The Making of the Historical Disaster Everyone Missed in Theaters

promotional poster art courtesy of STX Entertainment

Congratulations, everyone! During the holidays you certainly avoided the film that became one of the worst movie releases of all time.

As Hollywood is gearing up to celebrate itself during the awards season it is coming off of one of the more lucrative segments of the calendar. The recent stretch sees a combination of massive blockbusters as well as the more artistic efforts hoping to become trophy-worthy. But something occurred when one release managed to avoid being added to either category. History was made, but not the kind any studio wants attaching to its brand.

So far this winter ‘’Frozen 2’’ has already netted over $1.2 billion globally, the last entry in the Star Wars saga is doing brisk business, and the latest ‘’Jumanji’’ is proving to be a hit. Lost in the mix of all of this exists a misbegotten animated attempt to generate blockbuster status for a film that redefined the idea of product placement. In the first weeks of December there is traditionally a lull with new releases, as few studios want to compete with a Thanksgiving-timed blockbuster, nor those coming out around the Christmas holiday. It was in this pocket of the schedule that ‘’Playmobil: The Movie’’ was released.

Based directly on the toy line of the same name this title comes from the upstart distributor (some would say ‘’struggling’’) STX Entertainment. Its road to theaters — before crashing in a ball of flames — was five years in duration. More than a few people have LONG commented on how the Playmobil toys are a knock-off of the building block empire LEGO. In proper fashion this film was likewise inspired by the success of ‘’Lego Movie’’.

Initially pitched as a concept at Sony Studios in the fall of 2014, that deal failed to pan out. What followed was a mounting list of companies at one time attached to the title. Taken as a property for sale to the Toronto Film Market in September 2015 the Canadian animation studio ON Animation secured the rights, with the plan to be distributed in the US through Cross Creek Pictures. Lionsgate joined with French financier Wild Bunch to arrange foreign rights. Financing for the budget would be derived from selling off the international distribution deals and eventually by the summer of 2016 the original budget of $75 million was realized.

Voice talent was cast, with Daniel Radcliff as the big name, along with comedian Jim Gaffigan and singer Adam Lambert. Cross Creek exited the project and in the course of negotiating with other distributors Open Road Films acquired the US rights, but not without some drama. A script was made and veteran of Disney Animation, Lino DiSalvo – head animator for ‘’Frozen’’ — was hired as director. This was when a surprising player leaped into the fray — Harvey Weinstein.

Just after the Open Road announcement, The Weinstein Company reared up with a lawsuit, claiming they were promised a verbal agreement to release the film. It turns out though there was a financial snag; the agreement made months earlier was dependent on TWC securing a promissory note for those rights, something it was unable to obtain. It is notable that this indicated some financial troubles for that company months before Harvey Weinstein’s infamous scandal rendered it to nothing.

Around this time ON Animation was bought out by the French company Mediawan, becoming the new rights owner. Then as production was moving along the next snag in the process occurs. Once slated for a January 2019 release the film dropped off the calendar because Open Road filed for bankruptcy. With production near complete the rights for ‘’Playmobil’’ were now on the market once again.

In the meantime, with all of this start-and-stall effort the second ‘’Lego Movie’’ was produced. That came out in February of 2019 and it delivered far less heat, earning less than half of the original film both domestically and internationally. This would only blunt interest in a property regarded as a Lego knock-off.

It was in April of 2019 when STX was settled as the new US distributor. This would be a service agreement, not a rights purchase, meaning that STX would only become responsible for distribution and advertising. In June of last summer ‘’Playmobil’’ became set as the opening film at the Annecy International Animation Festival. There were reports of audiences being so dismissive some were walking out of screenings. It was possibly with this reaction in mind, or the competition from ‘’The Angry Birds 2’’, that the August release date was scrubbed.

Along the way somehow this beleaguered production entered into a promotional agreement with Porsche to feature its concept vehicle, the electric Taycan. Why this retrograde film garnered such a high-end promotional partner, or what Porsche expected to gain from this tie-in is just one of the lingering mysteries.

Meanwhile, the film debuted in foreign markets as planned, and did not fare well. In France, it opened in fifth place its first weekend, and in Germany, where the toy line originates, it was not beloved, earning less than $2 million. As part of its international agreements, STX had to ensure that ‘’Playmobil’’ would debut on at least 2,300 screens in North America, a release that was certainly far wider than the prospects for this title warranted.

It appears STX took steps to limit its exposure and cut losses. Initially expected to put up a promotional budget in the $10 million range it looks as if the studio did not do much more than investing beyond $3 million, or so. This lackluster promotion is reflected in the film’s Twitter account; that page only stands with a meager 1,269 followers, almost half of the number of screens it was playing on.

On December 6 the mercy killing of the film finally would take place. It managed to open in the 14th position for the weekend, earning the paltry $656,530. This stands as the third-worst opening of all time for any movies debuting on 2,000 screens. The per-screen average was a dismal $280, the second-lowest — and for any film on 2,300 screens it stands as the worst opening of all time. The five-year trek to theaters culminates in a historical failure.

There is one good thing to derive from this effort. Bob Persichetti had been the one to originally pitch this film at Sony all those years ago. That led to the deal that saw him become the force behind last year’s huge hit, ‘’Spider-Man – Into The Spider-Verse’’.

So there managed to be something decent to come of this.

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David Strom 5:20 PM | February 22, 2024