Pixar President on Elementals Unlikely Box Office Rebound: This Will Certainly Be a Profitable Film

The elements are finally coming together for Pixar’s “Elemental,” which is enjoying a rebound after a spark-less start at the box office.

The animation adventure stumbled in its debut with $29.5 million domestically and $44.5 million globally, by far the worst opening weekend in Pixar’s 28-year history. Yet two months later, its ticket sales have slowly and steadily climbed to $148 million in North America and $425 million worldwide. That’s nearly five times its initial ticket sales, a rare multiple for an original film. Set in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic elements of nature, the Peter Sohn-directed “Elemental” revolves around two fire and water elements who discover they have more in common than meets the eye.

“Elemental” cost $200 million before marketing — which included a lavish trip to the Cannes Film Festival for its global premiere — so even though audiences kept showing up after opening weekend, the family friendly movie has just inched out of the red. However, it’s an encouraging turnaround for Pixar after the box office disasters of 2019’s “Onward” and 2022’s “Lightyear,” as well as the missed opportunities of “Soul,” “Luca” and “Turning Red,” which were sent directly to Disney+ during the pandemic.

As the film crossed the $400 mark, Pixar’s president Jim Morris spoke to Variety about what’s behind the box office rebirth of “Elemental.”

When “Elemental” first opened, many outlets including Variety labeled the film a bomb. What was your sense of opening weekend?

It was certainly disappointing from a revenue point of view. We felt pretty good about the film. We had a higher hope for its opening weekend, so we were a bit crestfallen.

At what point did you notice it was enduring at the box office?

The numbers were falling off so little. In some markets, it would be a 12% drop from the week before and we had a handful of markets where [ticket sales] were rising. You just don’t see that in this day and age. You typically expect a 50% drop on an average basis. We thought, “Well that’s cool.”

Where do you think ticket sales will top out worldwide?

We’re hoping it’ll get to maybe $460 million. I always wish higher. I’d hate to disappoint myself, but I’d love to see it get to half a billion.

Why are people responding to the film?

It’s a love story of people from different worlds. It’s rare you have an animated film that’s a love story. It has an immigration story, which is fundamentally American, but speaks to people in other cultures as well.

Will “Elemental” be profitable?

We have a lot of different revenue streams, but at the box office we’re looking at now, it should do better than break even theatrically. And then we have revenue from streaming, theme parks and consumer products. This will certainly be a profitable film for the Disney company.

Is there a way to make these kinds of movies at a lower price point?

That’s a constant question. One of the ways you make these films for less money, and almost all of our competitors do this, is to do work offshore. It’s only us and Disney Animation that makes animation films in the U.S. anymore with all of the artists under one roof. We feel like having a colony of artists approach has differentiated our films. We hope to find a path to make that work. “Elemental” was particularly expensive because all the characters have visual effects. We had been getting the film costs down.

The other thing I’ll say about our film budgets is that our whole company exists only to make these films. So when we say a budget, that is everything it takes to run the whole company. Sometimes, the budgets [for other films] that get reported are physical production costs and don’t include the salaries of executives and things like that. Our budgets include all of that, so there’s some accounting context that gets lost. But that doesn’t mean they’re not expensive.

What’s the biggest challenge right now in getting family audiences to theaters?

It’s expensive for a family to go to the movies. It can be a $100 afternoon for a family, and that can be a stretch for some to do. The other thing is that during COVID, we trained audiences to watch our movies on Disney+. I won’t say there was a lot of choice. For periods of time, it was the only thing we could do. We have a little work to unring the bell and motivate families to go to the theater and not wait a few months to see it on Disney+.

Is there an ideal window between a film opening in theaters and moving to Disney+?

Thinking back historically, a summer movie would go to pay-per-view in autumn, which gave a three- or four-month window. That would be a traditional window that I’d love to see reestablished. We make our films for the big screen. We love for people to see them with an audience.

Something that has always distinguished Pixar is that parents can enjoy these movies as much as their kids. Do you ever worry that Pixar films are too smart?

We always think about those things. I’m often surprised at how astute kids are at figuring out bigger ideas. Historically, our films have dealt with more sophisticated themes. We’ve tried to make them accessible to everyone in the audience. It’s something we’re constantly working on. We make a certain kind of film that does have ideas in it. We don’t want to stop doing that. But we obviously want audiences to go to theaters for our films.

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