Sony Pictures executives had ample reason to pass on another “Jumanji” movie. After all, the original film came out more than 2 decades ago, reboots of old franchises have proved increasingly risky and the competition was formidable: The studio scheduled it to compete directly with box-office juggernaut “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Nonetheless, Sony Pictures’ gamble on “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” has paid off handsomely. The production, which cost $90 million after factoring in tax incentives, has become a runaway box-office success since its Dec. 20 release, roaring to life with $768 million in worldwide ticket sales and becoming one of the biggest box-office surprises in the past year.
“Jumanji’s” breakout performance represents a much-needed boost for Sony, which has struggled for years to compete with other studios because of a lack of major franchises other than “Spider-Man.” The Culver City film company, owned by Tokyo-based Sony Corp., ranked fifth among the studios last year in terms of domestic box-office market share, thanks to disappointments such as “The Dark Tower” and “Flatliners.” Sony has undergone a series of management changes since a 2014 cyberattack on the studio.
For now, things are looking up for Sony with “Jumanji,” which has taken in $318 million in the United States and Canada alone to become the studio’s biggest non-”Spider-Man” hit ever. Of course, the studio is already planning a sequel.
The film is poised to soon cross the $800-million milestone at the worldwide box office and could eventually collect as much as $900 million, which would make it one of the 10 high-grossing pictures of 2017, said Gitesh Pandya, a New York-based film business analyst and founder of BoxOfficeGuru.com.
“It’s quite an amazing run at the box office, and it’s been a prolonged run too,” Pandya said. “This is a good old-fashioned word-of-mouth film.”
The 1995 original about a board game that comes to life, starring the late Robin Williams, grossed $263 million globally and is viewed nostalgically by many people who saw it at the time. But it has little name recognition overseas, and reboots of older properties have resulted in many costly flops for studios. Just look at 20th Century Fox’s “Independence Day: Resurgence” and Sony’s own “Ghostbusters.”
“Hollywood does try too much to reboot old brands, and ‘Jumanji’ was not at the top of the list of movies that needed to be rebooted,” Pandya said.
But “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” produced by Matt Tolmach and William Teitler and shot in Hawaii and Georgia, had multiple factors in its favor.
Those included the star power of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart, two of the biggest box-office draws working in Hollywood, and an all-ages storyline that made it ideally suited for viewing by parents and their kids during a month when there’s a lack of popular family films in theaters. Also, unlike many reboots, the movie was generally liked by critics, who praised its video-game-themed update of the original concept. Reviews have been 76 percent positive, according to aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, which has been an increasingly influential resource for moviegoers.
Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony’s Motion Picture Group, said in an interview that the movie is succeeding not because of its brand name but because audiences are responding to its fresh, compelling premise. In the new “Jumanji,” a group of teens stumble upon an old-school video game system that turns them into avatars based on characters they select for a jungle mission – played by Johnson, Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan.
“People forget that, in the movie business, big ideas can be as valuable as preexisting intellectual property,” Rothman said. “That’s what the movie business used to be based on, and this film is a throwback to that.”
“Jumanji’s” release date was a big risk, too. Sony originally planned to unleash the picture during the summer, normally harvest time for Hollywood blockbusters. But after seeing footage from the first 2 weeks of shooting, Rothman wanted to set the release for Christmastime, when families are more apt to go to the movies together, he said.
The main problem was the competition: Walt Disney Co.’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was scheduled for a Dec. 15 debut. Going up against a “Star Wars” movie was dangerous because the franchise is normally expected to suck the oxygen out of the market for competing movies. But while the acclaimed “Last Jedi” has grossed nearly $1.3 billion, that hasn’t stopped people from going to “Jumanji.”
“Ultimately, believe me, we didn’t think we were the New England Patriots, but we thought maybe we could give them a game,” Rothman said. “Unlike the Super Bowl, there can be more than one winner.”
The success of “Jumanji” also reflects a strong appetite for escapism at the multiplex, something that has driven sales of movies such as 20th Century Fox’s musical “The Greatest Showman,” starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum. The diverse cast has also widened the movie’s appeal, Rothman said.
“You have a big star cast, which also puts the lie to this idea that stars don’t matter,” he said. “That’s just not true. Stars matter very much when they’re in roles people want to see them in.”
The week-to-week box-office declines for the movie have been relatively small as its run has continued. “Jumanji’s” weekend grosses have dropped 25 percent to 30 percent in the last several weeks, according to data from Box Office Mojo. Typical blockbusters slip about 50 percent in the weeks following their big openings. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” has ranked No. 1 for three consecutive weeks, a bright spot in an otherwise shrinking market for cinemas. This weekend, it is expected to finally yield the throne to “Maze Runner: The Death Cure,” the third film in Fox’s dystopian young adult series.
“Jumanji’s” resilience indicates that people are going to see the movie multiple times, said Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com.
“The legs are quite strong, and the declines have been relatively low each week, so you’re getting repeat business,” he said. “It’s entertaining, and it does the most important thing, which is pleasing the crowds.”
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