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The delta variant may be slowly killing the family movie

A staple of the entertainment business is in trouble because of the new coronavirus strain, among other factors

A scene from “Paw Patrol: The Movie” from Paramount Pictures. The family film is one of many hit hard by the delta variant, throwing the future of the category into uncertainty. (Spin Master Via Reuters)
8 min

Last November, the movie business was in desperate need of good news when an unlikely savior appeared in “The Croods: A New Age.”

At a time when many movie theaters were closed, DreamWorks Animation’s sequel about a family of outspoken cave men defied the vaccine-less moment and opened strongly in a reduced number of venues, selling an average of nearly 800 tickets at each screen. The data sent a clear and reassuring message: No matter what hurdles moviegoing faced, it could always count on family films.

Nearly 10 months later, a tougher reality is unfolding: People have stopped buying tickets to family films. In a striking development, the great all-ages unifier of American pop culture is struggling.

Over this past summer, these family-friendly movies arrived — “The Boss Baby: Family Business” and “Spirit Untamed,” “Paw Patrol: The Movie” and “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” And, one by one, they went, attracting just a small fraction of the usual ticket buyers — sometimes even smaller than the titles aimed at older audiences in a dismal box-office summer. No family film this year has exceeded $100 million in domestic receipts. In 2019, 11 of them did.

Like so much else the pandemic has upended — the five-day office workweek, the sardined-in dance floor — it remains unclear whether the shift is momentary or permanent. For now, though, studios have begun frantically pulling family films from the release calendar, or selling them to streamers, or both.

If the trend continues, a cherished institution (what feels more American than a family outing to the multiplex?) could be diminished. And some sizable revenue could disappear along with it.

“The really big event family film like ‘Frozen’ I don’t think will ultimately go anywhere,” said Doug Creutz, an analyst at investment firm Cowen, echoing the thoughts of several Hollywood observers. “But for a lot of other titles, even after the pandemic ends, the idea of going to see a family film may not be what it was.”

While parents will still bring their children out for major theatrical events, the idea of a weekly or even monthly family trip to the movies could go the way of the beloved by long-forgotten Banana Splits.

The immediate culprit is the delta variant, which, by infecting children at greater rates, appears to have prompted cautious parents to keep their unvaccinated children home.

But more long-term factors are also at play. In 2019, a study from the Motion Picture Association found the number of regular monthly moviegoers under the age of 12 dropped 16 percent from 2018, the only double-digit percentage decline of any age group below the age of 50. Eighteen months of at-home viewing have only made kids — and parents — less likely to think of theaters when they think of entertainment.

Financially, meanwhile, global box office economics have increasingly been convincing theatrical film executives that it’s worthwhile to aim only for big-budget home runs.

Collectively, it means a whole tier of middle-budget family movies could either go to streaming or soon vanish entirely.

“The number of theatrical slots for animation was actually being reduced even before the pandemic,” said Dan Sarto, co-founder of the online animation community Animation World Network. “Now it’s just being accelerated.”

In 2019, there were at least five films that cost under $100 million to produce. All grossed between $100 million and $200 million worldwide, which likely puts them slightly in the black, but probably doesn’t make them sufficiently profitable to justify their existence in a diminished market.

This is perhaps even truer for live-action family movies. Twenty years ago, live-action family films were a regular event in movie theaters. In 2001, four of the top 20 movies at the domestic box office were live-action family films (“Spy Kids,” “The Princess Diaries,” the first “Harry Potter” and a “Dr. Dolittle” sequel). In 2019, the list included only an “Aladdin” reboot.

The family film — that gloriously welcome notion that parents could pack the kids into the car for something everyone would enjoy, or at least tolerate — has a rich legacy.

It began in earnest with Disney hits like “Mary Poppins” and “Peter Pan” in the middle 20th century and stayed popular for decades with films like “The Muppet Movie” (1979), “Annie” (1982), “Flight of the Navigator” (1986), “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” (1989) and “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993). They gave way to the animation boom of recent years that includes pretty much every Pixar movie.

The category came with both economic imperative and cultural benefit. On a landscape where generations can’t find common ground, the family film allowed older and younger Americans to come together — a grand bridge-builder in one profitable, 100-minute multiplex package.

The present reality, though, is less uplifting. Encapsulating the tenuous moment is “Hotel Transylvania.” The Sony animated franchise had seen its global box office totals go up with every new movie since its 2012 debut. The most recent film took in more than a half-billion dollars in 2018. But Sony is poised to sell the fourth movie, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” to Amazon for a figure reported to be a little above $100 million. The studio’s acceptance of that sum suggests just how much executives think box office returns could fall off compared to past films.

