Disney dominates animation category, why other studios can’t compete

Sven the reindeer and Olaf from “Frozen II.”

Disney

Disney has long been the king of animation, with titles that have not only hauled in billions of dollars at the global box office, but also scored a record number of Academy Awards.

This year, that trend continues.

The company, which has two animation studios, has vastly outperformed its competitors, luring audiences to theaters in droves to see new stories and sequels to franchise titles. Disney’s brand reputation, stellar storytelling and emotional resonance has kept it at the top of the box office.

The debut of “Frozen II” last weekend combined with the billion-dollar “Toy Story 4” means Disney has now garnered more than $1.4 billion in ticket sales from its animated movies so far in 2019. And “Frozen II” still has plenty of room to grow, with analysts foreseeing the film topping $1 billion by the end of its run.

Disney’s closest competitor, Universal, which now owns Dreamworks, has brought in $1.2 billion this year from three animated features — “How To Train Your Dragon: Hidden World,” “Secret Life of Pets 2” and “Abominable.”

Every other studio that released an animated feature this year tallied less than $200 million in sales at the global box office.

Part of Disney’s success in this category stems from having two distinct animation arms. Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar are separate studios that produce enough content that Disney can typically have between two to three animated releases each year.

“The output from each division is so distinctive and different in voice and tone,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, said. “And it never feels like they are repeating themselves.”

The diverse characters, stories and points of view are part of the reason that Dergarabedian feels like there isn’t “any Disney fatigue in the market place.”

In just the last few years, Disney has released animated stories that have featured anthropomorphic racing cars, energetic video game characters, a family of superheros trying to fit into regular society and a young boy that travels to the Land of the Dead to learn the truth about his family.

Characters Forky and Woody from Disney’s “Toy Story 4.”

Disney | Pixar

Still, both the Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar releases all have something in common — heart. Whether the films are about monsters discovering that laughs are more powerful than screams, a father clownfish looking for his missing son or an ice queen learning to control her powers, Disney films always seem to tap into some core emotional truth.

“There’s just something about the quality of Disney,” Dergarabedian said. “The emotion that people tie to Disney, to that brand, is the most powerful thing.”

King of the box office

The animated films that Disney releases are well-suited for children and adults. The films are designed so that young kids can follow the story, but have enough complexity for older kids and even adults who aren’t parents to want to venture to the movie theater.

And Disney has been rewarded for this. The company currently holds seven of the top 10 spots on the list of highest-grossing animated movies in North America and around the world.

“What Disney has had, and what they still have now, is brand name appeal with parents,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice, said. “Kids have always watched Disney movies.”

Of course, other studios have been able to make movie magic at the box office with their animated titles. Dreamworks’ “Shrek 2” is currently the third highest-grossing animated film in North America and Universal’s “Minions” is the third highest grossing animated film globally.

Currently, NBCUniversal owns both Dreamworks and Illumination Entertainment, although it only recently acquired Dreamworks.

“Shrek” was a surprise hit for Dreamworks. The tale of an ogre from a swamp teaming up with a talking donkey and a princess was unconventional, which is part of what endeared it to audiences. Children loved Eddie Murphy’s sassy donkey and the abundant fart jokes, while adults and critics enjoyed how the film played against typical fantasy tropes.

The film also had an unconventional ending. Fiona, who was cursed to turn into an ogre when the sun goes down each day, kisses Shrek and remains and ogre. In a more typical fairy tale story, audiences would have expected for Fiona to remain human or for Shrek to have been transformed into a human.

The success of the first film led to a number of sequels, although “Shrek 2” has been the most lucrative for Dreamworks.

Similarly, Universal’s Illumination Entertainment, which produced the “Despicible Me” movies and their sequels as well as “Secret Life of Pets” movies.

Stuart, Kevin and Bob, left to right, dig their new gadgets in the animated film “Minions.”

Universal Pictures

While “Secret Life of Pets” and “Despicable Me 2” performed well in North America, “Minions,” which was a prequel film focused on the small yellow creatures from the “Despicable Me” franchise, garnered more than $1 billion the global box office in 2015 and remains the third-highest grossing animation film world wide.

The unique, cute and silly pill-shaped characters have had universal appeal, not just with American audiences, but internationally. Part of it is their appearance — they’re cute. But, the other piece is their distinct personalities. The Minions are the id personified. They are joyful and mischievous, prone to distraction, but also unceasingly devoted to the ones they love.

Their antics translate to audiences around the world. Then there is their language. While at times it seems like they are just fumbling with words, the Minions actually babble in Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Filipino, French and Russian.

Still, the number of blowout box office successes for Disney’s rival studios pale in comparison to what The House of Mouse has been able to achieve.

“Disney has spent decades of building good will,” Dergarabedian said. “It started all the way back with “Snow White” in 1937. It’s very difficult to think of another brand that has that kind of cachet with audiences.”

Disclosure: Comcast, the parent company of CNBC, owns Universal and Dreamworks.

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