Lightyear had all the makings of the next big smash hit. 2022 saw a massive increase in ticket sales and audience attendance, and hits like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, The Batman, Top Gun: Maverickand Sonic the Hedgehog 2 showed that audiences were turning out for movies. Pixar has always been a consistent moneymaker at the box office, and Buzz Lightyear is one of Disney’s most popular characters, so an entire film based on Lightyear but done as a straightforward high-octane science fiction film seemed like an easy win.
Originally projected to open between $ 70 to $ 80 million, Lightyear came in well below expectations, making just $ 51 million in its first three days. While this is the highest opening for an animated film since 2019, it is a disappointment for Disney and Pixar, given the film’s connection to the Toy Story franchise. Toy Story 4 opened to $ 118 million in its first three days. Even within Pixar releases, this is the lowest-grossing start for a pre-existing Pixar character, behind even the much-maligned Cars 3 whose $ 53 million opening weekend was a disappointment back in 2017. Lightyear also lost the number one spot to Jurassic World: Dominionand that film was in its second weekend and was generally facing poor word of mouth from critics and audiences.
Then again, Inside Out opened number two behind Jurassic World back in 2015 but went on to become one of the highest-grossing Pixar films ever, so it is still early and the film could make an upset in the coming weeks; however, the signs right now are not so positive for Lightyear. Lightyear in many ways could be Pixar’s version of Solo: A Star Wars Story, a spin-off of a beloved popular franchise with a recast lead that harkens back to an old-school, fun sci-fi adventure which disappoints at the box office. Yet how did this happen? How did a film from one of the most beloved animation studios and spinning off from a beloved film franchise fail to take off? This is why Lightyear underperformed at the box office.
Lightyear’s Mixed Marketing Campaign
Lightyear is a high concept premise, actually making the film which is referenced within the Toy Story universe that inspired the Buzz Lightyear toy line. While a fun exercise, the film by its very nature was likely going to confuse some audience members who would question where and how the film fits into the Toy Story franchise. Pixar tried its best with TV spots letting audiences know this was the movie that Andy saw, but it is such a niche meta-idea that general audiences may not have been sold on just the concept alone. For all intents and purposes, Pixar had an original science fiction film to market.
Pixar has been able to turn original ideas into box office hits. WALL-E, Up!and Inside Out were all original films with even more difficult premises to sell than Lightyear, yet all opened above it at the box office, and that is because Pixar knew they had to sell audiences on the story. With Lightyearthey rested a bit too much on the iconography of Toy Story and Buzz Lightyear, where the trailers kept the story very vague. Pixar never sold audiences on why they should want to see this story, instead hoping the association to Buzz Lightyear would be enough to draw audiences out when in fact the Toy Story connection was likely confusing to some viewers.
Pixar On Disney +
Lightyear is the first Pixar film to be released in theaters since Onward back in March 2020, and that film had an extremely short theatrical release as theaters shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic the following week. In December 2020, Disney released Soul on Disney + after having delayed the film twice. The movie performed so well on the streamer, and the 2021 box office was so uncertain, that they then sent the summer film Luca to Disney + as well. 2022 was supposed to be the grand return to cinemas for Pixar, with two new releases in both Turning Red and Lightyear. But early in 2022, Disney decided to also send Turning Red to Disney +. This meant that three Pixar films in a row were sent to Disney + for no additional charge.
Disney’s decision to release the previous three Pixar films on Disney + may have gotten audiences accustomed to watching Pixar pictures at home, as it is cheaper than bringing the entire family out to the theaters. They may now associate animated films with not being a priority for big-screen viewing. Combining that with the knowledge that every Disney movie will now be on Disney + within 45 days means audiences might be willing to wait. Unlike Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which sold audiences of needing to see it on the opening week to not have the film spoiled, Lightyear did not have that advantage. Disney’s decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic may have hurt Pixar in the long term, and now all eyes will be on Elemental to see how it performs next year.
Father’s Day Competition For Lightyear
The third Friday in June has become a big weekend for Pixar, similar to the first Friday in May for Marvel. Films like Inside Out, Finding Dory, The Incredibles 2and Toy Story 4 have all opened on this Friday to great success. This also aligns with Father’s Day weekend, and Lightyear was looking to really tap into a market of young men, positioning itself as a science fiction action-adventure movie. It was also released 27 years after Toy Story, meaning that audiences who saw that first film when they were kids might have children of their own and would want to pick Lightyear to see over the weekend as a generational experience.
However, Lightyear faced a lot more competition than originally expected. While it was always going to have to contend with Jurassic World: Dominion for audiences, the continued success of Top Gun: Maverick was not something anybody at Disney and Pixar was expecting. Both Jurassic World: Dominion and Top Gun: Maverick were aiming for an older male audience as the go-to dad flick, taking some spotlight away from Lightyear. On top of that, both of those films also have generational appeal, further cutting off box office returns from Lightyear.
A Toy Story Movie Without Toy Story
Buzz Lightyear is a pop culture icon, no doubt there. His toy has been in high demand ever since 1995, when his merchandise was selling out before the first film even opened. Yet part of what makes Buzz Lightyear popular is his association with the Toy Story franchise. Audiences want to see not just Buzz, but Woody and the rest of the gang. All the Toy Story movies offer their own unique perspective, exciting possibilities, and fun character dynamics that appeal to audiences of all ages.
Lightyear may have performed better if there had been a long wait between sequels to Toy Storyas it arrived just three years after the release of Toy Story 4, which is the shortest gap between Pixar-related projects (previously it was a four-year gap between Toy Story and Toy Story 2). Audiences just saw Buzz Lightyear, the one voiced by Tim Allenwho to audiences is Buzz Lightyear the same way Harrison Ford is Han Solo or Hugh Jackman is Wolverine.
Had there been a wait similar to the 11-year gap between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 or the nine-year gap between Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4audiences may have been more excited to see this new exciting concept for Lightyear. Yet what the poor box office returns from the film indicates about general audiences is that Pixar made a Toy Story movie without all the things audiences love about the Toy Story movies.