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‘Uncle Drew’ is the Latest Box Office Hit Based On a Commercial

The basketball comedy was adapted from a series of Pepsi commercials. 
Uncle Drew Movie Image
By  · Published on July 2nd, 2018

The basketball comedy was adapted from a series of Pepsi commercials.

While Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom held on to number one at the box office, despite its attendance dropping significantly in its second weekend, and the sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado was tops among new releases, the more interesting story from the last few days is the success of Uncle Drew, which opened to an audience of about 1.7 million people. That’s not bad for a movie based on an ad campaign.

Uncle Drew‘s origins are in a series of Pepsi Max commercials that began in 2012 with NBA star Kyrie Irving in the title role, an old man who’s a streetball legend. Basically, more than a million people spent their money on a feature-length soda advertisement. Sort of. There’s not really that much more product placement in Uncle Drew than most Hollywood releases, if it is even more, but there is certainly a branding component that has some moviegoers recalling the character’s relationship to Pepsi Max through those TV spots.


Even those commercials were created to be different, though, with Pepsi aiming to entertain with little short films they “presented” with minimal focus on the soda itself. There’s a blurring of whether Uncle Drew is a branded character from commercials, a la Ronald McDonald or Tony the Tiger, or if he’s an original character that became associated with a brand by appearing in their ads, a la Jim Varney’s Ernest character beginning his fame as a spokesperson for a variety of products in the 1980s. Regardless, fans do associate the Uncle Drew character with Pepsi, albeit still through Irving, who is just another athlete shilling a product.

Pepsi executive Lou Arbetter defended the movie to the New York Times last month saying, “I would say that you — we — would be pretty foolish to view this as a two-hour-long commercial. I think that would not do the brand any good.” That is true. Attempting to disguise what’s basically an ad as a legitimate movie can backfire big time, like it did with Mac and Me long ago. Uncle Drew doesn’t hide its link to Pepsi, either. The soda company is mentioned in the opening credits. Producers have been upfront about Pepsi funding part of the movie’s budget. And Pepsi has been a big part of the promotion of the theatrical release.

The result has been a success. Although the budget is not public knowledge, the cost was reportedly around $17 million according to Forbes. The fact that it’s already grossed close to that figure is good news for distributor Lionsgate (through its Summit banner) as well as Pepsi. Depending on where you look, the movie was tracking closer to $10-13 million or as high as $16 million. Noteworthy is its per-screen numbers, which are pretty decent and helped push Uncle Drew to fourth place despite the movie showing in fewer than 3,000 locations, and its impressive ‘A’ grade from CinemaScore polling. Clearly, the fans didn’t sense a scam.

The CinemaScore grade along with the overall positive-leaning reviews should help the comedy continue its success through word of mouth. Especially if the buzz includes the defense that no, this isn’t just a long Pepsi ad at all (even if it sort of is). What will that mean for other brands looking to branch out into movies? Surely, we’re going to see more of this kind of thing, even if Hollywood should keep in mind that blatant adaptation of commercials failed miserably with the Geico Cavemen TV series. We’re not going to see a Budweiser knight movie. Probably.

We are soon going to get a sequel to what was previously the closest thing to a movie based on a commercial, however. Space Jam, released in 1996, was inspired by the 1992 Nike commercial where basketball and sneaker legend Michael Jordan faced off against Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck on the court. The difference there was that neither Jordan nor the Looney Tunes characters originated in the commercials. Space Jam was associated with Nike, as anything involving Jordan would be anyway. It opened in first place in mid-November 1996 to the tune of 6.2 million tickets sold and went on to a domestic attendance of 20 million and a worldwide gross of $230 million in ’90s dollars. Clearly, fans really didn’t feel scammed that time.

Now there’s a Space Jam 2 in development, and it’s crazy that’s taken so long. Other hit movies based on commercials have spawned franchises. There were Varney’s Ernest movies, starting with Ernest Goes to Camp, which was popular enough in 1987 with 6 million tickets sold, and continuing with the even more successful Ernest Saves Christmas the following year. Later, however, three more theatrical features and four direct-to-video installments saw diminishing returns.

Another more directly brand-based franchise is the Johnny English spy movie parody series. Rowan Atkinson’s slapstick leading man has a different name than he did in spy-spoofing ads for Barclaycard in the UK, he’s really the same guy. Another character from the commercials did, in fact, make his way into the movies, played by a different actor, as did some of the same gags. The first Johnny English opened in North America in 2003 to the tune of 1.5 million tickets sold, which is a bit fewer than Uncle Drew. Of course, the movie was far more successful overseas, especially in Britain. Same for the 2011 sequel, Johnny English Reborn. Same will be true, without a doubt, for this fall’s third installment, Johnny English Strikes Again.

Lionsgate and Pepsi seem proud to claim to be a pioneer in the sort of branded content movie they’ve just released, though it’s clearly not a totally new thing. Other movies based on commercials include the 2002 Sonofon-funded Danish comedy Polle Fiction and the 2006 Telenor ad campaign adaptation Long Flat Balls from Norway (Scandinavian phone companies were keen on the concept apparently), which also got a sequel. But those foreign examples are more obvious and looked down upon.

There was also the 1981 TV movie The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid, based on the iconic Coca-Cola commercial starring Joe Green, though that could also just be considered a TV special, not unlike one based on the California Raisins ads that came later in the decade. Plus, TV specials based on commercials isn’t as sketchy sounding as theatrical features that you have to go and pay for.

Uncle Drew succeeds more than the rest for being so stealth in its ad qualities and for delivering what’s arguably a better product. The only other movie based on commercials to have a fresh Rotten Tomatoes score is the first Ernest feature, yet Uncle Drew still fared better with critics. It’s hard to imagine another movie getting it right. Maybe if BMW ever brought its Clive Owen-led branded action shorts to the big screen. Wes Anderson could also maybe get away with doing it since his commercials are already enjoyed as offshoots of his main filmography. Of course, we’re likely to see more bad than good influenced by Uncle Drew‘s success.

Here are the weekend’s top 10 titles by the number of tickets sold with new titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – 6.6 million (29 million)
2. Incredibles 2 – 5.1 million (48.1 million)
3. Sicario: Day of the Soldado – 2.1 million (2.1 million)
4. Uncle Drew – 1.7 million (1.7 million)
5. Ocean’s 8 – 0.9 million (12.6 million)
6. Tag – 0.6 million (4.5 million)
7. Deadpool 2 – 0.4 million (33.9 million)
8. Sanju – 0.3 million (0.3 million)
9. Solo: A Star Wars Story – 0.29 million (22.7 million)
10. Won’t You Be My Neighbor – 0.26 million (0.8 million)

All non-forecast box office data 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.