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How Universal Built ‘The Lorax’ Into a Box-Office Blockbuster

Muscular and finely tuned marketing, perfect timing and an appealing movie enabled Universal to score a $70.2M box-office shocker with ‘The Lorax’

Universal was able to pull off its $70.2 million box-office shocker with "The Lorax" thanks to muscular and early marketing, a release timed to take advantage of a dearth of family films and a pretty good movie.

"They have a trifecta with 'The Lorax,' " an industry marketing consultant told TheWrap Monday. "They have a perfect date, they have a great campaign and they have a movie that people like."

Also read: 'The Lorax' Stuns the Box Office with $70.7M

The consultant pointed out that there hasn't been an animated family film since Paramount's "The Adventures of Tintin," which opened to $9.7 million on Dec. 21, 2011 and grossed only $77 million domestically. Sony's "Arthur Christmas" opened to $12 million on Nov. 23, and Warner's "Happy Feet Two" opened to $21.2 million on Nov. 18.

"There is clearly an appetite for family movies right now because there hasn't been one that has popped — I mean really popped — in quite some time," Greg Foster, chairman and president, filmed entertainment at the IMAX Corp., told TheWrap Monday. "So the timing was ideal."

"The Lorax" brought in $5.4 million on 269 IMAX screens.

Also read: 'The Lorax' Finally Gets Dr. Seuss Right

"Their marketing was brilliant," Foster said. "Dr. Seuss movies have not necessarily been the most successful at translating into a really wide break, into four-quadrant success, and they managed to do that, and they did it really, really well."

Universal started promoting the movie back in October and racked up 70 promotional partners. The broad-based lineup included Whole Foods IHOP, HP and Mazda as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nature Conservancy and the National Education Association.

"Their cause advocacy was perfect," a rival studio publicity executive said Monday.

And the marketing campaign, which featured bright orange and yellow billboards, worked well.

"It looks like spring," the marketing consultant said. "It looks bright and sunny and warm, which is always good when it's cold outside. And people felt noble because you hear the movie is about something. It has a message, but they didn't make it a message movie. They kept it entertaining."

And Universal was able advertise the movie as being "from the producer of 'Despicable Me.'"

Universal's parent company, Comcast, delivered significant cross-promotion on NBC. Danny De Vito, who starred as the voice of the Lorax, appeared — complete with bright yellow mustache — on the Today show, and the movie made special ads to run during NBC's hit show "The Voice."

On top of that, people enjoyed it. The audience survey company Cinemascore assigned the movie an "A" rating.

Just prior to its release, Universal execs were projecting an opening of around $40 million for "the Lorax." By Saturday, they knew they had a hit on their hands and adjusted their projection up to $60 million.

Now they're expecting the movie to continue its strong run at the box office.

While plenty of big movies are coming out during the next few weeks, "The Lorax" is the only major family film until Sony releases "The Pirates: Band of Misfits" on April 27.

"There's nothing coming behind us," Nikki Rocco, Universal's chief of distribution, told TheWrap Monday.

By the time the theatrical run is over, the movie could easily gross $220 million domestically. Considering the movie was made for less than $70 million, that's an especially impressive number.

With the film's success, Universal has shown that animated films can be made for a relatively modest price.

The last DreamWorks Animation film, "Puss in Boots," cost $130 million to make. It has grossed just short of $150 million domestically and $532.8 million worldwide. And it opened to significantly less than "The Lorax" — $34,077,439 on the weekend of Oct. 28, 2011.

As it turns out, "The Lorax" grossed slightly less than the studio's Sunday estimates — $70.2 million instead of $70.7 million. That means "The Incredibles" retains the record for biggest opening of a non-sequel animated family film. The 2004 movie opened to $70.5 million and ultimately grossed $261.4 million at the domestic box office and $370 million overseas.