Corden’s absence was later explained as the performer needing to catch a flight back to Los Angeles. But the moment captured the essence of the “Cats” release: a glittering presentation with plenty working in its favor yet huge questions hovering above it.
As the Universal Pictures musical seeks to become a holiday blockbuster beginning Friday, even experts do not know what to expect. In this age of hyper-audience tracking, extreme marketing spends and close monitoring of social media, “Cats” has become the most peculiar of corporate entertainment products: an enigma.
“I can’t recall a movie with this much uncertainty,” Bruce Nash, a box office expert from the movie site The Numbers, said of the film. “No one knows where it’s going to end up.”
The stakes are high. They include the fortunes of a studio that had some successes in 2019 but no massive blockbuster, and a studio executive, Jeff Shell, who has recently been given one of the most important jobs in media.
Also on the line: fraught questions involving the power of social media to retail movies and studios’ ability to construct a big branded hit outside Hollywood’s usual action-adventure realms.
The factors likely to help the movie are intense social media buzz around stars such as Wilson, Corden, Hudson and Swift; a title that stands as one of the most successful stage shows in entertainment history; and a bevy of studio musicals that have over-performed in recent years. Most recently that includes “The Greatest Showman,” which two years ago stunned many pundits to gross $434 million around the world, including $174 million in the United States.
On the other hand, there are weak projections for opening weekend; a rushed post-production schedule; an expected wave of poor reviews; and competition from the likes of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Jumanji: The Next Level.” The social media frenzy, some experts say, may be distorting the movie’s prospects.
Opening in London in 1981, “Cats,” from the musical impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, was an oddity, an often abstract story involving “Jellicle cats” loosely inspired by the poems of T.S. Eliot. Yet it became one of the biggest phenomena in stage history, thanks to its elaborate costumes and stagecraft, and a central number, “Memory,” that often stood apart from the show.
The original Broadway production played for 18 years, and “Cats” has toured relentlessly around the world. According to theater journalist Michael Riedel, the title has taken in more than $3.5 billion.
The “Cats” film was the result of a studio finally deciding to move forward after years of owning the rights. In 2016, Universal executives hired Tom Hooper to direct the film version. Four years earlier, Hooper had ushered Universal’s “Les Miserables” to more than $400 million in the global box office. For the lead role, he and producers would hire a British ballerina, Francesca Hayward, a new face the studio is staking its publicity hopes on.
“Cats” cost some $100 million to make, a very large sum for a musical. That is in part due to its elaborate sets on a London sound stage and hundreds of special-effects shots, many of which included the digital addition of fur to characters. Filmmakers were working until this past weekend, scrambling to finish those effects, resulting in few people, from award voters to reporters and critics, seeing the movie before Monday night.
Universal hopes the movie will appeal not just to young women that help form its core audience, but also to families who do not want to see “Star Wars” or have already dipped into The Force.
The studio needs the movie to work. Without a big result from “Cats,” it is in danger of finishing 2019 without a movie in the box office Top 10 for the first time since 2014.
According to prerelease surveys, “Cats” will open to just $17 million this weekend. That alone is not cause for concern, given the oxygen the Jedi and the Sith are taking up.
But to succeed, the movie will need a long play through the holidays and beyond. That will depend on the movie having “legs” — Hollywood-speak for momentum based on word of mouth.
That is by no means assured; the adaptation runs the risk of being too inaccessible for non-fans and too faithless for those already in the tent.
“Are there enough people who love this, and will they love what was done with it?” said a studio executive with no competitive film opening against “Cats” who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Hooper said he believed there was.
“I think of my 8-year-old self, and if he loved it, there will be an audience that loves it,” the director said in an interview, noting his childhood fandom of the show.
The director also gave the film a topical sheen, telling the audience before the premiere that the movie was timely because it’s about “the perils of tribalism and the power of kindness.”
Webber, via a publicist, declined to comment.
In addition to Universal, a hit is also important for Shell, the overseer of the studio who has just been given a large vote of confidence by Comcast leader Brian Roberts; Roberts last week named Shell chief executive of NBCUniversal, replacing established veteran Steve Burke. Shell takes over the role Jan. 1, which will make the “Cats” box office his first major test in his new role.
If Shell is nervous, he is not showing it.
“Billions of people saw it in the West End and on Broadway — that’s why I believe this will work,” he told The Washington Post. Asked if he believed the movie could earn a decent portion of “Showman’s” $430 million, he answered quickly. “Hopefully higher,” he said.
Key to the film’s fortunes will be Swift, who has only a small supporting role but has been front and center in promoting the film with a new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” that has ignited social media. The song’s lyric video, along with the film’s trailers, garnered more than 25 million views on YouTube weeks before the film’s release. The trailers have generated large amounts of conversation — some very enthusiastic, some extremely snarky — for both the CG look of the cats and scale of the sets, which are outsized to replicate how cats see the world.
The Swifties, as Swift’s fans are known, were out in full force at the premiere, lining a snowy street several rows deep. The star, known for her relationship with fans, took selfies with them and also tweeted images from the event. She also has been posting numerous behind-the-scenes videos to her social media accounts with messages such as “Go See Cats Movie in theaters December 20 (if you’re feline up for it).” Swift has more than 200 million followers on Instagram and Twitter combined.
Tracy David, chief marketing officer of social media analytics firm ListenFirst, which measures a movie’s conversational volume on search and Twitter, said “Cats” is generating more pre-release social media heat than any other recent Hollywood musical besides “Beauty and the Beast” and “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.”
“Mamma Mia” generated an “Interest Score” of 1,093,700 prior to release. “Cats” is at 790,000, with “interest 52 percent female primarily between 25-34.” “Showman” scored 690,000 before its release.
“That speaks to the high level of recognition and fan anticipation,” David said of “Cats.”
Universal imposed an embargo on the critics and others who saw the film earlier this week — an attempt to prevent professional tastemakers from shaping or drowning out fan interest online. (It lifts late Wednesday, barely 24 hours before the first public showings of “Cats.”) Those fan conversations will go a long way to determining whether “Cats” will be the bomb or just a bomb.
But too much social media can also backfire. The example everyone wants to avoid: “Snakes on a Plane,” the much-anticipated mid-2000s action movie that flopped after consumers felt they saw the best bits online and stayed home.
Broadway producers of theatrical work like to wait until every last dollar (or euro) is wrung out of touring productions before committing to a film. That usually means years of Hollywood holding off. “Wicked” is still waiting for a movie, despite eons in development. And a “Hamilton” film may be a decade away.
As time drags on, the style of musical can fade along with its fan base — a challenge “Cats” could face. Past adaptations of Broadway hits, such as “Dreamgirls” and “Rent,” have underperformed for these reasons (and the fact that fans are well-conditioned to seeing the action play out in front of them).
But supporters say the audience has changed since those films, which arrived more than a decade ago. They point to the recent surge of lucrative film musicals — “Showman” and “Les Miserables” as well as “La La Land” and the “Mamma Mia” movies.
“I think the audience now believes in the emotion of a song in a different way,” said Krysta Rodriguez, an actress who has starred in musicals both onstage and on screen. “There was a time when people where cynical about it. But we can have storytelling through music now, and it’s fresh and people want to see it.”