Paramount Pictures is also facing the doldrums. Executives on the studio’s East Los Angeles lot had high hopes for “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” an adaptation of the classic book series scheduled for theatrical release in September. But watching the family-film highway pileup, executives decided to pull it from the calendar indefinitely. The movie’s Canadian distributor also canceled a gala at the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts Thursday. Universal, meanwhile, postponed “Minions: The Rise of Gru” for a year, to July 2022.

That movie, like “Lightyear,” Pixar’s “Toy Story” spinoff scheduled for next June, will probably fare well once the pandemic subsides, Creutz and other experts note. These big-budget titles generate hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, and neither studios nor audiences are in a rush to give them up. But the outlook for everything else is less clear as theatrical studios reexamine a potentially smaller market post-covid.

Theater owners say they have never seen so stark a divide in family entertainment between the high end and everything else. “It just has to feel premium now,” said William Barstow, chief executive of the Main Street Theatres chain based in Omaha. “You can’t just throw out a flat cartoon anymore. Families are too smart. And they have too much else to watch.”

Studios trying to skimp on animation or marketing costs with their family films the way that they might, say, a horror movie, will see their film run out of theaters, he said. “As a studio, you have to get behind it in a way you never did before,” Barstow added.

Streaming is picking up some of the slack. The Jennifer Garner comedy “Yes Day” and Robert Rodriguez’s kid-superhero follow-up “We Can Be Heroes” were two of the biggest pandemic hits, live-action family films that drew tens of millions of viewers apiece on Netflix, according to the company.

“We knew ‘Yes Day’ would find the largest possible audience on a streamer,” said Daniel Rappaport, a partner at Management 360 who produced the film, explaining the logic of setting up the project there. “With theaters, it’s a crapshoot how many people will come out to see it. On Netflix, it was viewed by over 65 million households.”

But it’s not clear the theatrical experience can simply be ported over.

“There’s a marketing campaign that these films have and an excitement that’s created when a movie is in theaters first,” said Alicia Reese, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. “That makes it feel like something special. Will that happen in the same way with family films that premiere on streaming? I don’t know.”

Several observers noted that Pete Docter’s Pixar movie “Soul,” which premiered on Disney Plus in December, seems to have had less durability than other films from the same studio and director, such as “Up” and “Inside Out.”

Creators are also trying to tally the social cost. By scaling these movies down to the small screen, they ask, will it also reduce the films’ place in our collective memory? “I go back and forth. Is this a tragedy, or is it just a change?” said a producer of numerous theatrical family-film blockbusters, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid being seen as criticizing partners.

Some also worry that the move to streaming, while it opens up the possibility for more content, will actually lead to a new kind of creative conservatism. The Disney Plus lineup is a case in point. It includes projects such as “The Mighty Ducks,” “Home Alone,” “Sister Act” and “Turner and Hooch” — all reboots of film hits from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Even Netflix, known for an originality mind-set in family entertainment, has turned to established brands, as with its recent deal for the smash YouTube preschool show CoCoMelon or the upcoming “My Little Pony: A New Generation.”

“I call it the ‘now what’ moment, when every family property in existence has been worn out,” said Fred Seibert, producer of such hits as “The Fairly OddParents” and “Adventure Time” who as an executive also steered a struggling Nickelodeon to popularity. “I don’t think we’re at the ‘now what’ moment yet, but we may not be far away. And when we do I worry not only how we will make anything new but how we’ll be able to communicate it to the audience.”

Television has picked up the baton from the film world in at least one way. Family films in theaters inspire “co-viewing” where parents and children watching together. After all, kid-oriented films in theaters need to appeal to the adults who ferried them there.

But after nearly 18 lockdown months, there is evidence more co-viewing is happening at home too, and producers are now crafting their entertainment accordingly. Seibert notes that a “Fairly OddParents” reboot he is producing at Paramount Plus will include live action in addition to animation, which could attract an older audience.

Bruce Nash, who runs box office site The Numbers, says he sees the family film’s migration out of theaters as a temporary condition. The movies and audience will come back when it’s safe, likely in 2022.

Even he admits however that the economics may diminish the breadth of titles. “If we get all the way back to 75 percent of the pre-covid audience — and I think that’s an optimistic number — studios are still going to have to find a way to cut budgets by 25 percent. If they don’t, the movies don’t get made.”

But the biggest obstacle facing theatrical family films, experts say, may be that the adults who fuel their success will simply lose interest after this extended streaming period.

“The longer people do something temporary,” said Creutz, “the greater the chance it becomes permanent.”