2023, and the strange neglect of family blockbuster movies

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The lack of family movies in cinemas has lightened a little, but it’s still a problem: a few thoughts on cinema missing a trick.

It’s not much joy to cast our minds back to 2020, but somewhat inevitably, a lot of film stories seem to start there at the moment. The closure of cinemas for several months for reasons that require no explanation led to studios making quick, big decisions with some significant ramifications.


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Warner Bros, for one, decided to send its entire 2021 cinema slate to streaming on the same day the movies themselves were arriving in cinemas. It cost it its two decade relationship with Christopher Nolan, and it’s still struggling to recalibrate itself as the filmmakers’ studio of choice.

Universal? Well, it lend hard into premium video on demand, and came up with a new model: that it’d shorten theatrical release windows, and give itself the flexibility to send movies to on demand services in timescales as short as 17 days. That, as has been revealed this week, has pretty much paid off.

But one area of cinema is still struggling to find its footing: big, family movies. The kind that could be relied on to arrive each school holiday, and for multiplex, bank the kind of ticket and popcorn sales that require a few extra cells to be added to a spreadsheet.

What I remember about the treatment of family films across much of 2020 and 2021 was an odd reversal. That the big movies you’d expect to see in a cinema were the ones being dropped on streaming platforms. Smaller distributors meanwhile spotted their opportunity, and opened films that could not unreasonably be described as a lot more modest with the kind of screen count you’d expect from a much bigger studio film.

It’s strange that things haven’t really fully come back from that, and two box office stories spring to mind to demonstrate an audience thirst that’s not really being met.

Super Mario Bros movie 2023

The obvious 2023 example is – at the time of writing – the highest-grossing film of the year. Outperforming the likes of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3, Fast X, John Wick Chapter 4 and the latest Ant-Man film? That’d be The Super Mario Bros movie.

The film is a union of Illumination Entertainment, Universal, and Nintendo, and on paper, looked like a fairly sure-fire hit. Those who were alive in 1993 will remember we’ve said that before though, but this time, Mario delivered.

That said, the numbers it’s delivered have been outright sensational. Few seem to actually love the film, but at the time this piece is being posted, its box office gross has shot past $1.3bn, and there’s a fair amount already banked from premium video on demand too.

Then there’s Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, that I’ve chatted about here. The DreamWorks sequel to a film over a decade old has been given the space to build its audience in cinemas, such has been the lack of family movies as alternatives. As such, the film – and it’s a real upgrade on the first movie – has takings that have fallen just a tiny bit shy of half a billion dollars. It’s built its audience over many weeks, and word of mouth has helped it a lot. Yet it’s interesting its box office has been labelled a bit of a surprise, when there’s been so few alternatives for those wanting a family movie to go and see.

So where have all the films gone? Well, it’s worth acknowledging that some simply haven’t landed at all. Disney’s Strange World was one I liked a lot, but it’s fallen far, far short of expectations. A weak marketing campaign didn’t help, but that accusation can’t be levelled at Pixar’s Lightyear. The Toy Story spin-off was an expensive disappointment for the studio.

Pixar's Soul

Pixar in particular has really struggled to regain its footing. Notwithstanding the quality of the films themselves – which include the Oscar-winning Soul – it feels like the studio has been undermined a little simply by Disney sending so many of its films in a row direct to its Disney+ streaming service.

A Pixar movie was once upon a time a big screen cinema event. Now? It feels less so. The one movie that did get the full cinema treatment then turned out to be comfortably one of the studio’s least interesting. Pixar has to build again.

It’s certainly doing so as well, with a full cinema release incoming for its next feature, Elemental. Walt Disney Animation Studios is doing the same for this winter’s Wish. DreamWorks Animation, meanwhile, moved the release of its next feature – Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken – forward by a couple of months when it saw the gap in the schedules. And Sony’s animation arm has soared back onto the big screen with the massively-successful Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse.

That in itself has been quite something, given that Sony has sold off recent animated features to streaming rather than directly release then to cinemas. There were mitigating circumstances of course, but it still feels off that the wonderful The Mitchells Vs The Machines – genuinely one of the best blockbusters of recent times – never got a full cinema release, and toddled off to Netflix.

On the upside, the pipeline of blockbuster family features appears to be fully working again. Furthermore, there’s more interest in giving them a cinema run-out again: Disney has done just that with its live action do-over of The Little Mermaid.

Yet it’s still looking like a relatively barren few months for family movies, especially considering what we used to be getting. The major studios are releasing just two to my eyes in July in the UK, with Signature taking advantage of that to plot a 300 screen+ release for The Secret Kingdom in the middle of it. Good on it, too. August is equally bare.

It’s bizarre. That at a point where cinemas are struggling to find the films to bring people back in huge numbers, that a reliable segment of the marketplace isn’t so much being ignored, just surprisingly neglected.

A film is going to have to go great guns to topple the $1.3bn of The Super Mario Bros Movie after all this year, which has cleaned up whilst debates rage elsewhere about possible superhero fatigue. In two years’ time, as the market fully responds to its success, don’t be surprised if the screens are flooded with similar fare. Right now though, at a point cinemas could really use it, family cinema output seems surprisingly low.

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