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What Happens "IF" an Animated Movie Fails at the Box-Office?

The Secret Society of Imaginary Friends: Reynolds and Cayle Fleeming join forces in "IF" / Photo by Jonny Cournoyer, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The Secret Society of Imaginary Friends: Reynolds and Cayle Fleeming join forces in "IF" / Photo by Jonny Cournoyer, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Another weekend, another chance for the studios to fret over audiences not getting the message that Spring is the new Summer. Or something. John Krasinski’s kiddie movie “If” opened short of expectations. Let’s unpack what it means for Paramount and the talent involved as we go over the top five movies at the box office.

1. “IF”: $35 million

Krasinski, better known for playing the straightest guy in “The Office,” smoothly transitioned into directing with “A Quiet Place” (2018). The apocalyptical horror movie made enough moolah to warrant a franchise. This year brings its third entry, an origin story about how the alien invasion of big-eared aliens came about. Despite his genre success, nobody is really holding their breath for “a John Krasinski film.” Still, one has to recognize his industriousness.  He is not just the director but also the screenwriter of a story with a complex mythology.

“IF” is an acronym for “imaginary friend.” Reynolds stars as Cal, a man who seems to be the only human capable of seeing the imaginary friends kids leave behind as they grow up. Bea (Cailey Fleming) is a young girl whose father languishes in a hospital with a dangerous heart condition. She meets Cal and sets out to help him in his quest to do something about the IFs. If they are not assigned to a new kid soon enough, they will disappear into the ether. Think “Monsters Inc” (Docter et al., 2001) meets “The Lobster” (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015).

The small army of animated, fanciful creatures is voiced by stars like Steve Carrell, Phoebe Waller-Bridges, Keegan Peele, and many others. Nice cast, but nobody really watches these things for star power. If anybody gets a chintz in his armor over less-than-great ticket sales, it’s lead actor Ryan Reynolds. Then again, this is unlikely to affect the fortunes of his other summer contender, the third “Deadpool” movie.

Paramount can take solace in contemplating the business arc of Pixar’s 2023 movie “Elemental” (Peter Sohn, 2023). After opening to an underwhelming box office on opening weekend - $29 million - it turned into the sleeper hit of the summer season, playing well into fall and amassing over $154 million in the domestic box office and $342 internationally. The lesson here is that family fare may not build in enough expectation for short-term success, but keep it around long enough, and desperate parents will eventually line up to get a break from the kids. Then again, in order for this to happen, the movie needs to stay in theaters for a long time. That programming move goes against how studios and exhibitors play the game nowadays (see what’s happening with “The Fall Guy” down).

Reynolds will not suffer too much, really. Family movies are less dependent on star power than any other genre. Also, he is no longer just an actor but a commercial conglomerate. Gone are the days of the thespian slaving away for a studio or hustling for a long-winded career. Reynolds, so to say, diversified his portfolio. You may have seen him in the deprecating TV ads for his telecommunications company Mint, which paints itself as the scrappy outsider playing against giants like T-Mobile. He also bought a soccer team in England with fellow actor Rob McElhenney. The Wrexham is slowly scaling in the football league - a boon for selling ancillary merchandise -. The benchwarmers-to-champions story was the basis of a documentary series, “Welcome to Wrexham,” available to stream on Hulu - another income stream! -. The whole endeavor has been so gratifying that Reynolds and McElhenney just bought a stake in the Mexican team Necaxa, which also counts Eva Longoria among its owners.

Remember when conservative opinion makers lobbied for corporations to be recognized as citizens with rights? Well, Reynolds and fellow multi-hyphenates mastered late capitalism. People are corporations now. Stars with a modicum of success, business smarts, and chutzpah can become one. He may be the star of “If,” but he will not be a casualty of its failure—if it fails at all.

2. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes”: $26 million

Speaking of stars, we’d pay you if you could recognize any actor from “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.” Then again, they are covered with CGI fur, so the challenge is moot. The fourth entry in the sturdy franchise ceded first place but held on to the second tier with a rather healthy $26 million. This is the kind of movie that enjoys a golden afterlife in home video, whether we are talking view on demand or traditional cable.

“The Strangers: Chapter 1”: $12 million

Middling reviews could not hinder the arrival of “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” an origin story expanding on a fringe horror movie from 2008. As far as franchises go, its march has been long-winded. The original starred Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a couple terrorized by home invaders. 10 years later, the sequel “The Strangers: Pray at Night” (2018) came along. The beans have not been counted on the new entry, but a “Volume 2” is already in the can, with “The Strangers: Chapter 2” set for release later this year.

