For more than two decades, Sony has tried to crack a sequel to the Robin Williams holiday hit Jumanji. 

The movie, based on Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 Caldecott Medal-winning picture book, opened on Dec. 15, 1995 — the same hot zone third-weekend-in-December corridor that’s been owned in recent years by Disney Star Wars movies — and ultimately became one of Robin Williams’ 14 $100M-plus grossing titles at the domestic box office with a global haul of $263M. While it took the original movie a little more than 17 weeks to hit the century mark at the U.S./Canada box office, the sequel opening this weekend likely will surpass or match the original’s domestic B.O. before the end of the year and double the 1995 title by the end of its run with $200M. Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan and Nick Jonas star.

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Seventeen years ago when the late John Calley took office as Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman, it was the executive’s priority to mount Jumanji 2. Joe Johnston’s original film followed two kids who discover an adventure board game which brings a stampede of jungle animals to life, and which ultimately trample their New England town. However, the sequel’s development was as complex as the game itself with a rotation of writers and directors attaching and departing including the author Van Allsburg, Adam Rifkin, Jonathan Hensleigh, Steve Oedekerk, David Ward and Don Rhymer. While Jumanji 2 didn’t occur ten years later, a feature adaptation of its spinoff book by Van Allsburg did: Zathura, which centered around two young brothers who after losing interest in playing  Jumanji, decide to play sci-fi board game Zathura instead, sending their house into the abyss of space. The pic flopped with $65M in global ticket sales, which was equal to the pic’s production cost before P&A.

Matt Tolmach, right, talks with Kevin Hart, left.
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“Sometimes it takes the right idea at the right moment. Jumanji isn’t the easiest movie (to follow up) because the original was so beloved and iconic in many ways,” say producer and former Sony Pictures co-president of production Matt Tolmach who is responsible for getting a reboot of the Jumanji franchise back on track, “It’s a challenge to build a sequel or another iteration to a movie.”

60OutEscape Room
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In a post Disney-Fox world where that proposed merger will yield an Avatar franchise and even stronger Marvel lineup as both studios’ combine their superheros, Sony’s rebirth of Jumanji couldn’t come at a better time. Every studio thirsts to be propped by strong brands and as this follow-up looks to make $65M by Christmas day, it’s already spanning a slew of ancillaries including a mobile game by NHN, an Avatar Labs/Facebook Creative/Sony Oculus VR experience, apparel from Hybrid and Isaac Morris, Funko Pop figures, the original board game from Cardinal, and a 60Out Escape Room. What is the latter exactly? It’s literally a chain of live game facilities in Los Angeles and Philadelphia whereby participants for a $35-$38 admission price can solve puzzles and survive in the wild on Jumanji-like sets at locations. Following the 1995 movie, Sony tried to capitalize on Jumanji with a 40-episode animated TV series on UPN that aired from 1996-1999.

Tolmach, who read the original book to his son, had spent a number of years trying to hatch another Jumanji movie, but it wasn’t until Community TV series scribe Chris McKenna pitched him a bold fresh take.

“Chris had been a gamer growing up, and he would come back from school every day and escape into a video game as an avatar and be out of his life and body for awhile. It was the power of that inspiration that became Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and its relevance is so much more important as gaming has evolved in this day and age,” says Tolmach.

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In the new version, four high school kids on detention are sucked into the Jumanji video game and are dropped into the middle of the jungle, whereby the only way they can get out is to find a prized jewel and return to the peak of a mountain. Each of the kids wound up becoming a video game avatar that’s opposite of who they are: The jock becomes a short guy in Hart, the nerd becomes a muscular man in Johnson, the queen bee hot girl turns into Black, while the shy girl becomes a vibrant femme swashbuckler played by Gillan.

Bill Teitler, the original Jumanji producer also worked with Tolmach. Radar Pictures was continually attached to a Jumanji sequel given how they were aboard the original and Zathura. Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner also signed on to write. Tolmach tapped Jake Kasdan to direct Welcome to the Jungle; a helmer Tolmach worked with a decade ago on the Judd Apatow-produced Walk the Line satire, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story. What made a comedy director prime for a VFX event movie? “Jake is brilliant and funny with an enormous heart. Watching these types of movies, which need to appeal to everybody, comedy is the entry point, especially when the conceit is this big. I sent the script to Jake on Christmas and within a couple of hours he said he’d love to do it. After my first meeting with (Sony Pictures Entertainment Group Chairman) Tom Rothman, he said ‘I’ll make that movie. I love that movie.’ There was always a lot of wind at our backs from everyone at Sony and I felt inspired.”

