Do Reviews of Kids Movies Affect Their Box Office?

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by Matt Singer
October 23, 2012 4:26 PM
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"Hotel Transylvania."

One of the early box office winners of the prestige movie season is one of its least prestigious titles: "Hotel Transylvania," which, according toBox Office Mojo has grossed over $118 million in just over three weeks of domestic release. That puts it far ahead of the competition in a recent rash of spooky animated movies like "ParaNorman" ($54.6 million) and "Frankenweenie" ($28.2 million), despite the fact that the competition boasts much better reviews. At Rotten Tomatoes, "Frankenweenie"'s 89% and "ParaNorman"'s 86% approval ratings dwarf "Hotel Transylvania"'s 43%. A smaller sample of critics from our own Criticwire Network yields similar though less dramatic results: there, "ParaNorman" comes out on top with a B+ average, compared with "Frankenweenie"'s B and "Hotel Transylvania"'s B-.

At TheWrap, Todd Cunningham takes that interesting juxtaposition of critical and commercial successes and spins it into an article entitled "How 'Hotel Transylvania' Beat Its Better-Reviewed Rivals at the Box Office." And just how, in Cunningham's eyes, did "Transylvania" triumph? Actually, he's not really sure. He reports all the box office numbers, notes the critical disparity, and quotes incredulous studio executives marveling at "Transylvania"'s success -- without putting his finger on any conclusive reasons why this happened. The closest he gets to an explanation comes in the form of these two quotes:

"'When it comes to kids movies,' Phil Contrino, editor in chief at Boxoffice.com told TheWrap, 'you have to sell the parents first, and this one did a very good job of that.'"

"Exhibitor Relations senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap that the reason for 'Translyvania''s success may be 'that it's totally non-threatening. Or maybe it's just fun for kids.'"

So "Transylvania" sold itself well to parents, or it sold itself well to kids, or it was non-threatening. In other words: nobody knows anything. Paging Dr. Goldman, Dr. William Goldman, please pick up a white courtesy phone...

Forget this specific example for now. Cunningham raises an interesting subject in a more general sense: do reviews have an impact on the box office results of kids movies? To put this whole thing in at least a little perspective, I rounded up every animated movie that charted in Box Office Mojo's Top 100 Domestic Grosses for the last three years, and then cross-referenced that with their Rotten Tomatoes and Criticwire scores. You'll find the results below. The first number represents their rank amongst all films at the box office that year, followed by their domestic gross in millions, followed by their Tomatometer score and their Criticwire rating (where applicable).

2012 Animated Films, Grosses Versus Reviews:

5. "Brave" - $235.0 // 78%, B+
7. "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" - $216.3 // 78%, B-
8. "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" - $214.0 // 54%, N/A
10. "Ice Age: Continental Drift" - $160.0 // 38%, N/A
16. "Hotel Transylvania" - $118.5 // 43%, B-
43. "ParaNorman" - $54.6 // 86%, B+
75. "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" - $31.0 // 86%, B+
81. "Frankenweenie" - $28.2 // 89%, B
88. "The Secret World of Arrietty - $19.2 // 94%, A-

2011 Animated Films, Grosses Versus Reviews:

8. "Cars 2" - $191.4 // 38%
15. "Kung Fu Panda 2" - $165.2 // 81%
16. "Puss in Boots" - $149.2 // 83%
18. "Rio" - $143.6 // 72%
22. "Rango" - $123.4 // 88%
31. "Gnomeo and Juliet" - $99.9 // 56%
44. "The Adventures of Tintin" - $77.5 // 75%
54. "Happy Feet Two" - $64.0 // 45%
69. "Arthur Christmas" - $46.4 // 91%

2010 Animated Films, Grosses Versus Reviews:

1. "Toy Story 3" - $415.0 // 99%
7. "Despicable Me" - $251.5 // 81%
8. "Shrek Forever After" - $238.7 // 57%
9. "How to Train Your Dragon" - $217.5 // 98%
10. "Tangled" - $200.8 // 90%
17. "Megamind" - $148.4 // 73%
61. "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" - $55.6 // 50%

Proceeding from my own starting point of Goldmanesque ignorance, here's what I see: whatever reviews do for kids movies, positive or negative, it doesn't show up in these box office charts. The highest grossing animated movie of 2011 was also the lowest ranked on Rotten Tomatoes -- Pixar's "Cars 2." The highest rated animated movie of 2012, "The Secret World of Arrietty," ranks at the bottom of this year's box office list. Obviously there are other factors to take into consideration, from the amount of competition to the timing and size of a movie's opening. But in all three years examined, poorly reviewed movies routinely outgrossed their more highly respected brethren.

Based on the numbers, it looks like parents aren't searching for "great films" for kids, they're looking for "safe bets" for the whole family -- which makes perfect fiscal sense. If I'm curious about a quirky animated movie from a relatively unknown director or studio, it'll cost me $12 to check it out. For a mother or father to do the same thing along with the rest of their brood would cost them five times that between tickets, popcorn, and soda. Accordingly, parents approach this kind of decision like conservative financial investors. They avoid the high risk, high reward propositions in favor of low yield guarantees. They seek out the movie they know, the property or brand they trust. Hence the fourth "Shrek" outgrosses the first "How to Train Your Dragon" by some $20 million with almost half as many good reviews  -- and hence Shrek's buddy "Puss in Boots" outdraws "Rango," another talking animal movie, by $25 million, even with the drawing power of star Johnny Depp.

There are exceptions, of course. 2010's "Despicable Me" wasn't based on an existing property and it outgrossed both "Shrek" and "How to Train Your Dragon" -- and now a sequel is on the way and a theme park ride is open at Universal Studios. 2012's highest grossing animated movie is "Brave" -- though in that case, the brand parents trust may be Pixar, the studio that has cranked out so many animated hits and whose name has become synonymous with high quality childrens entertainment. Still, more often not, the riskier movies settle at the bottom of these box office charts. Steven Spielberg -- a proven live-action director with no track record in animation -- couldn't turn "The Adventures of Tintin," a property most American audiences had never heard of, into a hit (at least in the U.S.). The same goes for "Watchmen"'s Zack Synder with his confusingly titled talking owl movie "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole." 

In the case of our most recent examples, "Hotel Transylvania" is an "original" property, but it's also the most knowable quantity in the bunch by far. It's got (and was sold on the back of) recognizable characters like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy, along with voice actors like Adam Sandler and Kevin James who've collaborated on kids movies in the past. Compared to "ParaNorman" -- described by one critic as a story that "explores the way people deal with the unknown, how we fear those who are different, and the manner in which ignorance and intolerance create prejudices that become entrenched" -- and "Frankenweenie" -- a black and white tale about dead pets -- it sure looks like the safest bet. Paying audiences seemed to agree with me.

Read more of "How 'Hotel Transylvania' Beat Its Better-Reviewed Rivals at the Box Office." And parents, please weigh in below in the comments section: do YOU weigh reviews in your decisions about what movies to take your kids to?

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