When “Elemental” opened to less than $30 million in the US in mid-June, box-office analysts and reporters were quick to label the animated movie a “flop,” one that was almost sure to lose money. Yet after steadily playing through the summer, the latest entry from one-time hit factory Pixar appears to have taken a page from the Little Mermaid – namely, by sprouting legs.
The animated love story is bearing down on $150 million in the US, meaning it will have earned five times its opening-weekend total – a multiple no Pixar movie has achieved since the original “Toy Story.”
The film, which features a love story between characters composed of fire and water in a world whose denizens represent the four elements, should cross the $400 million international barrier this week and add another infusion when it finally opens in Japan on August 4, putting Pixar parent Disney’s overall projections for its run in the neighborhood of $430 million.
The world of box-office reporting has understandably become frontloaded, which makes the endurance of “Elemental” notable. While the film obviously won’t approach the kind of massive hits Pixar has produced – the sequels “Toy Story 3” and “4,” “Incredibles 2” and “Finding Dory” all reached the $1-billion global threshold – it will gross far more than “Encanto,” which opened at a more challenging time in 2021 but had everyone singing about not talking about Bruno.
Tony Chambers, Disney’s head of theatrical distribution, admitted that the opening-weekend numbers for “Elemental” were disappointing, but that even then there were signs the movie might enjoy a longer run. That included overwhelmingly favorable audience scores that were far more positive than early reviews, and a relative dearth of animated competition until the latest “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie, which opens this week.
“There was no way of sugarcoating a $30 million opening,” Chambers told CNN, while adding, “We knew the audiences loved it. … We’re seeing much longer legs on movies if the audience scores are good.”
Indeed, Pixar chief creative officer Pete Docter fretted when the movie premiered to such lackluster results that the pandemic might have “trained” the audience to wait for animated fare on Disney+, after movies like “Soul” and “Turning Red” bypassed theatrical runs in the US. “We’re trying to make sure people realize there’s a great deal you’re missing by not seeing it on the big screen,” he told Variety.
As for the question of profitability, which has dogged expensive summer releases like “The Flash” and the “Indiana Jones” sequel, as the aforementioned “Encanto” illustrated box office doesn’t tell the entire story. That’s because Disney relies upon its IP, or intellectual property, to generate a variety of benefits, driving traffic to Disney+, selling merchandise and providing characters for its theme parks.
“We more than anyone can leverage our theatrical IP across all the various lines of business,” Chambers said. “We never look at it solely through the eyes of just box office.”
Nobody will confuse “Elemental” with “Barbie” – the summer’s breakthrough smash – but those movies and the summer’s major misfires all suggest that while old rules of movie-going still broadly apply, the pandemic appears to have made crystal balls regarding box-office forecasting even cloudier.
In the case of “Elemental,” that has included a steady drip of ticket sales that unexpectedly turned the initial impulses to bury it as an abject failure into so much hot air.