Kasdan told Deadline back at CinemaCon, that he didn’t consider his recent take on Jumanji to be a reboot, rather a sequel.

Jake Kasdan, right, directs Dwayne Johnson.
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Jumanji is the kind of movie that I think people shouldn’t out-and-out remake. To me, a big part of its power is in the unique elements of its original execution. Within that, I think there’s this central idea and mythology that’s mysterious, but powerful, and commands a powerful part of the imagination,” the director said.

While the original Jumanji was largely shot in the college town of Keene, New Hampshire, Welcome to the Jungle settled on a Honolulu, Hawaii production with some scenes in Atlanta. As the story goes, originally a U.S. state with tropical sites was considered, but within the first hour of the location scout, the production encountered two dangerous animals, so they set their sights on Hawaii. The production cost before P&A was $110M per Deadline sources along with around $15M in estimated tax credits from both states. Though a tentpole price, it’s significantly cheaper than the amount of money spent on other wanna-be franchises this year including Justice League and Blade Runner 2049. 

What’s amazing about the success of Jumanji this weekend is no one was really begging for a a sequel to the 1995 film, and that’s always an uphill battle for any studio. Hence, Welcome to the Jungle was so execution dependent. Sony sold the movie on its bodyswapping concept and  to pull in the millennials, Sony cast the biggest social media stars who can still open films in the business: Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, who altogether count close to 300M followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The duo previously starred in the PG-13 Warner Bros./Universal comedy Central Intelligence which made $217M worldwide. Throughout the marketing campaign, Sony leveraged their social pages, plus those of Jack Black, Guardians of the Galaxy actress Gillan and Nick Jonas. While many argue there’s no such thing as stars opening movies any more, an ensemble of stars does (read Fox’s Murder on the Orient Express). Out of the gate, Sony sold the movie as adult as possible and made the promos more broader as they got closer to the release date in a mutli-prong campaign.

Johnson announced the project in May 2016, and the cast reconvened at CinemaCon (with Hart on recorded message) in March where they unveiled the pic’s title and first footage. To date, the under-25 crowd came out at 46% with the under-18 repping 27% of the crowd — a tough demographic to pull away from YouTube (18M of them watched the first trailer on that streaming site back in June). Both age groups embraced Welcome to the Jungle with an A.

As is standard with Sony given its forte in music, they leveraged Jonas’ fans. The singer debuted the ‘Jumanji Jumanji’ Music Video on his social pages, and Sony partnered again with Adexe & Nau, two singers/filmmakers who have 5.3M YouTube subscribers and who are known for cutting music videos specific to Sony movies such as Spider-Man Homecoming. There was also a partnership with iHeartRadio’s Jingle Ball concert in 12 cities with customized radio spots, a photo stunt op at the concerts and a sweepstakes where the winner could meet Jonas at the Miami performance.

Sony went after the Johnson jock crowd with an ESPN vignette in which the cast found themselves in Jumanji with the need to call Oakland Raiders NFL player Marshawn Lynch for help. See below:

There was also a series of custom vignettes on the Discovery Networks whereby the cast entered various Jumanji-level themes and interacted with talent from iconic shows, read Naked & Afraid, Says Yes to the Dress, and Homicide Hunter. Additional custom vignettes targeted at Hispanic audiences were also seen on Univision’s channels over a three-month period.

Matt Tolmach center with Will Ferrell left and John C. Reilly right at ‘Step Brothers’ premiere
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This year has truly tested the boundaries of comedies at the box office in regards to what works and doesn’t. Audiences have largely shown that they’ve lost their patience with raunchy R-rated party-hardy comedies, however, there are various facets of the genre that have proved their grit to succeed. Action comedies are a safe haven (read The Hitman’s Bodyguard), due to the fact that they can pull in a broad spectrum of demos. But PG-13 family comedies like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg comedy Daddy’s Home 2 are also working, the latter of which will finally hit the $100M mark by ChristmasNonetheless industry pundits believe that the genre is destined to live at home, on streaming services. Count Tolmach as one of the movie producers who’ll make sure that trend doesn’t happen.

“I refuse to believe that comedy can’t live on the big screen,” said the producer who during his Sony exec days shepherded some of the millennium’s cult comedies including Talladega Nights, Zombieland and Superbad.

“Certain comedies land harder or better with audiences. I absolutely live in a world where comedies can get made and have to continue to get made. I just know it. The world is a super stressful place, and people just want to go to the theater and laugh.”