For the sake of this discussion, and because it’s true, let’s say off the top that Muppets Most Wanted is a really good movie. It’s got a clever story, great songs and an appealing supporting cast, and it’s the funniest thing the Muppets have done in a long time. As far as the Muppet performers go, the post-Henson team has never been stronger — every character is just knocking it out of the park, especially Kermit and Miss Piggy.
But for some reason, the Muppets Most Wanted box office receipts are surprisingly low. On the opening weekend in the US, Most Wanted took in $17 million, and after three weeks, the domestic total is $42 million. In 2011, The Muppets started with a $29 million opening weekend, and earned with a US total of $88 million. Most Wanted will probably end up with about half of that.
The industry predictions for the opening weekend box office looked solid — Box Office Mojo predicted the movie would make $22 million, the LA Times and The Motley Fool both predicted a $25 million opening, and Deadline Hollywood said that it was tracking at $28 million.
And then… people went to see Mr. Peabody for the third time, apparently. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a computer-animated family-friendly comedy-adventure film, which made $32 million on its opening weekend in early March. Two weeks later, when Muppets Most Wanted opened with $17 million, Peabody — in its third week — got $11 million.
And I don’t even understand how that’s possible. Between the two movies, the mix of reviews was basically identical — Rotten Tomatoes gave Muppets Most Wanted 79%, and Mr. Peabody 78%. But Peabody just passed $100 million domestic, and Muppets is struggling to reach the high 40s.
So… what happened?
It would be nice to shrug, and talk about an over-saturation of family movies at the beginning of the year. Kids are still singing the songs from Frozen, which opened in November and turned out to be an unexpected blockbuster. Frozen made $94 million over the Thanksgiving opening weekend, and it was such an enormous success that it was still in some theaters when Most Wanted premiered, four months later. The LEGO Movie also turned into a bigger hit than expected — it was the #1 movie for all of February, and was just starting to trail off when Mr. Peabody came along.
That’s an appealing argument — it’s easy to point to Frozen, and LEGO, and Divergent, and say that family audiences were tapped out by the time the Muppets came along. But it’s tough to say why the family-movie-fatigued audience bought 11 million dollars worth of Mr. Peabody tickets on Muppets Most Wanted’s first weekend. There wasn’t that much fatigue. Either something went wrong with the movie, or something went wrong with the marketing.
So let’s talk about the marketing. Muppets Most Wanted invested a lot in social media, with multiple trailers, pictures and movie clips released every week on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, BuzzFeed, YouTube and Tumblr. There were lots of internet-friendly stunts, like Miss Piggy’s “feud” with Joan Rivers at QVC’s Red Carpet party, and the Muppets “live-tweeting” from their Toyota Highlander on Superbowl Sunday.
Like the devoted Muppet fan that I am, I happily shared and retweeted, and generally made sure that everyone I know was psyched for March 21st. It turns out there are a lot of people that I don’t know.
I think the opening weekend take reflects the current limits of a social-media focused marketing campaign. Muppets Most Wanted won Facebook — they’ve got 6.6 million likes on Facebook, compared to Mr. Peabody’s 1.4 million. But Mr. Peabody had bus ads. Where I live, in the San Francisco area, I saw a lot of Peabody ads on the street, and no Muppet ads. The Muppets were all over the internet, but Peabody won IRL.
More importantly, I think the marketing didn’t manage to convince the audience that this particular story is important. If you want people to get to the theater on opening weekend, you need to give them a reason why they need to see this movie right now.
Disney has managed to do this with the Marvel movies, and last weekend’s Captain America premiere is a great example. They made a clear connection between Winter Soldier and the current storyline on Agents of SHIELD, and made it sound like we need to see both of them before the next Avengers movie. It’s all part of one big continuing story, and if you like The Avengers, which everyone did, then you’re curious to know what happens in Iron Man and Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy.
The marketing for Muppets Most Wanted focused on one thing — Kermit has an evil double named Constantine. That’s what the movie poster communicates — the Muppets and the supporting cast are all squeezed together on the left side of the poster, and Constantine stands on the right, apart from the main group and casting a shadow on the innocent, foolish Muppet gang. The trailers told the same story — Kermit’s in prison, and Constantine takes his place.
The problem is that there’s another story — a more important story, which is at the heart of the larger “Muppet Cinematic Universe” — and the marketing hardly mentioned it. Muppets Most Wanted is the story of Miss Piggy’s wedding.
The relationship between Kermit and Miss Piggy is the ongoing story of the Muppets franchise. Every Muppet-related interview over the last 30 years has included the question “Are Kermit and Miss Piggy going to get married?” It’s a decades-long will they or won’t they, which everyone in America seems to know and actively care about.
The 2011 film set up Kermit and Piggy as an estranged couple, getting back together over the course of the movie. Muppets Most Wanted starts from there, and takes it several steps further — it’s the most explicitly romantic story that the Muppets have ever done. Kermit and Piggy’s duet in “Something So Right” is the emotional heart of the movie, and the vision of Kermit and Piggy growing old together should make people want to cheer, and cry, and pay money for movie tickets.
Ultimately, the movie isn’t about whether Constantine steals the crown jewels or not. Who actually cares about that? Constantine is a villain because he’s ruining Miss Piggy’s wedding day.
That should have been the poster — Constantine slipping a ring on Miss Piggy’s finger. She’s finally brought Kermit to the altar, and it’s the wrong Kermit.
But the marketing hardly mentioned the wedding. They released a picture of Miss Piggy’s dress, but they were cagey about where that fits into the story. We had no idea that Piggy’s wedding was the climax of the story. They showed off the madcap caper elements, and downplayed the emotional story. The movie looked appealing, but not compelling — so people went to see Mr. Peabody and figured they’d catch Muppets Most Wanted on video.
On the up side, Muppets Most Wanted is making a profit. Muppet movies are cheap to make — Muppets Most Wanted had a budget of $54 million, and it’ll probably do $100 million worldwide. (As a comparison, Mr. Peabody cost $145 million, and Frozen cost $150 million.) It should also do well in DVD sales later this year.
Plus, the Muppets have a secret weapon that gives them an edge over other Disney properties — they can drive cars, and drink tea. I’ve seen a lot of the Muppets on TV this month, mostly driving the Toyota Highlander. They’ve also done a series of commercials for Lipton Tea and Subway, and they had a big day on QVC.
Buzz Lightyear can’t sell cars. For one thing, he’s too small to drive — but even if he could, it wouldn’t make sense. The Muppets can interact with the real world, and thanks to Jim Henson’s early career, selling products is in the Muppets’ DNA. That gives Disney an extra reason to keep the characters alive, and relevant.
I wish I didn’t have to hope for that. Muppets Most Wanted should have been the blockbuster success that we’d hoped for, and kicked off a whole new series of movies and TV specials. But that’s show business, I guess.
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by Danny Horn