As the old saying goes, you can make it fast, you can make it cheap, and you can make it good, but you can’t have all three. In the case of STXfilms and Alibaba’s UglyDolls, it was the first two points making for a disastrous start at the box office of $8.5M for this reported $45M-$53M net production, intended to launch the mini-major’s foray into the feature animation space.
Based on this weekend’s box office results, it’s clear that the doll line isn’t as universal as originally perceived by STX. STX eventually got ahold of UglyDolls and believed that the property would resonate over in China. While the pic has yet to lock down a release date there, box office history for family pics in China is against UglyDolls: family fare under-indexes there, with even Pixar films challenged.
What went wrong here from our numerous interviews is that STX rushed this feature into production over the last year, despite the fact that they’ve been talking this up over the last five years, first with director Robert Rodriguez, then with Kelly Asbury taking over.
The trade media was dumb-founded by the low production cost for a CGI pic, but it’s apparently true. STX, given their motto of trying to make movies more efficiently for core demos than the majors, and profiting off them, literally vied to one-up the Illumination Entertainment cost-efficiency model of making feature toons for less than $100M.
Typically, an animated feature will go through several different versions before production decides on an ultimate path. STX took one road and went for it. But the fact of the matter is that successful animated movies require an investment of time, artistry and money. UglyDolls is a case of you get what you paid for.
Animation is a high-performing genre at the box office, but the pics have to be good and parents and kids can tell the difference (Despite a B+ CinemaScore, Screen Engine/ComScore PostTrak exits show parents gave the pic two stars and kids under 12, three stars): A day at the movies for a family is quite expensive. Critics were immediately turned off, thinking they were watching a toy commercial. “Every aspect of this computer-animated movie directed by Kelly Asbury seems equally overdetermined and tossed-off, as if it were a caffeinated weekend project for everyone involved,” slams The New York Times Glenn Kenny.
Still, we can’t hastily say the feature adaptation of toylines are simply destined to fail. Great stories beget great movies, and for every TLC taken with Hasbro’s multi-billion grossing The Transformers franchise, and Warner Bros.’ first Lego Movie, there’s the thrifty and hasty executions of Bratz (final domestic $10M, global $26M) and 2017’s My Little Pony ($21.9M domestic, $60.3M WW), which never took off at the box office.
No wonder why Mattel is so slow to develop their toylines into films, i.e. when Barbie wasn’t working at Sony over several years with versions starring Amy Schumer and Anne Hathaway, they jettisoned the IP to Warner Bros. Barbie built the House of Mattel, and the last thing that toy company will do is make a film that screws up its legacy bread and butter.
STX jumped the gun on UglyDolls before the movie even hit the screens, developing a 26-episode 2020 series for Hulu (hmm, maybe that should have aired first before the movie?), and taking all rights to the UglyDolls property, including worldwide merchandising and licensing rights for toys and consumer products. While Hasbro is the global licensee for UglyDolls merchandise, industry experts believe that those ancillaries will be hurt based on the result of this movie’s stateside performance. STX was likely counting on higher returns in these sectors.
UglyDolls came to STX after initially being set up at Universal with Illumination Entertainment in 2011, when they acquired rights to the 2001 doll line. They saw the brand as a small cottage industry with a cult following quite reminiscent of The Simpsons, and had initial intentions for a wider range of media opportunities.
In some respects, there was an earnest attempt by STX to get UglyDolls right within their efficiency model, besting the production spends on such original toon IP like Paramount’s $100M disaster Wonder Park. Canadian rebates were received for outsourced work by the pic’s animation studio Reel FX.
An estimated $20M in foreign sales, apart from China’s contribution, apparently went toward the production cost. STX co-owns all the songs with Atlantic Records from the pop artists they cast in the film (all music for the pic, all-in, reportedly cost $3.67M). STX partnered with Alibaba and reportedly has a Chinese co-production with a 40% box office rental (more on this in a minute), and they put together a long list of 100 global promotional partners (including McDonalds, Walmart, Carl’s Jr/Hardee’s, Pinkberry, the list goes on), so that they could achieve a lower P&A spend (reportedly $40M domestic, with the TV spot spend portion of that number in the high single digits). In lieu of spending excessively on TV spots, STX leaned on such stunts as Clarkson performing the movie’s single “Broken and Beautiful” on The Voice and The Billboard Music Awards. Anecdotally, if you’re in LA or NY, try finding a billboard that isn’t advertising UglyDolls.
The studio sought to tap pop artists with high social media wattage: RelishMix alone estimates the total Twitter/Facebook/Instagram following between Clarkson, Pittbull and Nick Jonas at over 184M. Even though UglyDolls had a huge social media universe across Facebook, YouTube views, Twitter and Instagram of 345.7M, the viral rate of videos of 9:1 EOR was half that of the average animated pic’s 18:1. Says RelishMix, ” It’s also worth noting the many of the movie’s top-viewed clips are owned in nature (paid by the studio). Speaking of top clips, the movie’s average daily views for its best YouTube videos are 10.7K, once again short of the 28.5K genre benchmark.”
Further hurting UglyDolls was its release date. “It was always about Avengers: Endgame this weekend,” says one rival studio executive about the last three days, which saw the Disney/Marvel movie crossing $600M in a record 10 days stateside. The reason why UglyDolls went in the wake of the Marvel beast was because the animated pic was vying for young girls (who, under 12, showed up at 63% per PostTrak).
Weeks out, the thinking was that young girls wouldn’t be stolen away by Endgame. But PostTrak reports this weekend that they were at 49% under-12 girls. Also, STX was trying to stay away from Toy Story 4 (but then there’s Legendary/Warner Bros. Pokemon Detective Pikachu, which is supposed to be a surprise with $50M+ opening in U.S./Canada).
How much money will UglyDolls lose? “A decent amount,” predicts one film finance executive this morning, but it’s still too soon to determine an exact number. China hasn’t set a release date for UglyDolls yet, which means Alibaba hasn’t begun promoting the movie through its massive tentacles.
US animation struggles in China, and a $60M projection would be hard to meet for UglyDolls in the Middle Kingdom. Pixar’s Coco overindexed in the Middle Kingdom with $189.2M, because China has a Tomb Sweeping Day holiday that’s similar to Mexico’s Dia de Los Muertos. But Incredibles 2 and Finding Dory, respectively, struggled with $51M and $38M, particularly when you compare them to the live-action titles like Fate of the Furious and recent Marvel movies. We understand that STX would be happy with a $150M global B.O. on UglyDolls. The film only released in a few territories this weekend, and as of yesterday it wasn’t doing so hot in South Korea.
Yet, based on domestic results this weekend for UglyDolls, one rival studio executive with knowledge of the breadth of animated franchises says, “This type of performance puts the whole franchise at risk.”