Wednesday, March 13, 2019

In Laman's Terms: Why Do Disney's Memorial Day Weekend Releases Keep Flopping?

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

From 2006 to 2008, the Memorial Day weekend frame was the place to be for highly-anticipated blockbusters titles. Though this particular summertime three-day weekend spot had been a hot spot for high-profile films in the past, most notably Bruce Almighty, the first two Mission: Impossible movies and The Day After Tomorrow, but 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand took things to the next level by becoming the first motion picture to cross $100 million over the holiday frame. With a $102 million three-day gross and a $122.8 million four-day gross, X-Men: The Last Stand scored the biggest Memorial Day opening weekend in history, a record broken a year later by the massive $139.8 million four-day opening weekend haul of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull proved to be the third consecutive Memorial Day blockbuster to gross over $100 million on its three-day opening weekend, cementing this as a prime spot to open one of the biggest movies of any given year.

Memorial Day 2009's big blockbuster, Terminator: Salvation, underperformed to such a severe degree that it served as a reminder that Memorial Day weekend alone cannot turn a turkey into a box office juggernaut, but Disney, hot off the success of At World's End, decided to make Memorial Day weekend a regular spot to launch blockbusters starting with May 2010's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. An obvious attempt to recreate the success of Pirates of the Caribbean, the features eventual $37.8 million four-day opening weekend was anemic compared to past Memorial Day blockbusters. Little did Disney know that a trend had started with this title, one that would see Prince of Persia be the first, but not the last, big-budget Disney blockbuster to stumble over the Memorial Day weekend frame.

Five years after Prince of Persia failed to get a new franchise going, Disney launched Tomorrowland over the Memorial Day 2015 frame, resulting in a meager $42.6 million four-day opening weekend and a $93.4 million. This original feature still fared better than the following year's stab at a Disney Memorial Day blockbuster as Alice Through the Looking Glass opened to only $33.5 million over the holiday frame and tapped out at only $77 million domestically. The newest Pirates of the Caribbean film, Dead Men Tell No Tales, surpassed the entire lifetime domestic gross of Alice Through the Looking Glass over its $78.4 million opening four-day weekend but that sum was still behind the three-day opening weekend of its predecessor. Eventually, this final (for now) Pirates movie ended up being the first Pirates movie to finish under $200 million domestically.

And then there's last year's Solo: A Star Wars Story, currently the most recent Disney film to bow over Memorial Day weekend. Despite pre-release tracking indicating that the film would at least have a four-day bow above $100 million and may even dethrone At World's End for the biggest Memorial Day opening weekend, Solo ended up making the wrong kind of history as it became the first Disney owned Star Wars movie to gross under $100 million on its three-day opening weekend. Though only the seventh movie ever to open to over $100 million over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, it's $103 million four-day haul was below the $103.4 million generated by the far cheaper to produce Hangover: Part II over Memorial Day weekend seven years prior. Disney had come up short over Memorial Day weekend before but never with one of their most beloved franchises like Star Wars.

Is Disney just cursed to never have big hits over Memorial Day weekend? Of course not. Memorial Day weekend has had a rough spell generating big box office hits for Disney as of late but there have been plenty of other recent titles that have excelled in the timeframe. Between the releases of 2010's Prince of Persia and 2015's Tomorrowland, The Hangover: Part II, Kung Fu Panda 2, MIB3, Fast & Furious 6 and X-Men: Days of Future Past all did box office business that ranged from decent to outright outstanding. As Terminator: Salvation learned a decade ago, a holiday weekend cannot magically turn a movie nobody wants to see into a box office monster, and unfortunately, the assortment of movies Disney's launched over Memorial Day weekend in the last few years have all managed to carry baggage and/or lackluster marketing that were more impactful on its box office fortunes than a Memorial Day release date.

Tomorrowland, for instance, suffered from marketing that just never fully hooked audiences, ditto for Solo, while new Alice and Pirates movies weren't sequels that people clamored for. By contrast, Disney's biggest Memorial Day success story (as well as the film that still holds the record for biggest Memorial Day opening weekend), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, had both distinctive marketing and was a sequel to a well-liked film. It's not rocket science to figure out but Disney has tended to lean too heavily in the past on the holiday frame alone to catapult the likes of Prince of Persia to box office stardom. The question now becomes if they'll be able to learn from their mistakes in the recent past to ensure that their next Memorial Day blockbuster, Aladdin, does not become the next Tomorrowland or Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Certainly yesterday's newest Aladdin trailer seemed to generate a lot of goodwill from the general public, something that was missing from pre-release buzz from that final Pirates of the Caribbean movie for instance. Still, Aladdin has got a lot of competition to face in its current release date, including Detective Pikachu which looks like it could be a box office juggernaut. If Aladdin does manage to become the newest Disney blockbuster to come up short over the Memorial Day weekend frame though, it won't be because the weekend itself is inherently doomed for Disney blockbusters. It's because Disney, once again, used the weekend as a launchpad for a title that either audiences didn't want or that marketing failed to properly drum up buzz for.

One final sidenote: looking over the movies that have opened over Memorial Day weekend over the years, it's sad to see how smaller-scale movies have gone from being prominent to being scarce to outright not even existing over the Memorial Day frame. I kind of get it if nobody wants to open something new against Avengers: Endgame but last year, for instance, was there no new horror movie film that could open alongside Solo over the Memorial Day frame? As late as 2012, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel expanded into wide release over Memorial Day weekend to strong results, a clear sign that the proper smaller film can thrive over this weekend usually dominated by tentpoles. Luckily, 2019 seems to be bucking this trend by having three original non-tentpole titles opening against Aladdin. Brad Pitt's sci-fi drama Ad Astra (which may get delayed), the horror/superhero film BrightBurn and my most anticipated movie of summer 2019, the comedy Booksmart.

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