A “toy” with an existential crisis, a newly badass Bo Peep, and some Keanu magic powered Toy Story 4 to the top of the domestic box office in its opening weekend. The film brought in $118 million, not quite enough to meet Disney’s $140 million projection. That’s a bit surprising, given the pedigree of the film and its overwhelmingly great reviews. What gives? Are Americans no longer interested in a series of animated films that began back in 1995? Has the nostalgia fuel of this franchise finally run out?
Maybe it’s the long gap between sequels. It’s been nine years since the release of Toy Story 3 — an eternity by industry standards, but not for Pixar. After all, Incredibles 2 came out 14 years after The Incredibles and Finding Dory 13 years after Finding Nemo. Incidentally, these titles had the best domestic opening weekends of any Pixar movies, with Incredibles 2 raking in over $182 million in its opening weekend just a year ago. So, historically a long layoff seems to build, not lessen, anticipation, for Pixar movies.
Some might say that competition from streaming services could hurt Toy Story 4, but that’s hardly unique to Toy Story and a movie like this is generally insulated from streaming competition. Every Pixar film is an event, and watching something else at home shouldn’t be a substitute for watching a new, visually compelling blockbuster in a movie theater. Or, to put it another way, it’s not like Jurassic World broke world-records for opening weekend money because everyone’s Netflix account was down that weekend. So if Pixar is making good movies, they’re making them on a proven schedule, and they’re making them be seen on the big screen then why did Toy Story 4 fail to meet expectations? (And are those expectations even realistic?)
The thing that separates Toy Story 4 might simply be that it’s the fourth installment in the series. Any sequel by its very nature isn’t as original as, well, the original. This problem becomes more acute as time goes on, and it’s natural for audiences to wonder if they’re shelling out money to see the same movie over and over again.
Of course, the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made billions of dollars. But Avengers: Endgame is the culmination of a separate strategy. Instead of linear sequels, it’s part of a franchise of both character-focused efforts and periodic omnibus blockbusters.
Still, all of this hand-wringing might be for naught. That’s because domestic box office performance is becoming less important because there is more and more money to be made internationally. The original Toy Story made 48.7 percent of its total box office internationally, the second 50.6 percent, and the third 61.1 percent. Toy Story 4 made two million more dollars in the foreign box office than the domestic one during its opening weekend, and that proportion is likely to become more lopsided as it opens on later weekends in additional countries.
Meaning, while the domestic opening weekend box office is still a hugely important metric for a film, it’s no longer as crucial as it once was. If Toy Story 4, like Aladdin, finds huge success abroad then its lackluster domestic opening will soon be forgotten.
Then again, for demographic reasons that are fairly obvious, Aladdin was poised to have international success by virtue of its diverse characters. Toy Story, however, at least, relative to a 2019 landscape of what people want from their family movies just might not cut it with a toy cowboy and a toy spaceman. After all, the only Star Wars flop so far was the movie Solo; centered on a character who is both a cowboy and a spaceman. Was that movie too old fashion? Is Toy Story 4?
Right now, it’s not exactly clear. But one this true: Disney might need to dial-back these box office expectations on sequels that are this far deep into a franchise. Is the number 4 unlucky? We’ll have to wait and see.