This weekend, one of the most commercially promising titles of the year arrives, while a far less appealing movie opens in its shadows. For Toy Story 3, it's a matter of how high will it fly at 4,028 locations, and, for Jonah Hex, it's likely about how low will it go at 2,825 locations.
Toy Story 3 stands as the largest release yet for Pixar Animation Studios, and their fifth movie in a row to open in the summer, though the first and second Toy Story movies were Thanksgiving launches. By focusing on universal storytelling first and then spectacle, Pixar has staked a claim as arguably the strongest brand going in movies with an unblemished track record; they're ten-for-ten. Their average opening weekend is more than $56 million, or over $74 million adjusted for ticket price inflation. Though The Incredibles has the highest-grossing Pixar opening weekend at $70.5 million, four movies have debuted to the equivalent of around $90 million adjusted: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.
The first Toy Story kicked things off for Pixar and computer-animated features in 1995, and Toy Story 2 extended the brand in 1999. Both had Wednesday nationwide debuts the day before Thanksgiving, so there is no apples-to-apples comparison with Toy Story 3's first weekend. Nonetheless, the first movie made $39.1 million in five days at 2,457 sites, and it ultimately grossed $191.8 million. Toy Story 2 raked in $82.6 million in its five-day launch at 3,236 sites en route to $245.9 million. Adjusted for ticket price inflation, their totals were the equivalent of more than $350 million and $380 million, respectively. Last Fall, they were reissued as a 3D double feature and opened to $12.5 million at 1,745 sites, closing at $30.7 million.
Toy Story 3 marks Pixar's second movie presented in 3D. Up was its first last summer, and 52 percent of that picture's $68.1 million opening weekend came from 1,534 3D sites (its $35.4 million 3D haul was the format's record start at the time). Toy Story 3 is shooting for an even greater 3D share: it's packing 2,463 3D sites (including 180 in IMAX), which tops Shrek Forever After's 2,373 as the format's biggest release yet.
It's been more than ten and a half years since Toy Story 2. Normally, such a long wait between installments would be a turn-off, but the first movies have continued to resonate as families have grown up on them. Audiences were asking for more from Woody, Buzz and the gang, and Toy Story 3's marketing has largely played to the brand's strengths. This is not a case of Hollywood foisting an unwanted sequel upon audiences, like Shrek Forever After was to an extent.
That's reflected in Box Office Mojo's reader polling: 54 percent have voted to see the movie on opening weekend, which is the highest score yet for an animated feature since tracking began six years ago. For comparison, Up pulled a 42 percent score at the same point, WALL-E had over 48 percent, and Alice in Wonderland (2010) had 45.5 percent. Shrek Forever After had 23.7 percent and nabbed $70.8 million its first weekend, but expressed interest tends to be greater for Pixar titles, leading to lower multipliers.
Shrek Forever After predecessor Shrek the Third currently holds the animated opening weekend record with $121.6 million (or the equivalent of over $140 million adjusted), though that movie debuted in May, when business is more concentrated on the weekends than in June.
Meanwhile, Jonah Hex has been positioned as action counter-programming to Toy Story 3. The thing is, though, that Toy Story 3 appeals to everyone (and has its own Western-themed characters to boot), so it's not really something that one counters, and simply releasing a fantastical action Western based on a comic book few have heard of may not cut it. In its relatively quiet marketing campaign, Jonah Hex has brandished a darker Wild Wild West-like vibe. While the trailer set up a basic revenge theme, most ads have been selling explosions and Megan Fox (the latter a mistake made by Jennifer's Body's ads), while titular lead Josh Brolin has not stood out, perhaps due to marketers shying away from his character's disfigured face.
Westerns tend to have relatively modest openings, though the widely-reviled Wild Wild West had the genre's biggest start. The last sizable Western was 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and it mustered $14 million its first weekend. Since Jonah Hex is supernatural fare and doesn't offer a compelling dramatic reason to see it, it's hard to imagine it appealing to Western fans. (Movies like Wild Wild West, Back to the Future Part III and Maverick aimed to transcend the genre by being broad, humorous entertainments.) Furthermore, comic book adaptations of little-known characters also frequently disappoint, with The Spirit, Punisher: War Zone, Elektra and others among the casualties.
Lacking the commitment of traditional Western crowds or fan boys, Jonah Hex seems to be in a pickle, and Box Office Mojo's reader polling bears this out. The movie's "opening weekend" result is an extremely low-by-genre-standards 11.3 percent, and its voting pattern suggests less heat than similar fare. For a frame of reference, fellow obscure DC Comics adaptation The Losers scored 13.9 percent and bagged $9.4 million its first weekend.