moment, there is a showing for non-Disney animation in 2019 with the sequels How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World and The Secret Life of Pets 2, but both those and The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part have all grossed small fractions of what their predecessors did (36-percent, 59-percent, and 64-percent drops from their originals, respectively). Their share of the domestic animation ticket sales is at the moment just 25 percent! And that’s before the release of Frozen 2, which assuming it’s somehow not a bust will join the other Disney features in the top three for the format this year. Nothing else from another studio — despite appealing-enough non-sequel contenders The Addams Family, Playmobil: The Movie, and Spies in Disguise — is likely to make a showing in the top five for 2019. If a decent DWA film like Abominable can’t bring all the kids to the theater in its opening weekend, then what non-Disney movie can?

Sure, Abominable looks like a hit. But while it came in first place in its debut (and garnered Univeral its 13th weekend-topper versus Disney’s 11), it gave the DWA their worst opening of all time for a computer-animated feature. And second-worst of all their titles. The yeti-focused film sold only 2.3 million tickets in North America, which is only better than Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas‘ 1.1 million back in 2003. The previous worst debut for a computer-animated DWA production was Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, which drew a much bigger crowd of 8.3 million in its opening weekend. Maybe it’s because Abominable was the third animated movie involving a bigfoot/sasquatch/yeti in the last 12 months. Maybe it’s because there’s so much alternative animated fare available at home. Maybe at a time when non-Disney sequels are underperforming, a non-Disney original is just never going to be a safe bet.

The hope is that Abominable will do well enough in China (where it’s set) to recoup its production cost. As for the future of domestic releases, 2020 brings two original Pixar animated features for Disney, and it’s hard to guess how well they’ll do (Onward is possibly going to be a rare Pixar dud going by trailer reactions so far, but Soul should be the next Inside Out), plus a fantastic-looking non-Pixar Disney picture (Raya and the Last Dragon). Then there are the non-Disney sequels Minions: The Rise of Gru, which ought to be huge, and Trolls World Tour, which I expect to be a surprise box office disappointment given that kids have tons of Trolls content at home with the first movie and seven-season-strong animated series. There will be a lot of other options, too (Scooby and Bob’s Burgers, included) but not much that will challenge the Disney machine.

In other box office news, Takashi Miike had the best per-screen average with his new movie First Love, which was only showing in two theaters in its debut weekend. Judy was next with its limited-release opening, placing seventh on the box office chart despite being in fewer than 500 locations. And in 18th place, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice was once again the top-selling documentary of the weekend, with the film passing the $2 million mark for its domestic gross. Downton Abbey proved to be mostly frontloaded with fans of the TV series going to see it last weekend and far fewer stragglers showing up this time, while Hustlers, on the other hand, is displaying some excellent legs as it actually rose back up the chart to number three. Of course, Joker is out on Friday and will crush everything in its path.

Here are the weekend’s top 12 domestic release titles by the estimated number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Abominable – 2.3 million (2.3 million)
2. Downton Abbey – 1.6 million (6.5 million)
3. Hustlers – 1.3 million (8.9 million)
4. IT: Chapter Two – 1.2 million (21.5 million)
5. Ad Astra – 1.1 million (3.9 million)
6. Rambo: Last Blood – 1 million (3.7 million)
7. Judy – 0.3 million (0.3 million)
8. Good Boys – 0.22 million (8.9 million)
9. The Lion King – 0.18 million (59.9 million)
10. Angel Has Fallen – 0.17 million (7.5 million)
11. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw – 0.13 million (19.1 million)
12. The Peanut Butter Falcon – 0.1 million (2 million)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

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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.