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After Another Disney Failure, Has Hollywood Lost Its Family Audience?

All is not well in the lavish House of the Mouse. The Disney juggernaut no longer appears as unstoppable as it once did. Its most recent animated original film, Strange World, has become a cultural talking point for all the wrong reasons. With a budget of $180 million and sizable marketing costs, the movie likely needs to earn upwards of $360 million in theaters just to break even. It won’t. Despite releasing on a holiday weekend, the film opened with a paltry $18.6 million. It’s hard to understate just how monumental of a bomb that is. It’s not happenstance that Disney fired its CEO the same week.

In isolation, Strange World’s failure is not unusual (although perhaps not often to this degree). Not all films connect with audiences as hoped. Sometimes movies—even good movies—struggle due to misguided marketing, stiff competition, or a variety of other factors. The problem is that Strange World represents an increasingly noticeable pattern. Despite its connection to the beloved Toy Story series, Lightyear was also a major box-office failure this year, and many other children’s films have underperformed. The string of failures begs the question: Has Hollywood lost its family audience?     

Resisting Reactionary Conclusions

With these conversations, there is always a danger of allowing the situation merely to affirm existing priors. For example, when audiences were sluggish to return to movie theaters after the Covid shutdown, many cultural pundits were quick to pronounce the death of the theater industry and the decisive move into the age of streaming. Then Tom Cruise flew Top Gun: Maverick into theaters and made a ludicrous amount of money. It turns out audiences weren’t ignoring theaters, just the awful movies studios were releasing in them.

While the obvious connective thread between Strange World and Lightyear is the inclusion of LGBTQ elements, it should also be noted that animated films have more-or-less struggled across the board. Disney’s Encanto is so beloved today that it’s easy to forget that it lost money during its theatrical run before becoming a breakout hit on streaming. Previous movies similar to Strange WorldTreasure Planet, Titan A.E., Atlantis: The Lost Empire—didn’t catch on much with audiences either, and none of those films featured LGBTQ storylines.

Does that mean the sexuality component wasn’t a major factor? Not at all. But it suggests that the root cause of the problem is bigger than audience resistance to one story element. Rather, it seems evident that these elements are symptoms of the fact that Hollywood has forgotten its core audience. 

A Growing Pattern

Whether LGBTQ elements should be included in children’s films is an important discussion, but perhaps the bigger question is the age-appropriateness of stories about sexuality—any sexuality. Many of the classic Disney films involved adult romance, but Cinderella falling in love with Prince Charming at a fancy ball is different than a story about Cinderella exploring her sexual identity.   

Pixar’s controversial movie Turning Red was not an LGBTQ story, but it focused on the theme of sexuality. The fluffy red panda was a clear metaphor for puberty, specifically menstruation. The Disney+ show Baymax! featured an episode in which the iconic nurse robot goes to the store to buy tampons for a teenage girl (and gets advice from a transgender character). It’s possible to agree that puberty should stop being stigmatized and also that a cartoon geared toward pre-puberty children is not the best vehicle to accomplish that goal.  

In another episode, Baymax helps a gay man ask his crush on a date. In Lightyear, the LGBTQ element is merely a subplot, but much of the pre-release interviews and promotion emphasized it and championed the inclusion of Disney/Pixar’s first same-sex kiss, with actor Chris Evans blasting any potential audiences who took issue with it. In Strange World, the entire story acts as a metaphor for exploring teenage sexuality.

All these movies/shows have been released in the last nine months. If a sexuality-themed story happens once, it’s an outlier. When it happens repeatedly in a short time span, it’s a pattern. Thus, it’s not grasping at straws to wonder whether this pattern is correlated with the other pattern of families increasingly avoiding the movie theater.

Forgetting the Core Audience   

Focusing every interview on the press tour for Strange World on the alleged importance of its 16-year-old character’s sexuality may have generated some buzz and applause on social media, but “teenage sexuality” is not the sales pitch that will inspire parents to open their wallets and take their young kids to the theater (as evidenced by its disastrous $18.6 million opening).  

Notably, it’s not just Disney’s focus on sexuality that reflects Hollywood’s disconnect with family audiences. I’ve written here how children’s entertainment continues to explore increasingly mature themes, and there are other content decisions that factor into this trend. The DreamWorks film Puss in Boots: The Last Wish pushes the boundaries by using profanity as a repeated gag, either censored by “bleeps” or directly stated. The bleeped-out-swear gag was also used repeatedly in DC League of SuperPets. These films seem desperate to be “cool” and win over older audiences that may feel they’ve “outgrown” animated films. As a result, they alienate their younger target audience who would presumably be most interested in them.

Adults may find cute cartoon characters uttering profanity humorous, but parents with children who are likely to parrot everything they hear may not be quite as amused. Time and time again, Hollywood creatives seem to go out of their way to alienate their core family audience and then they are left dumbfounded when that audience abandons them.  

Streaming Safety Net

Next year, Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie seems poised to rake in mounds of yellow coins, and any movie with a yellow minion is likely to dominate the world (wide box office), so it’s premature to pronounce that the animated children’s genre is dead—but it’s hurting, and much of that pain is self-inflicted.   

Some of this shift is an inevitable byproduct of a changing industry. Why pay $50 for tickets and popcorn when you can watch it a few months later on streaming? Parents have more movie options available to them now than ever before, so there’s less urgency to take their families to the theater, especially if they have any reason to be concerned about the thematic content.

But on a deeper level, I think it comes down to lost trust. The more family films center on ideological elements or adult themes, the more likely families are to wait for streaming, where they can skip scenes or turn it off if they don’t like what they see. Hollywood seems to have lost its trust with its family audiences, and trust is a difficult thing to earn back.

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