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A still from 'Elemental' Image Credit: Supplied

Pixar, the studio that introduced the world to blockbuster franchises ‘Toy Story’, ‘Monsters, Inc.’ and ‘Cars’ has a problem: an original film it spent seven years nurturing bombed at the box office.

The weak opening of ‘Elemental’ this weekend has thrust the Walt Disney-owned animation pioneer into unfamiliar territory: being a laggard among rivals. Universal’s ‘The Super Mario Bros.’ movie racked up big ticket sales this year.

Pixar’s love story, about overcoming outward differences, was the second-lowest domestic opening in studio history, taking in roughly $30 million (Dh110.19 million) in the US and Canada over the weekend.

The results represent a conundrum for the animation hits factory, say experts and former employees: How will Pixar launch new properties when moviegoing audiences only have time for well-known characters? “As an industry, we need original IP to work,” Tony Chambers, Disney’s head of theatrical distribution, said in an interview over the weekend, using shorthand for “intellectual property”. “If we, as a studio, don’t take a swing for it, which is what we did with ‘Elemental,’ you don’t create franchises,” Chambers said.

To be sure, the challenge for originals is not Disney’s alone. Universal Studios will confront it later this month with DreamWorks Animation’s coming-of-age fantasy, ‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken’. But the trend packs a big wallop at Disney. New cinematic franchises power the entertainment conglomerate’s profit machine, feeding the pipeline for consumer products and theme park attractions, which accounted for over 60 per cent of its segment operating profit last year.

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Actor Mamoudou Athie at the US premiere of 'Elemental'. Image Credit: AFP

Tom Sito, a veteran Hollywood animator whose credits include ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Beauty & The Beast’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’ and who teaches at the University of Southern California, said audience tastes are changing.

“The generation now flexing their economic muscle were raised on games and anime,” Sito said. “Their sensibilities and timing are different. The success of ‘Super Mario Bros.’ also reflects a new post-Covid-19 trend at box offices, Hollywood insiders say. Audiences have been spoiled by three years of direct-to-streaming releases of original animated features on services including Netflix, Disney+ and Apple Inc’s Apple TV+ at home. These viewers are now more likely to open their wallets at the cinema only for familiar franchises.

All top 10 movies at the box office in 2022 were sequels such as ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ and ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ or reboots such as ‘The Batman’. This year, ‘Super Mario Bros.’ was the first film to break through the $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) mark.

“People went for their comfort zone, which is ongoing sagas,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. “Pixar trying to drop an original piece like ‘Elemental’ was always going to be a challenge in the middle of this sequel-fest.”

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A still from 'Super Mario Bros.' Image Credit: AP

Pixar reinvention

Interviews with four current and former Pixar senior managers depict a studio caught in transition and still finding its way under new leadership.

In his book, ‘Creativity, Inc.’ Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull credited Pixar’s brain trust with the studio’s early box-office triumphs. He described how the five men who led the creation of its first feature-length animated film Toy Story — John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich and Joe Ranft — would give candid feedback to elevate films in an unforgiving process.

Catmull and other members of the original brain trust are gone, though Docter remains, now in the role of chief creative officer. Under him, the studio is placing bets on young directors who bring fresh perspectives “if not extensive resumes” to the screen, such as ‘Turning Red’s Chinese-born director, Domee Shi, who was the first woman with a sole director’s credit, or Soul’s ‘Kemp Powers’, Pixar’s first Black director.

“What we’re seeing is (Pixar) reinventing themselves” said the former Pixar director.

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A still from 'Toy Story 4'. Image Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Competitors, meanwhile, have swooped in to raid Pixar’s talent, including Brad Bird, director of the Oscar-winning films ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille’ and Academy Award-winning producer Darla K Anderson, whose credits include ‘Coco’ and ‘Toy Story 3’. Former studio executives and insiders also blame former CEO Bob Chapek with training new audiences to expect big-budgeted Pixar originals to break on Disney+.

During the pandemic’s peak, when many cinemas were closed, Disney launched three Pixar films directly to Disney+ in the US, bypassing theaters. While the strategy boosted the subscription streaming service’s subscriptions, it sent a message to viewers: It’s OK to wait, said one veteran studio executive who worked at both Disney and Pixar, and worries this decision degraded the perception of Pixar movies, which cost as much as $200 million (Dh734.59 million) to make, as must-see theatrical events.

“In the long run, there’s been a bit of a mixed blessing because we’ve trained audiences that these films will be available for you on Disney+,” Docter told Variety. “And it’s more expensive for a family of four to go to a theatre when they know they can wait and it’ll come out on the platform.”