Lightyear, Pixar’s unnecessarily confusing prequel/spin-off of Toy Story, opened over the weekend, and if you haven’t heard, it kind of flopped. I say “kind of” because if they had simply spent less money on it, its $51 million opening weekend wouldn’t seem quite so dire, but with a budget rumored to be in the $200 million range, Pixar shot itself in the foot. With a budget like that, anything short of total box office domination is bad news, and Lightyear did not dominate the box office. And because this is universally beloved Pixar, and because it’s Pixar’s first theatrical release since Onward in March 2020 and because Disney sent Pixar’s last three films straight to Disney+—films that are bolder and more imaginative and more diverse than Lightyear—everyone is scrambling to explain What Went Wrong this weekend. It’s the lesbians kissing! It’s Tim Allen being “castrated” from the film! It’s audience disinterest! It’s COVID! It’s a bad movie!
First of all, is it a bad movie? Well, it’s not great. It’s certainly not top-shelf Pixar, but it’s also not the worst movie they’ve ever made (that’s still Cars, sorry Owen Wilson). Honestly, Lightyear is so mediocre it’s basically impossible to review in an engaging and/or illuminating way. It is competently made, but creatively bankrupt. Chris Evans’ vocal performance as the “real” Buzz Lightyear is pretty great, but no one was asking for a movie about the “real” Buzz Lightyear. Sox the cat is unbearably cute and a naked merchandizing ploy. Lightyear is a soulless exercise in IP maintenance, and though Chris Evans is trying to inject some life into it, it turns out what audiences love about Toy Story are the TOYS, not the “real” things behind the toys.
So let’s talk about the other stuff that could be blamed for Lightyear’s not great box office. Is it the culture war? While I do not want to underplay how alarming it is to see such blatant anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric returning to mainstream American politics, no, it’s not the culture war. Sure, some people on both ends of the spectrum are mad at Disney for their bungled handling of the Florida “Don’t say gay” situation. But before we chalk it all up to that, keep in mind that Disney theme parks are doing GREAT. The theme parks division is actually doing better now than it was before the pandemic. (Which is why the Disney board isn’t pissed at Bob Chapek the way everyone else is.)
If the culture war were truly to blame, we’d be seeing it in other areas of Disney business, but Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opened strong in May, just over a month after the Florida kerfuffle kicked off, and the theme parks are only getting stronger as schools let out for summer. People aren’t punishing Disney for their politics, no matter how they chirp on social media. The chief culprit of Lightyear’s underperformance is simply “no one asked for this”, followed by a weak marketing campaign that didn’t convince people to see the movie anyway. And the lack of appeal is broad, as Lightyear opened soft around the globe, pulling in just $34.6 million internationally, for a sub-$100 million opening weekend. People were just not interested in the “real” Buzz Lightyear, and Pixar/Disney never made a good enough case to give Lightyear a shot anyway. A similar issue plagued Solo.
But what about COVID? It’s still around! True, and the box office reflects that. No matter how the headlines spin it, the theatrical movie business is not healthy. It has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and frankly, it might never recover to those record profits of the 2010s. Right now, despite legit blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick and Doctor Strange and Jurassic World: Dominion—though Dominion shouldn’t get too excited, it saw a 59% second-week drop, indicating unfavorable word of mouth that won’t help its legs—box office is down nearly 40% from pre-pandemic levels. Basically, live entertainment, like theme parks, is doing better than theatrical movies right now, even though a handful of movies have broken through to blockbuster status. (Top Gun: Maverick is now the biggest film of Tom Cruise’s career.)
Which is why Lightyear might be an example of the new normal more than anything else. When every single movie theater in North America didn’t go out of business during the early days of the pandemic, people were quick to exclaim that movies are fine, nothing to see here. But it was never a question of all theaters going out of business. The issue was, and is, the pandemic accelerating a trend that clarified throughout the 2010s, of dwindling attendance and rising ticket prices and fewer films accounting for more of the box office. In 2019, the North American box office was $11.4 billion, with $3.4 billion of that coming from just one studio—Disney. That’s 30% of the box office, it’s almost a full third of the pie when you factor in Spider-Man: Far From Home, which was co-produced by Disney subsidiary Marvel.
Did the theatrical business make money in 2019? Yes! But it wasn’t a robust industry on display, it was a single studio dominating the box office, with seven of the top ten earning films belonging to Disney. That trend is getting worse now, not so much Disney, specifically, dominating like that, but the broader idea of fewer films taking up more of the pie. That was the story throughout the 2010s, under the headlines trumpeting record box office was an increasingly dire picture of an industry surviving on fewer films. And that’s what we’re seeing now, as just a handful of films are drawing audiences.
Lightyear might never have done well—it’s not good—but it certainly didn’t help that it opened just one week after Jurassic World and less than a month after Top Gun, which continues to over-perform. Having three major releases out at once is simply too many. Prior to this weekend, we’ve seen essentially one major release a month, and some of those movies have managed to thrive. The Batman opened at the beginning of March and made over $369 million. Morbius opened a month after that and bombed, proving audiences won’t go see just anything in their haste to reclaim “normalcy” post-pandemic (which we are not, but people are acting like we are). Doctor Strange opened the month after that and has made over $379 million to date. Top Gun opened three weeks later and is crushing the box office. Jurassic World: Dominion opened just two weeks after that and managed a $145 million weekend.
And then comes Lightyear and its $51 million opening weekend. And yeah, it’s not good and didn’t appeal to people, but also, people who want to go to movies right now have gone to see Top Gun and Jurassic World in the last couple weeks. They might just be tapped out on movies for now and are waiting either for the next Minions movie (families) or Thor: Love and Thunder (everyone else). What we have to determine through the rest of 2022 is whether or not this really is the new normal, that movie theaters won’t support more than one, maybe two, major releases a month. That picture won’t be complete until the end of the year, but just keep in mind for every headline crowing about an individual film’s performance, that so far, the box office has not recovered from COVID. And it might not. At least not the way we knew it before.