With box-office grosses down 16.76% year over year and attendance off by a whopping 18% as of April 24, according to Hollywood.com, Hollywood has had a serious butts-in-seats problem, but not when it comes to movies made for kids.
The Easter holiday weekend saw the release of two major releases, Lionsgate's "Madea's Big Happy Family" and Fox's "Water For Elephants," but both were out-grossed by Fox Animation's week-old "Rio," which held on to the No. 1 spot with $26.3 million. And that's on the heels of a two-week reign by Universal's animated Easter feature, "Hop," which crossed the $100 million mark over the holiday.
Factor in Paramount's "Rango," the year's highest-grossing film to date ($119.5 million as of Sunday), Disney's surprise hit "Gnomeo & Juliet" ($98.3 million and counting) and Fox's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" sequel "Rodrick Rules" ($50.2 million in five weeks), and family movies have all but dominated the box office while adult fare such as "Scream 4," "Your Highness" and "Red Riding Hood" disappointed.
What's causing the family frenzy at the box office? Quality product and massive marketing.
In the first weeks of 2011, the box office was propped up by awards-season stalwarts such as "True Grit," "Black Swan" and "The King's Speech," each of which crossed the $100 million mark. But once those films ran their course, Hollywood had a major issue with quality on its hands. Before "Rango" arrived in March, the year's highest-grossing release was "Just Go With It," an Adam Sandler vehicle with an 18% approval rating from movie-review site RottenTomatoes.com.
"I think it all boils down to the quality of the movies," Gerry Lopez, CEO of theater chain AMC Entertainment, told the L.A. Times last month. "This year we just haven't had those kind of movies that cut across all quadrants of age, race and income."
Then this year's crop of kid-friendly films -- February, March and April saw the release of seven major family-targeted movies -- started hitting all those areas, said Ted Hong, chief marketing officer for Fandango.
When family flicks are working, too, they overcome adults' increasing temptation to skip the theater in favor of cheaper entertainment at home. "Adults don't feel like going to movies anymore," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com's box-office division. "Even if the parent looks at a movie and says, 'I really don't want to see that movie,' they're gonna go if little Johnny and Susie are begging to go see it."
Studios have also been doing everything hey can to get kids begging. The latest crop of family films had a hefty amount of awareness working in their favor, largely thanks to multiple brand partners. "Hop" received a reported $75 million in marketing support from brands such as Wal-Mart, Burger King, Kodak, Hallmark, the Hershey Co. and Comcast.
While "Rio" benefited from early Super Bowl buzz and a wildly successful "Angry Birds" tie-in with Rovio that surpassed 10 million downloads in its first 10 days of release, Fox also partnered with a record 82 brands internationally to help get the word out. The $100 million marketing blitz featured everything from "Rio"-branded blue Oreos in Latin America to a promotion at the Gap in the U.K. to adult-targeted U.S. promotions with Overstock.com and Benjamin Moore paints.
"When you have a movie like 'Rio' that entertains both parents and kids alike, the positive word of mouth will spread and the films will keep playing like gangbusters," said Fandango's Mr. Hong. "'Rio' was a smart movie with smart marketing behind it, with a highly targeted online and mobile ad campaign, promoting the film the right way."
The family-movie craze hasn't been entirely flop-free. One major casualty was Disney's "Mars Needs Moms," a $150 million-budgeted computer-animated feature that only eked out $21 million at the U.S. box office. Several industry analysts have blamed the film's title and confusing marketing for ostracizing potential audiences, but one veteran studio marketer suggested that the surge of competing family flicks was also a factor.
"When you've got 'Rango' opening the week before and the new 'Wimpy Kid' movie coming out the week after, most kids had either just been to the movies or were already looking forward to the next one," the veteran marketer told Ad Age.
"There is a saturation point," Mr. Dergarabedian added. "If there's a new family movie every weekend and parents have to take four people, four tickets and a round of concessions can get rather expensive."Despite the recent return of the family, expect the studios to chase after adults once more this summer with hard R-rated comedies such as "The Hangover II," "Friends With Benefits" and "Bad Teacher," as well as PG-13 comic book films such as "X-Men: Origins," "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "The Green Lantern." Still, plenty of family offerings await, from Disney's "Cars 2" and "Winnie the Pooh" to DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda" to Sony's live-action "The Zookeeper" and "The Smurfs." Fox's "Mr. Popper's Penguins" and Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" are also expected to have a fair amount of family appeal.