EXCLUSIVE: It finally happened.
Sony’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is officially the studio’s highest-grossing film ever at the domestic box office, overtaking Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ($403.7 million) which has owned the title for the past 16 years.
Heading into the holiday season, executives across distribution and film finance had a strong feeling that this reboot of Jumanji directed by Jake Kasdan would serve as strong counter-programming to Disney’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The pic opened to $71.9 million over the six-day holiday and by the first weekend of January stole the No. 1 spot from the Rian Johnson sequel for four weekends out of its run.
But really, nobody was expecting a near billion-dollar global haul (No. 2 worldwide for Sony at $951M after Skyfall‘s $1.1 billion) nor a domestic take this high in the end. As Deadline already reported, our finance sources informed us that Jumanji will bring an estimated $305.7M in profit after all ancillaries back to Sony.
Stateside, Jumanji is already the highest-grossing film for Kasdan, and all of its stars too: Dwayne Johnson (beating his Fast and the Furious canon), Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan (besting her Guardians of the Galaxy pics). While many in the industry like to cry that the star system no longer works, here’s a quintessential pairing of talent and material, with the skinny kid in the movie morphing into Johnson, the beautiful odd girl winding up as Black, and the muscular Jock turning into short wisenheimer Hart. More proof that the star system isn’t entirely dead: With 300 million-plus followers on social media between Johnson and Hart, wherever they order their fans to go, they’re there, and they went to Jumanji.
Even more jaw-dropping is that in an age when Marvel superhero movies and Star Wars pics rule, here comes a dormant franchise originally inspired from Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 Caldecott-winning picture book and the 1995 Robin Williams TriStar movie, which completely takes off. If revisionist angles on dusty classics like King Arthur and Peter Pan can’t pop at the box office, then why did this Jumanji reboot work?
“It’s not the IP, it’s the ‘I’ — the idea,” Sony Pictures Entertainment Group chairman Tom Rothman explains about the success of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. “Before the obsession grew with known properties only, big ideas are what powered big movies.”
At its center, Jumanji has a heartfelt story about teenagers at vulnerable points in their lives who turn into characters who are the opposite of their insecurities, a concept further heightened by Johnson’s, Hart’s and Black’s comedic sensibilities.
“That’s a big, highly relatable idea across all demographics,” says Rothman.
Realize that for Jumanji to get to a near-$ billion worldwide, it couldn’t depend on its ’90s Williams brand at all. As we wrote in late December, the pic’s producer and former Columbia Pictures co-president Matt Tolmach got the idea of a Jumanji sequel to a place that no other administration could since the 1995 title opened. In fact, the late John Calley was musing about a Jumanji sequel when he took over as Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman 17 years ago.
For the current Sony brass, it was the pitch for a second Jumanji from Community TV series scribe Chris McKenna that did the trick.
“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 a while. 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,” Tolmach told us in December. When Rothman took over the reins of the studio, he met with several producers, and Tolmach came in prepared, having already polished McKenna’s idea about four high school kids who get sucked into a video game with different avatars and must overcome their shortcomings to get out.
“After my first meeting with 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,” said Tolmach, who also reached out to Kasdan to direct.
Why was Kasdan the right guy? “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,” explained Tolmach.
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 its follow-up Zathura. Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner also signed on to write. Deadline exclusively reported that Rosenberg and Pinkner are in talks to pen the Jumanji sequel.
Success in the theatrical business boils down to dating, and Jumanji was originally dated for July 28. But then Rothman had a Eureka moment while he was watching the early dailies: The movie reminded him a lot of another family adventure comedy he worked on at Fox, the $1.35 billion-grossing Night at the Museum series.
“Jumanji looked like it was widely relatable with an appeal from 8 to 80,” says Rothman who, together with Sony distribution made the bold decision to move the feature into the Christmas corridor right after Disney’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Rothman calls the move at the time “controversial,” but “we felt early on from the dailies that the movie would be an all-audience event and at the end of the day that conviction really paid off.”
While Disney lorded over exhibition with strict terms for Last Jedi with a four-week wide commitment, a reported estimated 65% rental cut and an insistence that the sequel play in each multiplex’s largest auditorium, Jumanji legged out as a wide release (1,000-plus theaters) for 14 weeks to Last Jedi‘s eight — proof there are better terms for an exhibitor over the holiday season in which they can also reap some upside outside of popcorn.
Getting the word out on Jumanji was a 360-degree plan for Sony, not only showing off footage at CinemaCon but also leveraging the fans of co-star Nick Jonas, who debuted the “Jumanji Jumanji” Music Video on his social pages with further tubthumping during his iHeart Radio Jingle Ball concert appearances. Sony got clever with custom commercial vignettes on TV — read going after the Johnson jock crowd with an ESPN bit in which the cast found themselves in Jumanji with the need to call Oakland Raiders NFL player Marshawn Lynch for help. Fans of the movie are also able to to relive it with an amazing escape room experience from new amusement chain 60out Escape Rooms.
Out of the gate, Sony sold the movie as adult as possible and made the promos more broad as they got closer to the release date, a multi-prong campaign for which Rothman gives props to Sony president of worldwide marketing and distribution Josh Greenstein and his team. In addition, Rothman gives shout-outs to domestic distribution head Adrian Smith, international distribution head Steven O’Dell, Columbia Pictures president Sanford Panitch, and Columbia EVP for productions Ange Giannetti. “This is a really good example of a big wide team effort,” says Rothman. “Everyone pulled together.”
Finance sources have informed us that 2017 was one of Sony’s most profitable slates in decades, with not only Jumanji but also Baby Driver (which made more than $50M in black ink), The Emoji Movie and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming ($200.1M in estimated profit).
Yet in the industry’s headlong pursuit of known titles that can succeed at the box office, they often forget you can’t have sequels without first installments. Rothman learned that at Fox when he rolled the dice on Avatar, which is yielding four more movies. With the success of Jumanji, it further underscores his mission to make Sony one of the rare studios with a flair for original blockbusters.