Why 'The LEGO Movie 2' Was Such A Huge Box Office Disappointment – Forbes
‘LEGO Movie 2’Warner Bros.
I wrote in late 2017 that Warner Bros.’ most important/unfortunate flop of that year wasn’t Justice League (which had earned $658 million, less than Man of Steel, on a $300m budget) but rather The LEGO Ninjago Movie. The late-September toon had earned just $123m worldwide on an $80m budget. More importantly, it had earned less than the non-IP Storks ($183m in September of 2016) and (eventually) Smallfoot ($214m in September of 2018). When an outright original animated feature out-earns an IP-specific property, that means that the IP isn’t quite the draw that was presumed. That’s the tragic lesson of The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part. Not every hit movie spawns a hit franchise.
While no one expected The LEGO Movie 2 to match the lightning-in-a-bottle success of The LEGO Movie ($257 million domestic and $469m worldwide on a $60m budget and from a $69m opening weekend), few of us expected such a massive drop. With $34.1m on opening weekend, and $34.7m total including those sneak previews, The LEGO Movie 2 is acting less like a breakout sequel and more like a victim of The Tomb Raider Trap. That’s not fair, since both The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Movie 2 were quite good. But the relative comedown is reminiscent of 2016, when we saw a handful of high-profile sequels comparatively crash and burn.
The 50% opening weekend drop between installments is comparable to the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows ($35m in 2016 from a $64m debut in 2014) or Neighbors 2 ($22m in 2016 compared to $50m in 2014). It’s not quite as bad as The Huntsman: Winter’s War ($21m from a $56m debut in 2012), nor is it as good as Now You See Me 2 ($22m compared to $29m in 2013). That magic heist flick earned 45% less ($65m) in North America than its predecessor ($117m). Barring a miracle, we’re probably looking at a final domestic total of between $100m (-61%) and $128m (-51%) . Unless it rallies hard overseas, the outlook is not good.
Those ill-received 2016 sequels illuminate a core point behind the comparative failure of The LEGO Movie 2. Just because a movie is a hit does not mean that audiences crave a straight-up sequel (or multiple sequels). With the caveat that Now You See Me 2 made $334 million worldwide (compared to the $350m gross of the original), the swing-and-miss follow-ups (which also include the likes of Star Trek Beyond and Independence Day: Resurgence) were examples of a changing theatrical landscape and victims of the false notion that even a good sequel to a good predecessor was, by default, a big deal to moviegoers. Neighbors was great and Neighbors 2 was terrific too, but audiences decided once was enough.
There are plenty of examples of super-sized initial installments that spawned comparably unsuccessful follow-ups. Think Ted 2 ($85 million in 2015 versus Ted’s $216m gross in 2012), Addams Family Values ($45m in 1993 versus $120m in 1991) and The Smurfs 2 ($71m in 2013 versus $142m in 2011). Fun fact: Both versions of Halloween II ($25m in 1981 and $33m in 2009) made around 45% less than their respective predecessors ($47m in 1978 and $58m in 2007), so that’s something for Blumhouse and friends to budget for when developing their next Halloween flick. The key attribute of these comparatively underperforming sequels is that audiences were merely curious the first time and decided that once was enough.
Audiences flocked to The Addams Family because it was still a big deal in 1991 for a classic TV show to be given the big-budget/prestige-pic treatment. Audiences flocked to The Smurfs because of brand interest and curiosity. And audiences flocked to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 2014 because it was the first live-action TMNT flick in 21 years and thus prime to snatch fans of the 1980s and 1990s incarnations as well as younger fans of the constantly rebooted (in animated TV shows) franchise. Just because curiosity and hype got them in the door for Tomb Raider doesn’t mean that they would flock to Cradle of Life, even if the sequel was vastly superior to its predecessor.
The LEGO Movie opened back when moviegoers still went to the movies just to go to the movies. And its once-in-a-generation existence could not be replicated five-years-later. With two feature film spin-offs (The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO Ninjago Movie), 19 direct-to-VOD/DVD LEGO movies, 19 LEGO short movies, 14 TV specials and 16 TV shows mostly available at the touch of a button from the comfort of home, The LEGO Movie 2 failed to (comparatively) stand out from its at-home competition. While The LEGO Movie scored as a multigenerational event movie (and the first “big” movie for families since Frozen three months prior), The LEGO Movie 2 played as a conventional kid-targeted animated movie.
The marketing for LEGO Movie 2 was fine, but there were no real added-value elements to be found, nothing in the trailers or commercials that suggested that audiences weren’t just getting more of the same. Aside from perhaps emphasizing the new songs (this one is a full-on musical), WB sold The LEGO Movie 2 as it was, for better or worse. Now that LEGO movies, even theatrical LEGO movies, are no longer once-in-a-lifetime (or even once every few years) cultural events, the appeal of The LEGO Movie 2 was explicitly rooted in whether audiences wanted more adventures featuring Chris Pratt’s Emmet and Elizabeth Banks’ Lucy. And, comparatively speaking, audiences said “Once was enough.”
The performance of The LEGO Movie 2 is scary news for this year’s other five-years-later sequels (How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World on February 22 and Godzilla: King of the Monsters on May 30) and means that Paramount/Viacom was right to pull the plug on David Fincher’s World War Z sequel. Just because a movie is a big hit doesn’t mean that a new franchise has been born. And if you have a new franchise, you really need strike while the iron is hot. On the plus side, Warner Bros. is no longer defined by Batman, Harry Potter and LEGO movies, so this will be a minor annoyance if the most of their 2019 output clicks.
All that being said, Warner Bros. wasn’t wrong to make The LEGO Movie 2. When a kid-friendly and $60 million-budgeted “original” earns rave reviews and grosses $257m domestic and $469m worldwide, you make a sequel and hope that a likely domestic downturn is alleviated by better overseas numbers. That could still happen, as the movie cost $99m and could still match or exceed the first film’s $211m overseas cume. That’s not likely (LEGO Batman earned just $130m overseas), but it’s possible. To be fair, a $100m sequel that earns $250m-ish worldwide isn’t exactly a studio-killing disaster, but it does mean that LEGO movies have run their course, and that the first movie was an event unto itself.
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