Lightyear Majorly Disappointed At The Box Office, What Happens To Pixar Now?

A whole lot of bad things happened to the movie business during the pandemic and that is, perhaps, putting it mildly. Of the many consequences that came as a result of the world being in crisis was that Pixar, one of Disney's most reliable cinematic brands, was forced to take a hiatus of more than two years from the big screen. "Onward" hit theaters just before the world shut down and had its run cut tragically short, with the movie finding its way to Disney+ to try and help salvage the situation at the time. Recently though, Pixar finally found its way back to theaters with "Lightyear," the "Toy Story" spin-off centered on the movie that inspired Buzz Lightyear the toy. Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan.

The film, which stars Chris Evans as the title hero and is directed by Angus MacLane, debuted well below expectations at the box office with less than $51 million, losing to "Jurassic World Dominion" and narrowly beating "Top Gun: Maverick," which was in its fourth weekend. Audiences clearly were not all that excited about the spin-off, and whether or not Disney chooses to see it that way remains to be seen. But the fact of the matter is that the studio is now faced with a gigantic choice in regards to Pixar and its future.

Does it go the way of "Star Wars" where movies seem to be an afterthought and it's all about making shows in an attempt to re-create the success of "The Mandalorian?" Or does Disney look to recover from this loss and build back to what Pixar once was? Are they ready to move on from one of the most reliable theatrical hit-makers the business has ever produced?

The pandemic and Pixar

2020 was a year that left Hollywood with few good options. Unfortunately, Disney had several Pixar films in the pipeline and something had to be done. So, it was decided that "Soul" would also be released directly to Disney+. Though, unlike "Black Widow" and "Mulan," which cost an additional $30 at launch as Premier Access titles, "Soul" was offered up as part of a subscription at no extra charge. At that point, Disney set Pixar's value at "free" compared to a Marvel film or a live-action remake, which were perceivably more valuable.

Disney opted to do this with two more films: 2021's "Luca" and this year's "Turning Red." In the case of "Turning Red," theaters were open and doing quite well (relatively speaking) so that decision seemed a bit off the mark, given Pixar's history of turning original films into gigantic hits. Then again, the pandemic changed everything and Disney+ is now a much bigger part of the equation for Disney. Still, three originals from Pixar in a row were dumped to streaming at no additional cost when "Coco" earned $800 million in 2017 (as one of only three original films to crack the top 20 that year) and "Onward" had been poised to become a big hit were its theatrical run not kneecapped.

Does Pixar make a lot of money with its sequels? You bet. But the studio's releases have earned more than $14.7 billion since "Toy Story" debuted in 1995 and much of that has come from originals. Yet, Disney let two years worth of Pixar originals go straight to streaming and kind of set a new expectation for consumers. That is key to understand, as it's entirely possible that impacted the box office for "Lightyear" as well. Disney felt streaming made sense for very expensive, original animated films while the box office was recovering. But times have changed and, even though "Lightyear" didn't do what they hoped it would do, it was the biggest debut for an animated film since the pandemic began. One has to imagine if the next "Inside Out" comes around, things could stand to improve even further. The important takeaway here is that the pandemic turned Pixar into a streaming play and "Lightyear" was testing the theatrical waters once again. Those waters were a bit tepid. Now what?

Pixar's future: Theatrical or streaming

There are two obvious paths that Pixar can be pushed down by Disney in the immediate future: continue to push Pixar increasingly towards streaming or double down and pour resources into keeping the studio theatrical-first. Streaming, on the surface, seems far more likely as Disney+ saw big numbers from "Soul," "Luca," and "Turning Red." Disney+ has already had some luck with Pixar content made with the service in mind, as the "Monsters Inc." sequel series "Monsters at Work" has been picked up for a second season. This may well encourage the studio to look at Pixar increasingly as a content funnel for streaming.

But streaming subscribers alone can't make up for what is being lost at the box office. As we've seen with movies like "The Batman," films that make a lot of money in theaters tend to do even better on streaming. "Encanto," for example, exploded on Disney+ after it had a 30-day exclusive theatrical run. And let us not forget that Pixar films are incredibly expensive to make, with "Lightyear" costing a reported $200 million — before marketing. "Turning Red" was similarly expensive at $175 million. That's a whole lot of subscriber dollars to account for.

In the current marketplace, franchise films and horror are still seemingly the only surefire things, but the tide is turning. "Everything Everywhere All At Once" became a true word-of-mouth hit and we're seeing that more movies on a given weekend can make money at the same time. It doesn't have to be just one film like it was in 2021 when the recovery was still ongoing. Pixar, as a brand, is almost like a franchise unto itself as that legacy of quality can turn a movie like "Inside Out" into an $852 million, Oscar-winning hit. Is Disney really prepared to take the next "Ratatouille" ($626.5 million) or "Up" ($735 million) off the table?

Some frustrating combination of the two

The reality is that Disney doesn't have to fully commit one way or the other. Some sort of in-between solution utilizing both theatrical and streaming to determine the future of Pixar is likely. The problem is, that solution may prove to be unsatisfying in some ways. We've already seen this as the brass at the studio felt "Turning Red," a very expensive movie that was met with rave reviews, did not deserve a theatrical release while a franchise film such as "Lightyear" did. Am I saying that "Turning Red" would have definitely been a hit? No, but I am suggesting that Pixar's good name definitely gets you somewhere with moviegoers and it certainly could have been a hit and then been a hit on Disney+ as well.

Disney's thinking may well be that franchise films such as sequels to pre-existing works will go to theaters whereas originals will go to streaming. Then again, can they continue to justify $175 million movies without box office returns? Will this affect what Pixar films get the green light in the near future? Probably, yeah. One can hope that Disney looks past this one disappointment and sees the value in Pixar in the long run. The box office is recovering and original ideas can thrive theatrically, especially when attached to this studio's good name. But is Disney willing to take that risk anymore? The answers to these questions are important and currently hang in the balance.

For what it's worth, Pixar's next up at bat is director Peter Sohn's "Elemental," which is due to hit theaters on June 16, 2023. That original film may have more to say about the studio's future than even "Lightyear" did — assuming that theatrical release sticks between now and then.