If ‘The Rise Of Skywalker’ Plays Like ‘The Dark Knight,’ Then ‘Cats’ Hopes To Be ‘Mamma Mia!’ (Box Office)

Forbes Finance 2 weeks ago

Cats may benefit from both spillover for and disinterest of, especially overseas, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker just as Mamma Mia! scored huge overseas alongside The Dark Knight in July of 2008.

As promised, we know have the second trailer for Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats. The film, starring James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson and Francesca Hayward, opens a month from tonight, concurrently with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and just before/after Jumanji: The Next Level, Spies in Disguise and Little Women. That’s some serious kiddy competition for a property which once thrived as a puddle in a desert. By that I mean one of the reasons Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show thrived on Broadway for over two decades is that it existed in a time when there weren’t a ton of big stage musicals to which you could take your kids. Cats debuted in 1981 and went to Broadway in 1982, and the London production ran for 21 years while the Broadway version ran for 18 years.

Without discounting the merits of the show, which was/is unlike almost anything else on stage and which did win Laurence Awards and Tony Awards, a part of Cats’ success was that, for tourists with kids wanting to take in a show, the best option. That it’s opening against the “final” Star Wars movie is somewhat ironic, as Cats is also credited with being the first modern “mega-musical” that led to the likes of Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. Both The Rise of Skywalker and Cats now exist in a theatrical ecosystem where huge, four-quadrant would-be blockbusters are now par for the course, and one where the big movies arguably for kids are now the big movies for everyone. If Cats falters, it’ll be because it’s existence as a big, kid-friendly cinematic option makes it merely one of a handful of such films this Christmas.

While I’m inclined to take the Internet’s mockery and related freak-outs about as seriously as we all should have for Aladdin, that was both a known and liked property. The question is whether Cats is a property that everyone knows and likes or merely one that everyone knows. That said, it looks unique unto itself and allegedly cost closer to Jumanji money as opposed to Star Wars money. As long as it plays closer to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ($395 million in 2018) than Into the Woods ($214 million in 2014), it’ll be fine. History shows that a splashy musical adaptation released during Christmas is almost as safe as a Middle Earth/Star Wars movie released during the same time. It's no secret that the live-action musical is among the safest box office bets in this Netflix/VOD era, if only because it approximates a theatrical event and/or a night at the theater or a rock concert.

Like the western, the musical is one of those genres that everyone claims is dead except that when a major studio makes one it tends to succeed. If Cats breaks big (or legs out) alongside Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Jumanji: The Next Level, it'll be par for the course. Les Misérables, also courtesy of Universal and directed by Hooper, scored $148 million domestic and $442 million worldwide after launching on Christmas Day of 2012. Neither Walt Disney's Into the Woods ($214 million on a $50 million budget) nor Sony's Annie ($134 million/$85 million) were super hits in 2014. But Christmas 2016 saw both Illumination's Sing ($562 million) and Lionsgate’s La La Land ($441 million) hitting a high note over the holiday season. Fox's The Greatest Showman was one of the leggiest movies since Titanic, earning $184 million domestic from a $13.5 million Wed-Sun launch and $434 million worldwide.

If you want to count Universal's Pitch Perfect 3 ($185 million) from that season as well, there you go. Disney and Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns legged it last Christmas to $172 million domestic (one of the biggest cumes for a live-action musical since the 1980's) and $349 million worldwide. Marshall's Chicago legged it to $171 million in 2002/2003 and won a Best Picture Oscar for his efforts. Let's not forget about Phantom of the Opera in 2004 ($154 million worldwide, but on a $70 million budget), Sweeney Todd in 2007 ($152 million on a $50 million budget) and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel in 2009 ($443 million in 2009, and yes, I'm counting it, shut up). Oh, and the one recent year without such a musical option, 2013, saw Walt Disney's Frozen leg it out to $400 million from a $93 million Wed-Sun debut weekend.

As noted back in September, Cats is going to be, by default, the biggest movie ever to open concurrently with a Star Wars flick, and it’s partially banking on playing like Mamma Mia! in July of 2008. That Meryl Streep/Amanda Seyfried/Pierce Brosnan musical opened with $27 million against The Dark Knight’s $158 million debut and legged it to $144 million. It also earned $465 million overseas, just $5 million less than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Dark Knight that year. In a summer where Iron Man earned $585 million worldwide, Mamma Mia! earned $609 million. That’s a pie-in-the-sky scenario, but it’s possible that overseas audiences will care less about “the end of Star Wars” than North American audiences do. That is surely a factor both for Cats and Disney’s own (via Fox) Spies in Disguise opening on Christmas.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that we shouldn’t underestimate Cats, and that we certainly shouldn’t presume that the online heckling is representative of general audience interest (or disinterest). 15 years later, we still talk about how “scary” The Polar Express was, but kids loved it, the 3-D IMAX version was a game-changer five years before Avatar and the Robert Zemeckis-directed/Tom Hanks-starring film earned $313.5 million worldwide to become a perennial favorite. Yes, it’s possible that Cats is one of those properties that is known without being “hey, I want to see a movie version” liked. We saw that, relatively speaking, with The Phantom of the Opera and Rent in Christmas 2004 and Thanksgiving 2005, although better reviews/better buzz might have resulted in bigger grosses. But source material, genre, release date and a buzzy cast means that the odds are very much in Cats’ favor.

'Cats' poster
'Cats' poster

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