Why Lightyear Bombed At The Box Office, And What We Can Learn From It

2022 has been an infinitely better year at the box office for Hollywood when compared to 2021 — and especially 2020. Overall, things are pacing well-ahead of last year and the recovery for the industry after the pandemic is incredibly promising. But the year hasn't been without its misfires, and amongst the biggest of those misfires up to this point is "Lightyear." That's not to say that Disney never misses, but before the pandemic hit, they were the unquestioned champions of the box office. And Pixar is, or perhaps was, one of the most reliable cinematic brands under Disney's massive umbrella. However, the "Toy Story" spin-off was a rare stumble for the legendary animation studio and could usher in some consequences in the years to come.

So, what exactly went wrong? How is it that the first Pixar movie to hit theaters in more than two years fell short of expectations? Why did a seemingly sure thing miss the mark? We're going to break it down.

The early numbers

"Lightyear" still has a way to go at the box office, but, as of this writing, it has earned $155 million worldwide against a reported $200 million budget. The big problem is that it has to contend with competition in the form of "Minions: The Rise of Gru," which is going to cut into its legs at the domestic box office. "Lightyear" opened with a soft $50.5 million, losing out to "Jurassic World Dominion," which was in its second weekend of release. This is on the very low end for a Pixar film and, even though it marked the biggest opening weekend for an animated film since the pandemic began, it's all relative in the movie business. The steep decline in its second weekend signaled things were going to go from bad to worse.

That $200 million budget doesn't account for marketing, meaning that the film probably cost well over $300 million all told. And, given that studios only see roughly half of the money earned at the box office after theaters take their cut, Disney isn't going to get anywhere near profit during the theatrical run of this movie. No two ways about it: this is not what Disney had in mind when they opted to get creative with the "Toy Story" franchise and gave the green light to this spin-off. 

So what happened? Angus MacLane, the same filmmaker who helped to make "Finding Dory" a $1 billion hit, was in the director's chair, with Chris Evans on board as the voice of Buzz Lightyear. Those pieces didn't add up to a hit this time. But why, exactly?

A movie not enough people asked for

It's easy to see how Disney would be won over by the idea of a "Toy Story" spin-off centered on Buzz Lightyear, especially with the guy who played Captain America taking on the lead role. That allowed the filmmakers to craft a sci-fi adventure tale with some familiar imagery to anchor it. That seems like a hit on paper. However, in practice, it seems this is simply a movie that not enough people in the marketplace were clamoring for. At least not enough to get them to actually leave the house, pack up the family in the car, and head to a movie theater to go see it.

There was also an issue with the marketing, as social media was awash with jokes about the somewhat convoluted premise. Producer Galyn Susman even had to address this confusion just as the movie was making its way to theaters:

"People were having a hard enough time wrapping their heads around this. So really we needed the toy in the 'Toy Story' universe to be its own thing. Tim Allen is Buzz Lightyear the toy. Chris Evans is Buzz Lightyear, the superhero from that movie that inspired the toy."

Ultimately, this was meant to be the movie that Andy from "Toy Story" watched that inspired the toy Buzz Lightyear. To what degree the marketing is responsible for the film's failure is difficult to measure precisely, but the big thing is that Disney may have overestimated the reach this film could have, even if it probably felt like as close to a sure thing as the movie business is capable of affording a studio.

No Tim Allen and other controversies

As was addressed in Susman's comments, one thing that fans of the franchise seemed to be missing was actor Tim Allen, who is deeply associated with the character of Buzz Lightyear. Granted, the filmmakers have made it clear that Allen is the toy and Chris Evans is the character in the in-universe film. Still, the absence of the voice that anchored four "Toy Story" films was felt. It even generated controversy as actress Patricia Heaton said on Twitter, "Disney/Pixar made a HUGE mistake in not casting my pal Tim Allen. Tim Allen in the role that he originated, the role that he owns. Tim IS Buzz! Why would they completely castrate this iconic, beloved character?"

Reactions like this stirred the pot quite a bit. Beyond that, there was the matter of the same-sex kiss that was included in the film. Though a very brief moment, it caused a stir online with those who are against LGBTQIA+ representation in family-friendly films. Plus, Disney's decision to not censor the kiss in certain countries resulted in it being banned in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and other territories. The lack of ticket sales in those countries does add up.

While it may not be a number large enough to account for the lackluster box office overall, there is the matter of moviegoers who were upset by either Allen's absence or the kiss. Those who decided not to see "Lightyear" for these reasons may well have been a contributing factor, but certainly not the biggest factor.

Devaluing the Pixar brand

During the pandemic, Disney had to make some very tough choices when theater closures delayed the release of major films. One key decision was releasing both "Soul" and "Luca" directly to Disney+ at no additional cost, much like they did with "Onward," which had its theatrical run cut very short by the pandemic in the early days. In contrast, movies like "Black Widow" and "Mulan" were released via Disney+ Premier Access, meaning subscribers had to pay an additional $30 to watch them upon release. This, in turn, may have changed the way viewers valued Pixar as a brand, as its price was effectively set at "free." Meanwhile, Marvel films were still valuable enough to require an extra charge.

This perception was furthered when "Turning Red," a $175 million-budgeted Pixar original, was also released directly to Disney+ at no additional cost to subscribers earlier in 2022. This was done at a time when theaters were seeing solid business, again sending a signal to viewers that Pixar is something that can now be seen for free at home. In turn, "Lightyear" and other future Pixar films may have been damaged by this altered perception. Consumer habits are easy to change and two years worth of Pixar going directly to Disney+ may well have been enough to do exactly that.

The lessons contained within

Disney has some difficult decisions to make in the wake of "Lightyear" underperforming at the box office. Those decisions may not be made right away, but the future of Pixar may well hinge on how the studio responds to this setback. In the meantime, there are a couple of big lessons that can be extracted from the somewhat surprising failure this film has endured.

First and foremost, Hollywood remains very franchise-obsessed. Franchise films are as close to a guarantee as any studio can get in the ever-changing, streaming-dominated marketplace. That said, just because something is connected to a franchise doesn't mean that people automatically want to see it. Sony had to learn that the hard way with "Morbius." It can certainly be a leg-up on the path to success, but it's no guarantee. Perhaps a "Toy Story" spin-off of some kind could have been successful, but this wasn't the winning formula.

Beyond that, Pixar was one of the most reliable brands in all of cinema: A string of hits spanning nearly three decades and close to $15 billion at the global box office. And it all started with "Toy Story." Not only that, but this was a brand that was capable of churning out original hits regularly as well as sequels. The fact that Disney so quickly opted to turn these expensive, potential box office hits into streaming plays now feels like a major error. Yes, Disney+ and streaming is a big part of the company's future, but Pixar may have been devalued as a result of these choices, and that just might prove to be a costly decision in the long run.