With The Batman scoring the second-highest opening weekend of the pandemic, it feels like the theatrical experience has finally come to life in 2022 after the omicron variant caused low returns and led several movies to shuffle their release dates at the beginning of the year. (Please, Sony Pictures, stop giving us Morbius blue balls.) Given that resounding success, two major film releases seemed set to double down on the industry’s box office rebound this coming weekend: Turning Red, the latest animated feature from Pixar, and The Adam Project, a sci-fi blockbuster that reunites Ryan Reynolds with Free Guy director Shawn Levy. There’s just one problem: Neither of these movies is coming out in theaters across the country.
As Disney announced in January amid the omicron surge, Turning Red, which follows a 13-year-old girl who discovers that she morphs into a giant red panda when she gets emotional, would bypass a traditional release and instead debut on Disney+. (For international markets in which the company’s streaming service isn’t available, the film will be released theatrically at a later date.) Turning Red is now the third consecutive Pixar production to go the straight-to-streaming route, following Luca and Soul. The Adam Project, meanwhile, was eyed by Tom Cruise and Paramount Pictures all the way back in 2012 before the project became mired in development hell and was ultimately acquired by Netflix in 2020. As Netflix is wont to do, The Adam Project has a limited theatrical release that coincides with its debut on streaming—where the vast majority of people will catch the movie.
But while Turning Red and The Adam Project took very different paths to land on their respective streamers, their fates—coming off an excellent opening weekend for yet another Batman adaptation—speak to larger shifts within the industry, and what kind of films are even afforded a chance at box office success. The pandemic has pushed major studios to favor IP-driven projects more and more, but as a result, there are fewer avenues than ever before to crafting and sharing original stories on the biggest possible screen, while audiences are left to settle for an increasingly myopic landscape.
Netflix’s handling of The Adam Project, a time-traveling caper in which a pilot from the future has to team up with his younger self to save the world, is hardly surprising. With the notable exception of buzzy Oscar hopefuls like The Irishman and Mank, the company doesn’t put much stock in theatrical engagements. (And even in those rare cases, the theatrical rollouts are brief and limited to major markets.) But the fact that The Adam Project—an original blockbuster-esque production starring Reynolds, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldaña, and Jennifer Garner—landed on Netflix to begin with is indicative of how major studios have continued to prioritize existing franchises. “I’m grateful that Netflix has a commitment to making movies like this, original stories based on nothing more than an idea,” Reynolds told The Hollywood Reporter in February.
The Adam Project isn’t just a movie big on spectacle and led by a proven star, though—it’s also directed by the guy responsible for the only non-IP film to land on the list of the 10 highest-grossing movies of 2021 domestically. But as Levy himself admitted in an October interview with Insider, Free Guy, which was a holdover from 20th Century Fox prior to its acquisition by Disney, is part of a dying breed among major studios. These days, filmmakers are hard-pressed to find a studio willing to foot an eight- or nine-figure bill for a movie that isn’t based on pre-established IP. This isn’t a new trend by any means, but The Adam Project is another notable example of a movie that likely would’ve found itself in theaters even a decade ago—with Tom Cruise possibly starring in it, no less—that’s had to settle for a home on streaming instead. In 2022, it feels like the only original tentpoles that have a chance to hit multiplexes are directed by Christopher Nolan.
The situation with Turning Red is a bit more puzzling, as Disney has taken various approaches with its animated films since the pandemic. Last year, the aforementioned Luca went to Disney+ at no extra charge, while Encanto was given a traditional theatrical release and Raya and the Last Dragon was simultaneously released in theaters and made available on the streamer for an additional $30. (In 2020, Pixar’s Soul went to Disney+ at no extra charge, while Onward arrived on the cusp of the pandemic hitting the United States, which helps explain its underwhelming box office cume.) There’s nothing wrong with Disney experimenting with multiple release models during a pandemic, but it’s telling that three straight Pixar movies haven’t even been afforded the opportunity to make a dent at the box office. As a Pixar insider told The Hollywood Reporter in January: those within the studio are “bummed” about Turning Red heading to Disney+, even though they understand that families aren’t returning to theaters in droves.
Indeed, the animated movies that have hit theaters aren’t making anywhere near pre-pandemic money: In 2021, no animated film crossed the $100 million threshold domestically. Encanto got the closest by making just north of $90 million, but it wasn’t until the movie became available on Disney+ that it turned into a cultural phenomenon, highlighted by its catchy soundtrack reaching no. 1 on the Billboard music charts. Superhero franchises might be able to count on audiences coming to theaters regardless of COVID case numbers, but families—and especially those with children who aren’t able to be vaccinated—can simply wait to stream family-oriented films at their convenience.
These changes in moviegoing habits still don’t explain why Disney has made its recent Pixar releases available on Disney+ for free, a practice it has avoided with films from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Industry analysts have speculated about a variety of reasons for the practice, including everything from the studio’s titles leading to a strong retention rate for Disney+ subscribers to not wanting poor box office performances to dilute the prestigious Pixar brand. (As is the case with Netflix and other streaming services, Disney+ is selective about divulging viewership data, so it’s hard to know just how well titles are performing when all the company offers is press statements with vague platitudes about Pixar movies being “enthusiastically embraced.”) Perhaps the biggest test for the relationship between Disney and Pixar will arrive in June, when the studio is set to drop Lightyear, the Toy Story spinoff that is, to quote Chris Evans’s Twitter account, “the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on.” (Sure, that’s not confusing at all.) All signs point to Lightyear sticking with a theatrical release, though in an uncertain age of disruptive COVID variants, nothing is set in stone. However, considering Lightyear is a spinoff to Pixar’s most successful franchise, there’s plenty of incentive for Disney to reap the box office rewards this summer—even if they fail to reach pre-pandemic highs.
Of course, that Lightyear would be the first Pixar movie in theaters in over two years underlines a broader shift among major studios in which IP remains king and original conceits like Turning Red and The Adam Project are increasingly boxed out. The pandemic hasn’t just heightened concerns about the future of moviegoing, but the future of movie-making. As things stand, the theatrical landscape is great news for the Batmans and Spider-Mans of the world—and bad news for everyone else.