The Elemental box office comeback, and the rush to a declare a box office flop

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Pixar’s Elemental was labelled as a ‘box office bomb’ – but the diagnosis, it turns out, came way too soon. A few thoughts.

It took me a few weeks to get to my local cinema and catch up with Pixar’s latest movie, Elemental. There’s a little bit of the gleam that feels like it’s dulled from Pixar in recent years – not entirely of its own making – and the pull to go and see its latest film on opening weekend isn’t quite what it was. But still, I was determined to see it. I’ve complained enough on this very site about Disney’s decision to send three consecutive Pixar movies on the bounce direct to its Disney+ streaming service rather than to cinemas. To see something original and bold with a Pixar logo on it meant I knew I’d have to go to the cinema.

I’m glad I did. Peter Sohn’s film isn’t vintage Pixar, but it’s hard to see anyone else attempting to make anything quite like Elemental. Visually, it’s a feast, and it’s only on the drive home I began to contemplate the logistical challenges involved in a film where every character requires above and beyond visual effects work to be realised. As Disney itself has conceded, it’s one reason why the film’s price before marketing and distribution sat at $200m.

By the time I sat down to watch the movie though, you’d have thought that the Elemental story was done and dusted. Reviews when the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival were middling really, and then the movie opened at the US box office with $29.5m, adding not much more overseas. Variety declared it “by far the worst opening weekend in Pixar’s 28-year history”, running a headline stating ‘Elemental bombs, can Pixar restore its box office touch’?


This is the modern way. One of the reasons why movie studios spend so big ahead of a film’s opening weekend is precisely because of the narrative that forms. That without a good box office performance in weekend one, your film is toast. It’ll be booked onto fewer screens the following week, and the journey to home formats will be faster than perhaps originally planned.

Still, in the case of Elemental, there’s been a twist in the tale. The film opened in the US on June 16th 2023, and was comfortably beaten by The Flash. The feeling was at that stage that Elemental might struggle to find its way to $100m in America, and after the box office disappointment that was Lightyear the year before, it added fuel to the notion that Pixar was in trouble.

Yet as we saw last year with Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, when you have a family movie that’s got something to it, there’s the potential for a long tail (arf). That’s what’s happened with Elemental. Variety, to its credit, has revisited the film and conceded that it’s bounced back, interviewing Pixar president Jim Morris about what’s happened.

Morris admitted that when the initial opening weekend numbers came in they were “a bit crestfallen”. But whereas common consensus is that a blockbuster movie loses 50% or so of its business on its second weekend, Elemental was holding on a little better. “The numbers were falling off so little”, Morris told the outlet. In some countries, the second weekend numbers were going up. “You don’t see that in this day and age”, Morris mused.

And as a rule, he’s right. The reason we’re talking Elemental here is that it’s a box office exception. Currently, the film has a solid shot at half a billion dollars worldwide, with its US take having built to $150m. Pixar would have taken that at the start of the year, it’s just got to its target in a slightly different manner to usual.

But then it’s worth noting that the media ecosystem around films is looking for snap judgements. That in a week, it’s sport to declare a film a box office juggernaut or a box office disaster. To declare a television show the best of all time, a game the worst thing ever. The stuff that looks good in a headline, or a social media tweet, that overlooks a lot of the nuance.

It’s happening again. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part I doesn’t just have both a colon and a hyphen in its title, but its box office has fallen short of expectations. The reason to my eyes is that it’s been squeezed out bloody quickly by the Oppenheimer and Barbie successes, with Oppenheimer in particular dominating the premium IMAX screens that otherwise Dead Reckoning would have had a much longer run at.

Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I

Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I

The resultant ink is questioning whether the movie is a hit or a flop, when – again, to my eyes – it’s somewhere between the two. Furthermore, it’s going to exist in a boxset that’s going to make Paramount Pictures money for evermore. If Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part I doesn’t turn a profit for the studio across the next 20 years, I shall change my name to Ethan Hunt and drive a motorbike off a mildly challenging hill. I will insist on auditing the studio accounts myself, though.

It’s not necessary to diagnose the performance of a film instantly. I get it’s not without merit: we all know that a box office hit will spawn imitators, and I’d rather they be imitators of films that I actually like. But it’s not the be all and end all.

I’m old enough to have gone to see The Shawshank Redemption on its opening day in the UK. I went to see it I believe at the Showcase Cinema in Aintree, and I can tell you that there was little problem finding a seat. It was a very quiet Friday night screening, and against a wall of acclaim, the film had apparently flopped.

But time found it. Tom Hanks has been talking about this a little of late, about how the missing ingredient when assessing a film is often the time it takes for it to find its audience. Of course, not every film does, but many do, long after the glare of the movie media ecosystem has gone elsewhere.

What’s happened in the case of Elemental is the process of time has been on fast forward (to the point where Disney has now released a statement about its surprising box office turnaround). That the mass audience doesn’t tend to read the movie press, and – appreciating a diminished amount of competition in the family movie sector at the moment – went to seek the film out because it hadn’t been taken off screens in double quick time.

That’s what happened for me at least. By the looks at the box office numbers, I’m not alone either. A fluke, a freak, an exception to the rule? Quite possibly. But also, a welcome lesson in not writing a film off, just off the back of one weekend’s numbers…

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