That this coming Tuesday has been declared National Squirrel Appreciation Day by the National Wildlife Federation is one sign that the marketing team at Open Road Films left no acorn uncracked in promoting its new 3D animated kids movie “The Nut Job.”
Its $25.2 million first weekend at the box office is another.
“The Nut Job” finished third, behind two Universal movies, “Ride Along,” which set a new record for the Martin Luther King holiday weekend with $48 million four-day haul, and “Lone Survivor,” which posted a $26.3 million second week. “The Nut Job” also knocked “Frozen” out of the No. 1 family film spot it had held for nearly two months.
To be clear, the Disney Animation hit didn’t melt down — it still took in $16 million in its eighth week — and has been a box-office avalanche with more than $760 million in global grosses.
The big debut by the “The Nut Job” is the best ever for Open Road, and it looks like the computer-animated tale directed by Peter Lepeniotis could become the highest-grossing film ever for the not-quite-three-year-old company, whose current best is 2012’s “The Grey” at $51 million.
Will Arnett voices the squirrel Surly in the film, which also features the voices of Brendan Fraser, Gabriel Iglesias, Liam Neeson and Katherine Heigl. Lorne Cameron co-wrote with Lepeniotis. The film was made for a modest $30 million after Canadian tax rebates by Toonbox Entertainment, Red River International and Gulfstream Pictures, and produced by Graham Molloy and W.K. Jung.
As Open Road’s first animated family release, “The Nut Job” represented uncharted territory for the marketing team. So how did they pull off an opening way about $10 million above the pre-release tracking and the expectations of analysts?
“We basically took our cue from the movie,” Open Road marketing chief Jason Cassidy told TheWrap, “and really embraced the fun and playful creatures that the filmmakers created. It certainly helped that the animation itself looked great, to which audiences have clearly responded.”
Besides the educational Squirrel Day tie-in with the Wildlife Federation, the promo plays included Amtrak, Joy Ice Cream Cones and – surprise! — Hines Nuts and Peanut Butter & Co. TV spots on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney XD for the kids; and “Today,” “Good Morning America,” Bravo, USA and the daytime talk shows for moms.
Throughout, the focus was on the humor. A costumed version of Surly was dispatched to family events, parades and malls across the nation. The singer Psy has a cameo and wraps the film with a “Gangnam Style” finale that has left audiences dancing.
Cassidy credited distribution chief Elliot Slutzky for setting the strong trailer to play with kids’ films “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2” in September, then “Free Birds” in November and finally, Disney’s “Frozen” at Thanksgiving.
“That was huge to create awareness with a captive and interested crowd,” he said. It also didn’t hurt that “Frozen” has been in theaters for so long, and that the only other family film to open recently was ‘Walking With Dinosaurs.” That didn’t generate much interest, so the minivan crowd was ready for something different.
The “Nut Job” audiences were nearly evenly split gender-wise for kids with 51 percent boys. Moms were the majority of parents at 65 percent. They gave it a just-OK “B” CinemaScore, but it will have two weeks of play before “The Lego Movie,” which looks very strong, lands on Feb. 7.
The big weekend for “Nut Job” came at a good time for Open Road, which had seen recent releases struggle, including the Justin Bieber concert film “Believe,” the action thriller “Homefront” and the campy grinder “Machete Kills.”
Open Road’s chief executive Tom Ortenberg, in Park City, Utah, for Sundance, said the opening demonstrated his company’s versatility.
“If we have a good movie – whether it’s a film like “The Grey,” or “End of Watch,” a comedy like “Haunted House” or a family movie like “The Nut Job” – we will make it work.”