It wasn’t quite to infinity and beyond for Disney’s (NYSE:DIS) latest big screen adventure last weekend as Toy Story spin-off Lightyear got off to a less-than-stellar start. Of course, when a film of that level comes up short the finger-pointing begins rather quickly and while there is blame to go around, this time it is not entirely fairly placed.
Disney’s approach to streaming has long been a hot button issue over the last year. From moving certain films directly from screen-to-stream to offering day-and-date access for a premium cost, the moves have won the Mouse few friends in the industry.
It’s also led some investors to wonder if the company’s overall streaming-first sentiment hurt Lightyear. However, the truth is that any negative impact tied to the streaming marketplace really had limited impact.
First as always, some background.
Toy Story has always been the crown jewel of Pixar. In addition to being the studio’s first full length film, it was also the first to spawn a sequel and the first to break through with a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. The list from both the technical and pop culture side continues but you get the point – this franchise changed the course of cinema.
That’s why when Lightyear was announced there was a lot of high hopes and now a high level of disappointment. The movie opened over the weekend to $51 million, a far cry from the $70 million it had been projected to earn. To add insult to injury it also was out-performed at the box office by the latest Jurassic World film – in its second week.
So why did? Lightyear miss the mark?
First, to be clear I really don’t want to call the movie a flop because in a COVID-world doing $50+ million at the box office is still very good, it’s just not great – especially for established IP.
A common argument being made is that Lightyear’s lower earnings is a response to Disney’s switch to a streaming superiority mentality. Pixar’s last few movies (Luca, Soul, Seeing Red) have all been direct to Disney+ and some are saying that has programmed audiences to expect these movies as “free” with subscription, thus making them more likely to wait.
If you want evidence to the contrary look at Encanto.
Disney released the film around Thanksgiving and moved it to streaming by Christmas. In between the film earned around $96 million domestically and would eventually hit a worldwide total of over $250 million. Disney was always clear with audiences this was going to theaters and then to streaming, but people came out anyway.
In a few ways what Disney was able to do with Encanto was double-dip with earnings. The film produced revenue in theaters and then more revenue in subscriptions – for investors the thing that can’t get lost is that you profit from both areas. The reason it gets such a negative connotation is because the theater chains hate it since it cuts into their bottom line.
But that streaming shift really isn’t the cause in this case as it ties back to the movie overall.
In a rare misstep, Lightyear was mis-marketed by Disney. Some may wonder how that’s possible with the Toy Story pedigree attached, but what it comes down to is that Disney veered off course. First and foremost, Disney didn’t do a good job of explaining what Lightyear was supposed to be and how it fit into the timeline.
In reality it was supposed to be a version of an origin story for Buzz Lightyear, one of the two leads in the Toy Story franchises And I say supposed to, because it actually gets more meta than that, as Lightyear is supposed to be the movie that Andy (from Toy Story) saw that got him so excited about getting a Buzz Lightyear toy. It then goes deeper and tries to separate the toy from the hero of the film.
Don’t think about that for too long as trying to figure out the connective tissue here can start to hurt your head – and that’s the problem.
Whatever the set-up Disney was going for here was buried in the trailers and promotional material. While the movie led off with that clearer table-setting message, that did little to get new audiences into theaters.
Furthering the disconnect was that while Tim Allen voiced Buzz in the movies, TV specials, games, toys and everything else, here he was replaced by Chris Evans. One could argue that in an origin story where the characters are younger, you can make the type of a switch, except in Toy Story’s world, where the toys don’t age.
Regardless there is an association between Buzz Lightyear and Tim Allen and this shift clearly confused audiences.
On top of that, remember Lightyear was a PG movie and the Toy Story franchise has all been G-rated. Actually, all of Pixar’s movies for the past few years have been PG, with the last G movie being Toy Story 4.
Again, there’s an association with audiences.
Lightyear‘s trailers were also darker than Toy Story’s and to many parents that may have been enough to keep them from bringing their little ones to theaters. While Pixar tried to off-set that with the presence of a cute talking cat as a sidekick, it didn’t seem to help.
The trap that Disney/Pixar fell into here is not an uncommon one for studios looking to spin-off/reboot its brands. Simply put, the studio forgot what made Toy Story so special – even if the movie itself was in line with the brand, that memo didn’t get to consumers.
You can blame the streaming element all you want, but the marketing, the creative choices and the higher parental rating all come into play first.
The irony is that streaming has become a safety net for Lightyear, as when it does make the jump to Disney+ it will probably see a second-life. That second-life will also come with an uptick in subscriptions which should make investors happy.
Lightyear is a movie that tried to be so many different things it ended up outsmarting itself and that’s why it has lower totals. Streaming is just the easy villain in today’s entertainment landscape to point to, so that’s what happened.
You can argue going the Disney+ route would have been the smarter and safer option because the only metrics released from here are studio-controlled. Although after three straight-to-streaming releases Disney wanted to do right by Pixar and the Toy Story brand, but ultimately may have damaged it.
It’s not anything Disney/Pixar can’t eventually come back from – and it’s not the first time either has had a misfire at the box office, but with theaters still trying to re-coup from COVID losses, this did not help.