Back in 2008, Tyler and Speedman may have been slumming in the genre, but each successive entry has brought stars of less wattage - sorry, Christina Hendricks -. The real story here is the presence of director Renny Harlin behind the camera. He was one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for helming action blockbusters in the ‘90s, next to John McTiernan and Tony Scott. The studio-blessed run that began with “Die Hard 2” (1990) was tarnished by the back-to-back box-office failure of two movies conceived around then-wife Geena Davis. Mind you, both “Cutthroat Island” (1995) and “Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996) are way better than you’d think, but they soured his relationship with the powers that be. The modest success of the Sylvester Stallone vehicle “Cliffhanger” (2000) was not enough to put him back in the good graces of the suits. Since then, he has been making TV and less-than-stellar projects that failed to occur in film discourse.

“The Strangers: Chapter 1” may be another stop on the way to oblivion, but it also qualifies as a return to his roots. Born in Finland, Harlin planted his flag in America with two horror movies: the haunted jail thriller “Prison” (1987) - starring a young Vigo Mortensen! -, and “A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Masters” (1988), the rare sequel that manages not to dilute its franchise but juices it up. It is unlikely that “The Strangers…” will push Harlin back to the A-list, but distributor (NAME) seems to be content will corralling horror fans. The “Chapter 2” ploy brings to mind the release strategy behind Ti West’s “X” (2022), which led to “Pearl” a few months later and is now set to close with “Maxxxine” later this year.

4. “The Fall Guy”: $8.4 million

The sad saga of the blockbuster that never was continues. Universal Pictures seems to have lost any hope in the possibility of the movie turning into a sleeper hit. Barely two weeks after its premiere in theaters, it is now available to stream on View on Demand for $19.99. It could not have happened to a nicer trifle. My sole gripe with the Ryan Gosling - Emily Blunt vehicle was its bloated running time, but apparently, mass audiences did no care for an amusingly comic adaptation of an ‘80s cult series.

We already pondered IP limits, and the trades are littered with wanna hits that fell short, but this saga points to a troublesome trend in the movie business. The window between theatrical release and home video availability is shrinking. “Challengers, which did decent business for an adult romantic comedy, could be rented on VOD three weeks after opening. In spite of it, this weekend, it held on to fifth place. This may point towards a future where day-and-date theatrical-and-home video availability will be the lay of the land. Back in the pandemic shutdown days, Warner Bros got a lot of blowback for doing it, especially to movies that begged to be seen on the largest screen possible, like Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (2020). 

For all the beauty we find in the theatrical experience, most of the movie-going public has a casual relationship with it. They see no big difference between one or the other. Be it price or convenience, they feel no sense of urgency in leaving the house and paying a prime for going to the movies. At least, not enough of them. And bear in mind, by numbers, they represent the largest segment of paying costumers. Sure, we love going to the movies, and we might do it three times a week or more, but there are not enough of us to keep the business model afloat.

It’s not just the big studios who are shrinking the window. Indie distributors are doing it, too. Sundance programmer “Sasquatch Sunset” (David & Nathan Zellner, 2024) was ready to VOD a month after closing a discreet theatrical run. It is priced for rental at $14.99 - hey, indies are five bucks cheaper than studio behemoths! -. Access through “bulk streaming” - the one that comes with paying just the monthly fee of your fave streaming apps - is “the new cable,” leaving a month or two for the prime rental fee to add to the coffers of the movies’ run. Alas, studios as stingy with how much money they make at that stage of the game.

We are inching slowly towards a future where day and date will be the norm. Most movies will go straight to home video. Commercial cinemas will shrink in numbers, and screens per theater. The last generation who grew up with movies as the strongest force in pop culture will die away. Those cinemas that will survive will be like the Opera houses of our time. A prime experience for those willing to pay.

The cinema of the future is an Art House theater that operates as a foundation or a non-profit, still calling the true believers to get lost on the big screen. The majority will stay at home, pop their own popcorn, and have a fun night pushing “Rent” with their remote. We, the happy few, will brave the outside to see things as we deem fit. Don’t get mad. It would be like getting mad at the rain because it soaks you.

5. “Challengers”: $2.9 million

Luca Guadagnino’s sexy romantic comedy played two fields simultaneously, still hitting the ball in theaters and getting to homes through VOD. The gamble seems to have paid off. Despite the possibility of watching it at home, on the weekend, it made almost three million at the box office, for a total domestic run of $43 million. What can I say? The movie has legs.

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