Tim Burton Talks Box Office And Oscar Nod

In the race for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, Disney is hoping to pull off a rare feat and grab 3 of the 5 nominations: for their summer Pixar hit Brave, the upcoming holiday release Wreck-It Ralph (November 2) and Tim Burton‘s Frankenweenie. But will the disappointing box office for the latter hurt its chances at landing a nomination for Burton in the category? Grossing only $24 million since its domestic release October 5th, Frankenweenie’s tepid box office receipts are a head-scratcher. It’s the leading animated film in terms of critical reviews at Rotten Tomatoes this year with an 88% Fresh rating. Oversaturation of other horror-themed animated features like Focus Features’ ParaNorman and Sony’s hit Hotel Transylvania could be a factor in the under-performance for Frankenweenie. For Burton it may be his most personal project as he told me on the phone from London this morning so its particularly frustrating that it is not clicking in a bigger way at the box office.

“I don’t really know why. I can never predict from the beginning of my career. Any of them can go one way or the other. When people see it they seem to like it and Disney has been supportive of it so I can’t really fault anything. I don’t really know,” he said. “The Nightmare Before Christmas in a weird way was similar. It didn’t really do anything (at the box office) but it sort of stayed around,”  he said of the first animated feature he produced in 1993 (it was directed by Henry Selick) which has become a perennial Halloween-time fixture. His own animated feature directorial effort Corpse Bride (2005) earned him an Oscar nomination in the feature animation category and the clever stop motion wonders of Frankenweenie could well do the same.

So why has this 3D stop-motion black and white toon not been drawing the big family crowds Disney is accustomed to? “The fears of black and white? The fears that it is too scary? Nobody who has seen the movie goes ‘oh we didn’t like the black and white or it was too scary’ and Disney was behind it. It’s just one of those weird things. It is not an exact science,”  said Burton. “It is only upsetting for me in the sense where I feel like, and I can’t say this about all my films I have worked on, but I like the movie and I like all the work people put into it. It’s all those things, the stop motion, all those things can continue in some way. I remember a while back when computer animation came in with Pixar and people said ‘we’re not going to do anymore drawn animation films and you go ‘ooh, ouch’. That’s a bit of concern always in the back of your mind. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully the movie will find a life somewhere, some distant planet.”

The film was inspired by Burton’s live-action featurette of the same name about a boy who brings his dead pet back to life. Burton made the short in 1984 but it was barely seen and the next year he began his extraordinarily successful feature film career. But the idea never left him. “Over the years going back to the original drawings and the stop-motion process it just seemed like a natural fit. I would have been very nervous about just expanding the short. But it became a very different process and it was fun to explore all those other memories of that time for me. I can’t think of any other project where I put it though such memory, not only with the dog but extending to certain kids I know and teachers and feelings and movies,” he said.

Burton is sanguine about the box office and says he remembers that when they made Nightmare it was such an oddity the studio wasn’t even going to put out a trailer at the time. “I have had a strange life and career that way. I am surprised if something is successful, I am surprised if it is a failure, I am always surprised. I have never really been able to predict or target things like that. Like I said hopefully it will have its life somewhere someday.” He next heads to France, Japan and Korea among other countries for the international launch of the film which had a successful European debut Wednesday as the opening night attraction of the London Film Festival.

As for another possible Oscar nomination Burton says he doesn’t like to think too much about it. This weekend he and his significant other Helena Bonham Carter are receiving the prestigious BFI Fellowship Award from the British Film Institute. He says he is happy to get it. “You don’t get many things so it is quite an honor. Obviously we have made several films here. I think Christopher Lee is going to give it to me which makes it really special. It’s an amazing surprise,” he said.

And — box office hit or not — it probably won’t be the last we will be seeing of Burton on the awards circuit this year.

  1. Burton: “I don’t really know why (it didn’t do well). ”

    … maybe because it’s a kids’ movie about a dead dog?

  2. I saw Frankenweenie and thought it was excellent, but I suspect Hotel Transylvania took a lot of the audience…between the two, I’m sure most kids (and parents) preferred Hotel over the b&w stop-motion with the odd/creepy premise.

  3. It’s a wonderful film, a great big wet kiss to the “monster kids” generation. But it’s not really a movie for children, who in any event prefer the wise-cracking-animals-on-a-crazy-journey yawnfests to the subtler pleasures of true art. (N.B.: The best-reviewed animated feature of last year was ARTHUR CHRISTMAS, and it too fell short of $50 million domestic.)

  4. It’s sad this is doing so poorly at the BO but not at all surprising. Kids were turned off by the black and white, plain and simple. Even adults aren’t interested in Black and white films in this day and age, as evidenced by The Artist last year. All the acclaim and awards that movie was showered with and it still only did a mere $40m in the US. So if adults these days can’t even be persuaded to see B&W films you really think kids can? Of course not. That combined with the fact that Disney made the absolutely stupid call to release it just one week after Transylvania, which always looked like it had big family appeal, and it was always doomed at the box office.

