How 'Space Jam 2' Pulled Off a Box Office Surprise

With an NBA champion and endless pop culture references and cameos, "Space Jam: A New Legacy" had more to offer than other post-pandemic family films

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Warner Bros.' "Space Jam: A New Legacy" was not expected to do much better than the modest numbers seen from other family films at this summer's box office. Instead, it set a new high for the genre with a $31.6 million opening. The difference? Millennial nostalgia.

So far, the animated sequels that have hit theaters haven't found crossover appeal beyond parents and kids. "Peter Rabbit 2" opened to $10 million last month and has so far grossed $39 million domestically after five weekends. "The Boss Baby: Family Business" has shown better numbers with a $16 million opening and a $44 million total after three weekends, but audience demographics for both films showed only mild turnout from general audiences.

But in CinemaScore audience polls for "Space Jam 2," 72% of the audience was under the age of 35, but only 32% was under the age of 18. That means that a significant chunk of the audience was older Gen Zers in the 18-24 range and millennials who were kids when the original "Space Jam" was released in 1996.

While critics who panned "Space Jam" asked, "Who is this movie for?" the answer seems to be both kids and younger adults. The same formula from the original "Space Jam" is here: combine the slapstick of Looney Tunes with the popularity of the NBA's biggest star, LeBron James, and other basketball stars like Anthony Davis and Diana Taurasi along for the ride. That alone has more crossover appeal than other recent family releases that focus simply on the core demographic.

Added to that is a story that pulls from Warner Bros.' extensive catalog of animated characters, drawing on the appeal of fourth-wall breaking, crossover-loving metanarratives that have become the basis of films like "Ralph Breaks the Internet" and "Ready Player One." Jeff Goldstein, head of domestic distribution at Warner Bros., compared the appeal of "Space Jam 2" to the success the studio has enjoyed with the "Lego Movie" franchise, which has also become known for being a place where audiences can see Batman duke it out with Voldemort and other mashups.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • jeremy.fuster@thewrap.com • Twitter: @jeremyfuster