Movie theaters have struggled to recover from the pandemic, in part, because the once-reliable family audience has wandered. Last year, family-oriented films — largely animation — represented 17 percent of worldwide ticket sales, about half of what they were in 2019.
Over the weekend, however, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” from Universal Pictures turned out families on a jaw-dropping scale, generating an estimated $146.4 million in ticket sales at theaters in the United States and Canada, for a total of $204.6 million since arriving on Wednesday. The PG-rated movie cost Illumination Entertainment and Nintendo roughly $100 million to make.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” about Brooklyn plumbers who get zapped into a magical and treacherous realm known as the Mushroom Kingdom, collected an additional $173 million overseas — a result that one Hollywood trade news site called “plumb insane,” noting that it was on par with results for Universal mega-franchises like “Fast and Furious” and “Jurassic World.”
Are family movies back — all the way back, to the degree that Hollywood can once again count on them as relative sure things?
Studio executives and movie theater owners were practically doing cartwheels over the weekend while shouting, “Yes!”
“This is just extraordinary,” Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic theatrical distribution, said on Sunday. “The numbers just kept growing and growing as the weekend went on.”
Box office analysts were more cautious. As the dominant provider of family entertainment, Walt Disney Studios needs to deliver a theatrical animated hit before a true recovery can be called, said David A. Gross, a film consultant and box office authority. The last five animated movies that Disney has released in theaters have been ticket-selling disappointments. (“Strange World” and “Lightyear” last year. “Encanto,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Ron’s Gone Wrong” in 2021, a pandemic-impacted year.)
“Still some question marks hanging around family movies,” Mr. Gross said in an email. Disney has two animated movies coming up: “Elemental,” set in a world where residents are made of fire, water, earth and air, arrives in June; “Wish,” a musical about a young girl and star that falls from the sky, is due in November.
Taking the children to the movies can be expensive — as much as $110 for a family of four in New York City, and that is without popcorn ($9.29 for a small) or a single soda ($7). Families also became accustomed to watching new animated movies at home during the pandemic, when Disney debuted Pixar films like “Luca,” “Turning Red” and “Soul” on its streaming service, bypassing theaters completely. Streaming-service movies are “free,” or so it can seem for anyone who already subscribes to Disney+ ($8 a month for the basic version).
Inside the Media Industry
For the weekend in North America, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” was easily No. 1. Second place was a bit of a photo finish, with “John Wick: Chapter 4” (Lionsgate), “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” (Paramount) and “Air” (Amazon) each estimated to have collected about $14 million.
“Air,” directed by Ben Affleck, collected roughly $20 million since arriving on Wednesday on 3,500 domestic movie screens, a total that Mr. Gross called “excellent.” He noted that sports dramas — “Air” is about Nike’s efforts in the 1980s to lure a young Michael Jordan to its struggling basketball brand — tend to arrive to about $5.4 million in ticket sales.
The turnout for “Air” validated Amazon’s decision to release the well-reviewed film in theaters, where it will play exclusively for at least a month before becoming available on the company’s Prime Video streaming service. For deep-pocketed Amazon, the theatrical release is something of a loss leader — a way for Prime Video to compete for top talent, who want their films seen on big screens. Analysts estimated that Amazon paid $130 million for the rights to “Air” and spent an additional $50 million on marketing.
“Air” is the first movie from Artists Equity, a production company formed by Mr. Affleck, Matt Damon and Red Bird Capital.
But the weekend belonged to “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” Among certain demographics, the film felt like a cultural event, or what Mr. Gross called “moviegoing urgency in action.” That was no accident: Marketers at Universal carpet bombed televised sporting events (March Madness, N.F.L. Championship games, the N.B.A. All-Star Game, the Super Bowl) with promos and orchestrated a stunt on “The Tonight Show” where members of the movie’s voice cast (Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Keegan-Michael Key) sang the Mario theme song.
Universal’s theme parks around the world helped stoke the fire. Universal Studios Hollywood recently opened Super Nintendo World, a lavishly themed expansion that features the Brothers Mario. The attraction has been a runaway success, with early-entry tickets sold out every day since it opened on Feb. 17.
Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst, noted that “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” delivered the biggest opening on record for an animated film that’s not a sequel, dethroning “The Secret Life of Pets” (2016), and the second-biggest opening on record for an animated movie. “Incredibles 2” (Disney-Pixar) ranks as No. 1, having collected $183 million over its first three days in 2018.
Universal has transformed itself into an animation superpower under the leadership of its chairwoman, Donna Langley. She oversees two cartoon factories: Illumination, founded by Chris Meledandri (“Despicable Me,” “Ice Age”), and DreamWorks Animation, which made “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” an Oscar-nominated sequel that arrived to a paltry $12.4 million in ticket sales in December and ultimately collected $480 million worldwide. Universal’s upcoming animated films include “Strays,” an R-rated canine comedy scheduled for theatrical release in June. The studio is also working to reboot the “Shrek” franchise.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” received mixed to negative reviews. But its instant success among ticket buyers — who gave the film an A grade in CinemaScore exit polls — adds to a recent trend in Hollywood: Studios, scrounging for established, globally appealing intellectual property, seem to have finally cracked the code on adapting video games for the big screen.
The movie industry’s troubled history with the genre started 30 years ago, when the first video game-based movie, “Super Mario Bros.,” became a hall-of-fame misfire. In recent years, studios have become newly enamored with game adaptations, leading to successes like “Sonic the Hedgehog” (Paramount) and “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” (Warner Bros.). On television, “The Last of Us” (HBO) and “The Witcher” (Netflix) are game-based hits.
Mr. Orr, the Universal distribution president, noted that “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which played in 3,343 theaters in the United States and Canada, benefited from nostalgia. Nintendo first introduced its Mario Bros. games in the 1980s. About 26 percent of the weekend audience was over the age of 35.
“Illumination and Nintendo collaborated to make a movie that fans love,” Mr. Orr said. “People wanted to come out and be fully entertained by these characters they have known for decades.”
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