Sure, "A Good Day to Die Hard" opened at No. 1, as expected, and "Safe Haven" did well over Valentine's Day weekend, even better than predicted. And no one expected much from "Beautiful Creatures," so it can't be said to have underperformed.
But popping up in fourth place, with a surprisingly strong $16.1 million, was a 3D cartoon that seemed to have come out of nowhere, "Escape From Planet Earth." Here's a kids' film that's not based on a familiar title or franchise, one without A-list stars in the leads, made by off-brand animators (Rainmaker Entertainment, which had never made a theatrical feature before) for an indie studio (The Weinstein Company), with marketing below the radar, no screenings for critics, and a nasty stench from the legal battle that kept the movie out of theaters for two years. Plus, the alien-invasion premise recalled last year's biggest animated flop, "Mars Needs Moms." In short, "Escape" seemed like the kind of unwanted picture that studios dump into theaters in the dead of winter when no one will notice. Certainly no one expected it to open in the upper teens.
So what's behind the surprising success of "Escape From Planet Earth"? Here are some galactic guesses:
Timing is everything. Yes, February is a box office dead zone, but it also has turned out to be a month sorely in need of a family-friendly movie. In fact, there really haven't been any since the start of 2013, a year marked so far by R-rated action fare, horror, teen romance, and Oscar-bait dramas. There's been nothing for kids, especially kids under 10, so "Escape" had the marketplace all to itself. And parents were apparently so happy to have something to take their kids to see that they even ponied up for the 3D surcharge, adding even more to the film's take.
An original premise isn't a bad thing. Adult moviegoers may crave the reassuringly familiar, but to little kids, every plot is new anyway, even the well-worn alien invasion story. (Though "Escape" does put an atypical twist on the premise that probably amused some adult viewers, making the aliens the heroes and the villain a human.) Remember, "Wreck-It Ralph" became a big hit despite not being based on a familiar property. Of course, that Disney cartoon and most Pixar animations are based on original premises, too, but they also boast top-notch execution and marketing. This movie, made for just $40 million (a pittance by the standard of most 3D computer-animated features) by an animation house best known for straight-to-video Barbie movies, couldn't boast that kind of execution, and TWC doesn't have Disney's tens of millions to spend on marketing either. Still, "Escape" was made just well enough, and TWC figured out how to market it cheaply. For instance...
Sometimes it's smart not to screen a movie for critics. Horror films use this strategy routinely, knowing that reviewers will disapprove and that the movie's target audience won't care anyway what critics say. Five-year-olds don't read critics either, so in this case, advance screenings would have been an unnecessary market expense. Better to persuade parents (who do read reviews) through carefully targeted ads...
The commercials did the trick. Maybe grown-up box-office pundits didn't see any of the "Escape" ads, but kids who watch Disney Channel and Cartoon Network certainly did. And there were two tiers of ads: one that targeted tots, with emphasis on the movie's slapstick comedy, and one that targeted adults, with split-screens of the characters and the familiar (to grown-ups) actors who played them. If the Weinstein Company couldn't sell the movie to parents on reviews or juvenile humor, it could still sell them on star power...
It helps to cast reliably funny performers. Star power certainly isn't the box-office draw it used to be, and none of the main voice actors in "Escape" is a box-office attraction by himself or herself (Sorry, Brendan Fraser and Sarah Jessica Parker, but it's true.) Still, the voices were almost all dependable, well-liked, comic performers, including Fraser, Parker, Ricky Gervais, Jane Lynch, William Shatner, Sofia Vergara, George Lopez, Craig Robinson, Chris Parnell, Steve Zahn, and Rob Corddry. (Also on board was Jessica Alba, who's not really known for her comic skills, but no cast is ideal.)
The film's troubled production history didn't matter to ticketbuyers. Indeed, most were probably unaware of the legal dispute between the film's original writer and producer on one hand and the Weinsteins and Rainmaker on the other, a bitter battle that had kept the film benched since 2011. To industry insiders, that sort of history, plus the lack of critics' screenings, gave "Escape" the whiff of toxic waste, buried in secret. But five-year-olds didn't know, and their parents certainly didn't care.
Still, pundits may be scratching their heads over this one for a while, since "Escape From Planet Earth" managed to defy in almost every way the formula for a successful family film. Then again, it should be reassuring to know that a cartoon can sidestep that formula and still become a hit.
UPDATE: The weekend total for "Escape From Planet Earth" wasn't a fluke; the film topped Monday's grosses, pulling in $5.1 million. In a statement provided to Moviefone from the Weinstein Company, President of Marketing Stephen Bruno gave some insight into the marketing campaign for the film. "[It] was focused on first presenting our core audience with a longer form look at the full story via in-theater trailers, advertisements, and long-lead digital placement," he said. "The television campaign was bifurcated to raise awareness and interest with parents and kids, through a six week flight that first aimed re-introduce the concept, then highlight the comedy, and of course close with the exceptional voice cast."