Labor Day weekend is usually one of the sleepiest box office periods of the year and 2012 was no exception. The weekend’s top performer, low-budget Lionsgate horror-pic The Possession, grossed an acceptable $17.7 million with Shia LaBeouf’s gangster adaptation Lawless coming in second with $9.6 million. The low-key nature of the last unofficial weekend of summer makes it a risky time to unveil any unconventional titles, which makes the release of Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure all the more surprising.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard about this film, don’t panic. Nobody did. An independent production targeted almost exclusively at the preschooler market, Oogieloves opened to the lowest numbers ever for a film distributed to over 2,000 theaters. The colorful live-action adventure grossed a measly $448,000 across 2,160 screens. That’s $207 dollars per theater.
To put that number in perspective, consider this analysis from tracking service Box Office Mojo: “if each location played Oogieloves five times a day on one screen at an average ticket price of $7, that would translate to fewer than two people per showing”. Entertainment Weekly calculated that the result “would mean that only 30 people saw Oogieloves at each theater — across all its showings — over the past three days”.
Summer 2012 has already seen its fair share of box office flops but few come close to the calamitous box office performance of Oogieloves. What went wrong for the lovable Oogies and what lessons can be learned from their mistakes?
1. Awful title
The Oogieloves project was developed, funded and distributed by Kenn Viselman, a renowned children’s television producer who’d previously worked on million dollar properties including Thomas the Tank Engine and Teletubbies, and a small group of private investors. The film was shot for $20 million, a modest sum for a regular production but a considerable amount for a venture with zero studio support. In addition to the filming costs, Viselman raised another $40 million to promote Oogieloves, a rare occurrence in an industry where marketing budgets rarely overtake production budgets. DIY ethics in an industry that is hopelessly mired in constant retreads certainly earns Viselman a round of applause but it also makes him fully accountable for the flaws of the production.
Let’s start with the actual title, the confusing and alienating The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure. Some insiders claim that the long name was chosen intentionally in order to give the feel of a developed franchise or a sequel. Cut the producer some slack, it is tough to choose an adequate title for a film that is about a group of colorful creatures chasing a big balloon (and discovering no plot in the process). But couldn’t they have chosen something a little less out there, especially for a new property that no one had heard of before? Even The Big Balloon Adventure sounds more exciting. Pixar started out in the 90s with deceptively simple titles – Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc. – that effectively conveyed childlike innocence without giving too much away. Why couldn’t the same strategy be tried here?
Lesson to be learned: it’s not a good idea to title a property that does not have an established fan base with an obscure character name. As further proof, take a look at Disney’s March fiasco John Carter.
2. Who do you sell to?
Viselman’s idea of a theatrical experience for toddlers in the vein of the Teletubbies does sound promising at first. With animation studios like Pixar and DreamWorks targeting a slightly older audience more tolerant of risqué jokes and comic violence, the preschool market seemed completely untapped and open for grabs. The design of the Oogieloves also offered toddlers a respite from a typical cinema experience that required them to sit still and keep quiet. The characters in the film actively promote audience participation through sing-alongs, allowing kids to finally be loud in a theater without being punished.
The idea certainly sounds reasonable on paper. The problem lay in the logistics of the plan. Would preschoolers have enjoyed this film? Probably. But did the producers stop to think about how they would actually bring these kids to theaters? How would these 4-year-olds, who may not even watch commercials, find out about the film in the first place?
At least $10 million of the marketing budget was invested in TV ads that began airing on August 22nd, four days before the film was released. The strategy was crafted to capture the impulsive and elusive preschool “market”, who Viselman claimed “don’t decide which movie to see weeks in advance”. Again, the flaw in the rollout was the confidence that 4-year-olds kids would 1) be exposed to the property in the first place and 2) remember it sufficiently to ask their parents to see it. With no crossover promotions, Viselman was essentially banking on toddlers to embrace a brand new property based on some zany commercials, remember it, and beg their parents to take them to it several days later. Tough proposition.
The lack of tracking for youngsters also makes it difficult to measure whether the ad blitz reached the right audience. Are the 4-year-old kids who watch Teletubbies on commercial-free PBS the same ones who tune into programming on the ad-heavy Cartoon Network? Who knows? The commercials may have been received by the older crowd that Viselman wasn’t eager to attract, the Pixar kids who have grown out of the bright colors and quirky characters phase of childhood.
Viselman understood the risks of his strategy and dedicated a portion of marketing to attracting parents. Billboards were unveiled in major cities alongside a Twitter campaign targeting “mom blogs”. But the heart of a campaign is always the film’s trailer, and the huggable Oogieloves appeared overwhelmingly childish in their theatrical debut.
Marketing simultaneously to kids and parents is a challenge but it can be done. Pixar has excelled in this area thanks to a proven track record of family-friendly entertainment and phenomenal theatrical trailers. An original property with a mind-numbing trailer, Oogieloves didn’t have either advantage going for them. Besides the central pitch of “Bring your kids and they’ll have a good time”, it offered nothing unique for parents.
3. Success on TV does not translate to success in theaters
Although several properties have made the successful transition from TV sets to cinema screens including Jackass, Sex and the City, and Star Trek, the large majority of crossover efforts have been unsuccessful or mediocre in their financial performance. Granted, Oogieloves was not based on an existing TV show but it borrowed many concepts from Viselman’s earlier productions and was targeting the exact same audience.
Success on TV does not equal success in theaters; the difference between the two mediums offer another reason for the disastrous results. For better or worse, the TV at home offers a convenient escape for parents. It’s easy to plop your kid down for half an hour in front of the tube. But leaving them alone in a public theater for 90 minutes? Not going to happen. And as for watching the movie with them? Parents would have to endure the equivalent of 4 Teletubbies episodes in a row in a theater of screaming, dancing children. Love may know no boundaries but it’s a tough sacrifice to make.
Good Idea, Bad Execution
The critics and naysayers may label him a laughingstock but Kenn Viselman’s commitment to doing things on his own terms is commendable, no matter how awfully Oogieloves performed. If there were more private fundraisers investing in daring $60 million independent productions, Hollywood might actually stand a chance of breaking out of its redundant sequel routine. Whatever features may come, kid-flavored or adult-flavored, there’s many lessons to be learned from the flop of the Oogieloves. A good idea will not always sell itself. Targeting the right audience and reaching them effectively with marketing is critical. A history of success does not pave the way for fortune in the future. It may enter the Guinness Book of World Records in shame but let’s hope Oogieloves serves as a good learning experience for the independent filmmakers of tomorrow.
Written by Boris Paskhaver