    1. But Hotel Transylvania was from the hit-or-miss Sony, while this was from a post-Burton-in-Wonderland Disney.

  5. the films great… stop motion doesn’t do all that great anyway… people will see it eventually… but it comes down to paranorman and hotel transylvania as oversaturation…

  6. bobbyg, clearly you have no kids and no idea what you’re talking about. Thankfully, your job at the tape vault is secure.

    1. … it was a flop, Marco. despite a HUGE marketing blitz. They’ve been marketing this thing since ’09.

      … the tape vault???

      1. The dead wife wasn’t the central character, and wasn’t brought back to life as a zombie.

        I liked FRANKENWEENIE, wanted to love it. The story just didn’t grab me; it seemed like Burton couldn’t decide whether to tell the story of the boy and his dog, or the one about the competing science fair kids, so he just threw them both in, while completely sidelining the character of the neighbor girl, who seems at first like she’s supposed to play a major role in the story. (Same as in DARK SHADOWS, which starts out like it’s going to motivated by Barnabas’ love for the reincarnation of his old girlfriend, then pushes that character offscreen for long stretches of time.) Burton’s storytelling skills, sadly, ain’t what they used to be, and his movies can’t get by just on their distinctive visuals anymore–not with better movies in the same vein (like PARANORMAN, in my opinion) out there.

      2. That’s a bit of a stretch.

        the poster for Up was a funny looking old man and a cute cub scout flying with a flock of balloons. the poster for this was a dead dog.

        …Uo was an adventure movie. If in Up, he had dug up his wife, and frankensteined her… I suspect it would not have done as well.

    1. My 9 year old daughter had a choice between Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. She said she didn’t want to see a movie about a dead dog. She found the concept disturbing, so I think there is something to the theory.

  7. Frankenweenie is an incredibly beautiful film. I can’t believe that WOM hasn’t convinced more people to see it.

  8. I have not seen the film so have no opinion on it. But this interview is heartbreaking and raw, and the pain he feels at the audience’s rejection of this, his seminal work, is palpable.

    It’s a reminder that for all of their fame and wealth and clout, for all of the insularity their status affords them, and for all the times we, the media and the industry, intentionally or otherwise, think of them as a ‘brand’ – some of these A-listers are still human beings just like the rest of us.

  9. Word of mouth isn’t helping because it’s an incredibly boring movie with a horribly bland lead character (and family and dog). Most of the supporting characters are terrible aside from the science teacher – but it’s not his film. It’s an homage to something that’s been done to death so adults don’t care, and kids have no point of reference for b&w horror. At the end of the day it’s just a boring movie with poor storytelling, missed opportunities, and forgettable characters. I hated it…and I’m a huge Burton fan!!!

    1. Word-of-mouth? It dropped only 37% in its third weekend, despite losing all its IMAX screens. I’d say the Word is pretty darn good.

      And BTW, it’s NOT a movie about a dead dog. It’s a movie about a dog brought back to life. That’s hardly the same thing.

  10. Original Frankenweenie – Tim Burton at his best. A budding genius creating great art.

    Animated Frankenweenie – Tim Burton as his worst. A boring hack remaking old ideas for cash.

  11. After how horrible Dark Shadows was (and AiW before that), I vowed not to watch any more Burton films at the cinema. So skipped Frankenweenie, but then this week I actually went to see it based on the good reviews. It’s indeed a very good movie, but I can imagine a lot of the other audiences Burton alienated with his previous turds would not be so quick to forgive. I’ll still pass on whatever he does next on live action tho.

  12. The first thing my son said to me when the movie started was, “I wish this could be in color.” I understood and appreciated what Burton tried to do with this, but my 9 and 7 year old prefer color with their animation. And these are kids who enjoy watching the old Three Stooges shorts, as well as really enjoying Chaplain movies (they absolutely love “The Kid”).

  13. Tim, you have lost something in your art. You were once a visionary. Now you’re average at best. I challenge you to make a 10 million dollar live action film (without depp or your wife). I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the result.

  14. You don’t have to worry about Frankenweenie eventually becoming successful on some distant planet, Tim. It’s going to become huge right here on this one – just give it time. Remember, The Wizard of Oz was a box office dud.

  15. Frankweenie *was* successful in convincing the producers of Pee Wee’s Big adventure to hire him and launch his career all those years ago. I’d say anything else is gravy.

  16. I didn’t expect much after his string of horrible studio fare. Seriously, Alice in Wonderland was a POS.

    But Frankenweenie was wonderful. Nine year old son loved it as well, as did my GF. Slow to start but a tightly run, well-paced, really fun movie with some great great characters. Mr. Whiskers in particular. I WOM keeps it alive…because I have to see every single crappy animated film that comes out (I’m a parent) and the ones that are truly great – are getting increasingly rare. So a good one is worth celebrating.

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