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Disney’s Bleak Box Office Streak: ‘Wish’ Is the Latest Crack in the Studio’s Once-Invincible Armor

“Wish” misfired in its opening weekend, extending Disney’s bleak box office fortunes.

The animated musical fable, about the Wishing Star that so many Disney characters have wished upon over the studio’s century-long history, failed to become the de facto choice for families around Thanksgiving. “Wish” opened in third place with a dull $31.7 million over the five-day holiday, a far cry from Disney’s past Turkey Day feasts. Perhaps King Magnifico, the movie’s villain (voiced by Chris Pine), is holding hostage the wishes of Disney executives?

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Instead of recapturing the studio’s magic, “Wish” joins a long list of its underperforming 2023 tentpoles, such as “The Marvels,” “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” “The Haunted Mansion,” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” This summer’s “The Little Mermaid” didn’t completely flounder with $569 million worldwide, but it’s nowhere near the billion-dollar threshold that Disney’s prior live-action adaptations (like “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast”) surpassed with ease. And although “Elemental” finished with $495 million globally, much stronger than its disappointing opening weekend would have suggested, Pixar hasn’t restored its former glory after audiences were trained to watch on Disney+. (Disney is hoping that “Wish” has similar staying power during the busy holiday season.)

Disney’s only unmitigated success in 2023 has been “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” which opened in May and generated a healthy $845 million globally. And even then, analysts expected the epic conclusion to James Gunn’s trilogy about intergalactic misfits to get closer to $1 billion, or at least end the series on a high. (2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” remains the highest-grossing entry with $863 million.) Without a runaway blockbuster in the bunch, it’s the first time since 2014 (except for the pandemic-stricken years of 2020 and 2021) that Disney hasn’t launched a billion-dollar release.

It’s an unthinkable reality for Disney after one of the most remarkable stretches of sheer box office domination. It reached its zenith in 2019 when seven (!) of the studio’s releases, including “Avengers: Endgame” and “The Lion King,” hit $1 billion globally. With its repertoire of Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm, Disney was minting money with anything it put in theaters. But this year has hinted that Disney no longer has the Midas touch at the box office.

“Disney set an impossibly high bar for itself during the 2010s, firing every cannon in its arsenal,” says Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro. “The downside to success is that it becomes expected every time. The studio was always going to be in a challenged position when the well started to run dry.”

Case in point: “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which Disney released at the end of 2022, is the seventh-highest grossing domestic release of this year with $283 million, surpassing the majority of the studio’s would-be blockbusters: “Ant-Man 3” ($214 million), “Indiana Jones 5” ($174 million), “Elemental” ($154 million), “The Marvels” ($76 million so far) and “Haunted Mansion” ($67 million), among them.

As the movie theater business recovers from the pandemic, as well as the strikes that pushed several big blockbusters into 2024 and beyond, every studio has been forced to contend with a shrinking global box office. And while Disney doesn’t have one of the top three movies of the year — those spots belong to Warner Bros. “Barbie” ($1.4 billion) and Universal’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” ($1.3 billion) and “Oppenheimer” ($950 million) — it still has four of the 10-highest grossing releases worldwide. No other studio has more than two. Some of Disney’s modest successes or outright flops would be classified as smashes for its rivals.

“It’s not just Disney; the other studios have also suffered setbacks in this post-pandemic world,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “That said, Disney’s misfires certainly are the most prolific considering where they are now versus where they were. And where were they? On the box office throne. Nearly untouchable. Now? Mere mortals.”

Analysts believe that several factors can be blamed, including a pandemic-era reliance on Disney+, creative shortcomings and an overdependence on once-popular brands. “Avengers: Endgame” arrived in theaters as a can’t-miss cultural event, but fast forward to this year, and “The Marvels” is just the latest superhero adaptation of the month. This one is poised to be the lowest-grossing MCU movie of all time.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, the industry embraced short-term thinking and threw itself into the streaming business without thinking about what that might do to moviegoing when the pandemic ended. The stock market rewarded it,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “Audiences became comfortable, and the value of the big screen dropped. By the time Wall Street pulled the plug, the theatrical experience was damaged.”

But one of the biggest elements is Disney movies are hugely expensive. They require production budgets of around $200 million, not including $100 million in marketing costs. This means the studio’s films have sky-high benchmarks to break even. For any other studio, getting to $500 million worldwide is an impressive feat. But for Disney, it’s necessary to rationalize these film’s existence. Disney justifies these costs because its movies provide value beyond their theatrical revenues; they inspire lucrative consumer product lines, theme park attractions and eventual streaming releases on Disney+.

Does this become less financially effective in the long-term if Disney goes back to the well again and again (a live-action remake of “Moana” is coming in 2024, and if a live-action “Frozen” hasn’t already been announced, it’s only a matter of time…). Even before the pandemic, Disney has not been successful in launching new films that aren’t based on superheroes, branded IP or set in a galaxy far, far away. And lackluster turnouts for several recent Marvel movies, the fifth “Indiana Jones” adventure, and “The Little Mermaid” signal that brand familiarity is no longer enough to get audiences to theaters, either.

“Against the backdrop of saturation on streaming, audiences are less committed now if they have a doubt about something,” Gross adds.

This also raises questions about next year’s blockbuster hopefuls like “Inside Out 2” (June 14) or “The Lion King” follow-up “Mufasa” (Dec. 20). Despite the smash successes of the original properties — 2015’s “Inside Out” grossed $858 million and 2019’s “The Lion King” remake grossed a staggering $1.66 billion — it’s not necessarily a forgone conclusion that these sequels will trample the competition.

In an interesting turn, Disney’s most promising titles may hail from 20th Century Studios. When the studio first inherited Fox’s film assets in 2019, it was forced to jettison off a series of duds, like “X-Men” spinoff “Dark Phoenix” and the forgotten comedy “Stuber.” But “Deadpool 3” (July 26, 2024), “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” (May 24, 2024) and whatever “Avatar” sequels that James Cameron brings to life, look to be among the most reliable properties for Disney. Introducing X Men, the Fantastic Four and other characters under the 20th Century arsenal could help the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well.

Disney’s CEO Bob Iger has admitted the studio’s mistake in leaning into quantity over quality during the pandemic. “We lost some focus,” he said during a recent earnings call.

By going back to the drawing board, analysts believe the Magic Kingdom will be able to replenish the sparkle that’s been missing.

“Disney still connects with consumers in ways most studios can only dream about,” Bock says.

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