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Courtesy of Warner Bro./LEGO Studios

September 25, 2017

Lego’s Troubles Revisited

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Two weeks ago I wrote about the Lego Group, and the financial troubles they’ve been having. I also spoke optimistically about the boost that The Lego Ninjago Movie would give them. Sadly, iIt turns out I was wrong.

Box Office Mojo had estimated a $30-35 million opening weekend. I agreed, thinking the recent lack of quality family movies would draw families to Ninjago. As of Monday morning, though, the movie has only grossed $21 million. Those are very disappointing numbers that cast a long shadow over both the Lego Group and Warner Animation. Conjectures are already flying around, so let’s see if we can’t nail them down and study them.

So, first question: why did Lego Ninjago underperform? I’ll go through the possibilities from best- to worst-case. Best-case answer, it’s just part of the slump at the box office. Movies aren’t bringing in as much money this year. So far, only one animated film has managed to surpass $500 million worldwide; last year, six animated movies did so. Even Pixar’s Cars 3 has only reached $361 million globally, and those numbers will not go up much higher. Ninjago may simply be facing an audience less willing to part with their dollars.

There’s also the film itself. Ninjago is the first Lego movie to get a Rotten rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences on iMDB have concurred that it’s not as stellar as its predecessors. Again, in a year where audiences are pickier with which tickets they buy, they want to spend their money on movies they are more likely to enjoy. Hollywood has even attacked Rotten Tomatoes for the bad box office year. They may be onto something with that thinking… with the site’s traffic growing it does seem that people are taking critics’ views into consideration. Poor reviews are not always a death knell to films, but they can leave a strong effect. In Ninjago’s case, that effect is probably negative.

There’s another factor that might be at play here though, and it inspires the most dread. Could the Lego name itself simply not be a selling point like Warner Bros. believed? The advantage of branded media is that audiences will be more likely connect with it. Yet, as Forbes pointed out, Ninjago opened at about the same level as Warner Animation’s Storks did last year. If anything, Ninjago actually had a WORSE opening! So, if branded content is not outperforming original content, then why bother branding at all?

I don’t have to reiterate how The Lego Movie surprised us. However, it’s still teaching us lessons three years later. Warner Bros. saw a franchise opportunity and jumped in with four more Lego movies; The Billion Brick Race and The Lego Movie Sequel are yet to come. The studio invested time and money into the franchise because they thought that audiences would follow it. But now the question haunts, was The Lego Movie an anomaly? Can it even be replicated, or was the novelty part of its success, a novelty that can never be recaptured? As the Hollywood Reporter states, “Once you perform the same trick enough times, the surprise of its success wears off.” As beloved as The Lego Movie is, if you say today “Hey, the Lego X Movie is actually funny,” we wouldn’t respond with a “What?! No way!” but with a “Yeah, we figured.”

Now, I want to emphasize I’m not condemning The Lego Ninjago Movie. I enjoyed it, it was a solid enough film. But film is an industry, and box office numbers matter. Extending beyond that, Lego relies on these movies to sell toys. They’re a toy company, before all else.

So what should Lego and Warner Animation do? It depends on what the major factor behind Ninjago’s shortcoming is. If it’s the sluggish year or the bad reviews, then it’s a very simple “Keep going strong, and do better next time.” After all, Warner Brothers is one of the few studios doing strong with this year’s Wonder Woman and the smash hit It. Lego’s course is a bit more complicated, since the movie probably won’t lift toy sales as much as they’d hope.

But what if it’s a problem with the Lego brand? Then both companies have a far bigger problem. Warner Animation must consider the possibility that its flagship franchise is taking on water. Luckily they already have several other films on the docket that aren’t Lego related, and they may yet hold their ground. As for Lego though… they won’t be able to rely on their film franchise to sell themselves any longer. They were in trouble before, and this weekend only worsened it. Here’s to hoping that both manage to navigate themselves out of trouble.

David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at djg284@cornell.edu. Animation Analysis will appear alternate Tuesdays this semester.