There are many voices out there saying our film industry is in a precarious state, with multiplex chains – notably Cineworld Group – saddled with excessive debt and streaming continuing to pose an existential threat to the business. Theater operators understandably have a different opinion, pointing out that theirs is a commercial offering: If the studios deliver the blockbusters, as Paramount did last year with Top Gun: Maverick, audiences will come in droves.
The first quarter of 2023 shed some light on surefire winners in theaters: Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania burned brightly for a few days, then faded, while the latest installments of Creed and John Wick set records for their franchise, but the UK and Irish box office for those films remains in the teens million pounds – very nice to have, but not exactly blockbuster status.
But now comes The Super Mario Bros. Movie, offering the biggest opening of the year so far, the biggest debut ever for a video game adaptation, and one of the biggest opening salvos for an animated film. Hitting cinemas last Wednesday, the family adventure kicked off in cinemas across the UK and Ireland with a robust £15.7m in its first five days. The film also performed strongly worldwide, earning a whopping $376 million, beating out Frozen 2 and becoming the biggest global opening of all time for an animated film.
The Nintendo video game adaptation is the latest from Universal animation company Illumination, whose last feature film was Minions: The Rise of Gru – a $940 million box office hit. It’s tempting to think that animation is an easy sell for families: an audience that has been strangely underserved by Hollywood since the pandemic and is accepting more or less everything family animation brands throw at them.
Well, tell Disney, who stumbled with animated sci-fi adventure Strange World late last year: the total global box office is $74 million, albeit dampened by Disney’s inability to release the film in homophobic markets of the Middle East, due to a prominent gay character. Disney/Pixar’s Lightyear, which had the benefit of being associated with the Toy Story franchise, also came in at a disappointing $226 million worldwide.
Converting a video game into a compelling feature film has defeated many filmmakers, including those who made the live-action adventure Super Mario Bros in 1993. Three decades ago, Hollywood studios were just beginning their journey to extract value from the burgeoning industry games and had a lot to learn. Movie critics may complain, but The Super Mario Bros. Movie arguably manages to locate, on the big screen, echoes of all the elements of the various Mario-related games that audiences have come to appreciate since the character first appeared in 1985. Has anyone ever gone broke by underestimating the allure of a checklist?
The film’s short running time also plays into the film’s favor: At 92 minutes, theaters can show the Super Mario Bros. movie several times a day, maximizing revenue, and surely skeptical parents have reached the rumor that if their entertainment should prove to be less than broad, the experience will have the great advantage of brevity.
If Universal’s rivals take note of the outcome, it’s unclear what lessons will be learned. Hollywood studios have increasingly placed their trust in existing intellectual property (IP), wanting to hedge risks through familiar source material, but animation was traditionally seen as an exception. If we accept that Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, and Illumination (home of the Minions) are brands in their own right, then the brand serves as intellectual property—these animation companies don’t need the added safety net of established properties.
But the stunning success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, especially after the failure of Disney’s original story Strange World, could see animation houses make a run for IP, including every video game that could eventually produce a family-friendly adventure. Cinema operators would like to see a series of family-friendly blockbusters that can deliver the sold-out crowd they are currently enjoying. But filmmakers looking to tell original stories on the big screen may find it even harder to gain support for these efforts.
UK and Ireland Box Office
Top 10 Movies April 7-9
1. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, £15.7m from 718 Sites (New)
2. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, £1.62m from 682 sites. Total: £7.48m (2 weeks)
3. John Wick: Chapter 4, £1.29m from 613 sites. Total: £12.9m (3 weeks)
4. Air, £1.17m from 597 sites (new)
5. The Pope’s Exorcist, £707,000 from 433 sites (new)
6. Mummies, £173,000 from 614 sites. Total: £1.54m (2 weeks)
7. Shazam! Fury of the Gods, £158,000 from 390 sites. Total: £5.47m (4 weeks)
8. Scream VI, £155,000 from 298 sites. Total: £7.37m (5 weeks)
9. Creed III, £141,000 from 299 sites. Total: £13.9m (6 weeks)
10. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, £73,700 from 385 sites. Total: £25.3m (10 weeks)
Thanks to Comscore; @cSMoviesUK