Why isn’t ‘Rise of the Guardians’ a box office hit?

There is something very disheartening about the box office performance of “Rise of the Guardians” this past holiday weekend.  When Paramount and DreamWorks Animation first previewed footage from “Guardians” early this year there was genuine excitement in the media and animation circles. After surprising moviegoers with an unexpectedly adult-friendly “Puss and Boots” and somehow improving critically with “Kung Fu Panda 2,” DWA seemed intent on continuing to break the mold with their upcoming slate. Principally, “Guardians” was executive produced by Guillermo Del Toro (who seemed to work wonders for “Boots”) and was their first property acquisition since “Shrek” back in the day.  And that was just the beginning of its impressive creative credentials.

Based on a relatively recent book series from William Joyce, the concept of a team of holiday heroes banding together for a common cause seemed like it might appeal to adults as much as kids.  Moreover, the animation was squarely based on Joyce’s own gorgeous renderings and the footage previewed was exceptional. It already looked like it had the potential to be the most beautiful CG animated feature films to date.  And there’s more.  Joyce is best known for his children books such as “A Day with Wilbur Robinson” and “Rolie Polie Olie,” but had recently won a best animated short film Academy Award for “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.”  He was also a producer and production designer on Blue Sky’s hit “Robots” and had even contributed conceptual designs for Pixar’s “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life.” The fact that Pulitzer-prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire received sole credit on the screenplay only increased the prestige factor (multiple screenwriters would not have been a good sign).  In fact, most awards pundits had it as a legit contender for best animated picture of the year.  Then something strangely went wrong.

The first sign was when the $145 million budgeted “Guardians” didn’t pop on pre-release tracking as expected.  Family films are always hard to gauge, but when it hit theaters on Wednesday it placed third with just $4.8 million. That was far behind “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Pt. 2” and “Skyfall.” By Sunday, “Guardians” fell to fourth with just $32.6 million over five days. That’s the smallest opening frame gross for a DreamWorks Animation film since 2006’s disastrous “Flushed Away” “Puss in Boots” made $34.6 million last October, but that was over three days.

Now, some will try and put the blame on distributor Paramount Pictures.  DWA recently announced it was ending its distribution deal with the venerable studio and switching to 20th Century Fox beginning with “The Croods” next March.  That theory is just silly and uninformed, however. Paramount received a distribution fee of 8% on every DWA film they distributed. When the global box office amounts to a figure such as “Madagascar 3’s” $740 million, that’s not chump change to the bottom line.  And considering how weak Paramount’s year has been overall, you can guess they would have preferred to send DWA off with a blockbuster rather then with a bomb.

It all begs the obvious question: where did this one go wrong?

Uncharted release date territory
Over its 14-year history, DreamWorks Animation has never released one picture on Thanksgiving, “Guardians” was the first.  The problem is that when you enter such a competitive frame you are better suited with a brand people recognize and are comfortable with.  Distracting casual moviegoers from early holiday shopping .  “Twilight,” James Bond and even bestseller “Life of Pi” fall into that mix.  “Guardians”?  Just not well known enough to pop through the theatrical clutter.  This is a warning to almost every studio that only sequels and established brands should be slotted during this frame. And for those who would use “Tangled’s” blockbuster opening during this frame in 2010 as a counterpoint, remember: the Disney corporate marketing machine (Disney Parks, Disney Stores, Disney Channel, Disney Radio) is a wonder all of its own.  “Tangled” was already a brand name before the lights went down on opening day.

North’s Russian voice didn’t help
One common complaint across the board from those who saw the film and those who just caught trailers or TV spots was Alec Baldwin’s distinct Russian accent for North, aka St. Nick. It wasn’t prejudice against our friends in Eastern Europe, but a distaste for Santa Claus having such an unexpected and gruff sound. It was a subtle mistake when you’re aiming the marketing directly at parents of small kids.

Marketing pushed limited appeal to adults
Speaking of marketing, DreamWorks Animation and Paramount strategically went after just parents and kids as their primary demo. Ever since the beginning of the campaign, they limited their appeal to younger men or genre fans (highly regular moviegoers) who might have found the film’s look, creative background and untraditional animation appealing. This effectively says to those moviegoers “This movie is for my niece, nephew or that kid around the block and not for me” (“Frankenweenie” also had problems reaching this demo).  Contrast that with “Wreck-it Ralph” which broadened its base thanks to its video game setting (and HALO knockoff storyline) – a strength Disney jumped on with its TV spots and overall marketing efforts.

What was the story?
From the first preview, a common refrain was, “I don’t get it. What’s it about?”  The studio seemed to have such concerns about showing the very dark and evil looking villain that in its first major trailer (in July) it introduced the Jude Law-voiced Pitch, but barely showed him.  The Guardians are recruiting Jack Frost (seemingly our hero), but what exactly is the Pitch doing? I mean, don’t all kids have nightmares?  Confusing.

Wrong celebrity voices or “that celebrity casting thing may not work anymore”
DWA was at the forefront of hiring big name celebrities to voice the characters in animated films. From “Shrek” (Mike Meyers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz) to “Shark Tale” (Will Smith) to “Madagascar” (Ben Stiller, Chris Rock) to “Kung Fu Panda” (Jack Black, Angelina Jolie) to “Bee Movie” (Jerry Seinfeld) to “Megamind” (Will Ferrell Tina Fey), DWA has been able to use these stars to generate major publicity. It hasn’t always worked (“Over the Hedge”), but CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has rewarded the stars who work hard handsomely. “Rise” may be the first real example of it bringing nothing to the table at all. Chris Pine and Hugh Jackman were unavailable to work the publicity machine in the states leaving only Isla Fisher and Alec Baldwin to carry the load (and you can argue only Jackman has any real bankability with moviegoers at this point). Shockingly, as much as we love both actors, that didn’t cut it. Pine and Jackman are currently on tour trying to help the film’s international release where the film’s $145 million budget will have to be made up somehow.

It’s the movie stupid (or not)

So, the reviews for “Guardians” were not bad. They were just fine. The film received a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and a “mixed” 56 on Metacritic. That’s far behind “Wreck-it Ralph” (86%, 73), “Frankenweenie” (89%, 74), “ParaNorman” (86%, 72) and even studio stablemate “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” (78%, 60). The lack of enthusiasm among critics may be one reason the box office didn’t jump the rest of the weekend, but it also suggests “Rise” might not have a long shelf life.  Warner Bros. has positioned “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” as a major family player (they would love a PG rating), Disney has a re-release of “Monster’s Inc.” in 3D and Fox’s “Parental Guidance” will be the only other PG films in the marketplace, but without strong word of mouth it won’t matter much. “Puss in Boots” grossed $149 million partially because of an amazing 3% drop its second weekend. For “Rise,” that seems unlikely.

Of course, DreamWorks Animation is the comeback kid of animated studios. “How To Train Your Dragon” and “Puss in Boots” both opened under $43 million and had eye-popping holds thanks to great word of mouth. If not, “Rise” may barely hit $100 million domestically.  That would only put tremendous pressure on DWA and Paramount International to make it up overseas or face the wrath of the company’s always understanding stockholders.

And best picture? Well, at this point “Rise” is just hoping to snag a nomination.  It’s pretty much “Wreck-it Ralph’s” to lose.

Did you see “Rise” this weekend? And if you didn’t, why not? Share your thoughts below.