Entertainment Weekly compared “The Emoji Movie” to “staring into an existential abyss.” Time Out called it a movie that “only wants to dumb us down.” RogerEbert.com called it “a demonstration of artistic abdication at its most venal.”
And yet Sony Animation’s $50 million film came away with a solid opening this weekend, making an estimated $25.6 million and finishing second behind “Dunkirk.” The final numbers may be a little less, as Saturday’s total of $8.7 million was slightly below the $9.1 million for Friday (not including $900,000 in Thursday previews.) But Sony will see their film finish above their goal of a $20 million opening, concluding what has been quite a successful July for the studio.
Sony won the rights to the animated movie after a competitive bidding war against Paramount and Warner Bros. in 2015 and brought in several recognizable stars to play the various characters in the film, most notably Patrick Stewart as a poop emoji. But the film was panned hard by critics, who gave it the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of the summer with just 8 percent. So why was “The Emoji Movie” able to overcome the Tomatometer? Three reasons:
1.) Kids don’t pay attention to critics
Audience polls for CinemaScore tend to give animated movies an A or an A-, which makes a B for the genre a pretty bad sign that the movie isn’t being received well. Movies that have received such a score include “Mars Needs Moms” and “The Nut Job.” “The Emoji Movie” got placed into such dubious company thanks to poor grades from adult audiences, but the film’s core demographic, the underage crowd, gave the film an A-. With that seal of kid approval, “The Emoji Movie” was able to largely reduce the negative impact bad Tomatometer scores have had on other summer films like “Baywatch” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” and remain a solid summer break activity for kids.
2.) Strong, targeted marketing
“The Emoji Movie” has had good standing with kids because of Sony’s concentrated effort to reach out to them. As with other films like “Baby Driver,” a good amount of the film’s marketing went to digital outlets, which are cheaper and can reach younger audiences more easily. While it did lead to some backlash from adults for putting an emoji spin on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” other promotions — like a custom playlist on Spotify and social media promotion through the music streaming app’s channels — were more successful with teens. TV promotion was also a major factor, with spots featured on kids channels like Nickelodeon and Disney XD.
But the biggest thing the film had going for it was its cast, which provided heavy social media promotion to a largely underage film base. Cast members who promoted the film include Christina Aguilera and Jake T. Austin, who starred on the Disney Channel show “Wizards of Waverly Place.”
3.) Strategic release date
While older audiences have been able to enjoy “War for the Planet of the Apes” and “Dunkirk” the past couple of weeks, the last major family film before “The Emoji Movie” was “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” closely preceded by “Despicable Me 3.” By placing “Emoji Movie” three weeks after “Homecoming” on the last weekend in July, Sony was able to capitalize on renewing interest among family audiences looking for a new movie to see, while leaving August open for potential holdover numbers from kids looking to see one more new movie in theaters before going back to school.
Of course, there is still the possibility that the poor reception could eventually take its toll on “The Emoji Movie” in coming weeks, if the Friday-to-Saturday numbers drop was any indication. Next weekend will be an interesting one for this film, as it will try to turn a profit with a solid box office retention rate combined with the first stage of its international release rollout. The film opens in Britain and Mexico this coming week.