For Disney’s Summer Blockbusters, Success Is Far from Guaranteed

Disney, we know, has problems. There’s streaming, the contentious relationship with 2024 Republican presidential candidate/Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the fates of Hulu and Searchlight, layoffs — but as the dominant film distributor for the last decade, its film slate is known as a reliable source of strength. In 2023, that’s no longer a sure thing.

In the summer of 2019, Disney films represented 43 percent of the season’s $4.3 billion domestic take. Some box-office analysts have suggested that it’s possible that we could see a $4 billion summer — up $600 million from a resurgent 2022. However, May’s shortfalls make this is unlikely — and much of that falls to Disney.

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“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” opened May 5; the live-action remake of “Mermaid” opened in previews today. Upcoming are “The Boogeyman” (June 9), “Elemental” (June 16), “Indiana Jones and Dial of Destiny” (June 30), and “Haunted Mansion” (July 28). It’s a slate as mainstream as a studio can muster.

Sophie Thatcher as Sadie Harper in 20th Century Studios' THE BOOGEYMAN. Photo by Patti Perret. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“The Boogeyman”Patti Perret

All but the Fox-produced “Boogeyman” (around $40 million) cost well over $100 million, perhaps as much as $300 million. All told, the six films almost certainly cost over $1 billion to produce, then hundreds of millions more to market.

The studio is coming off the highly profitable “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which grossed over $2 billion worldwide before home platforms. It also had “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” with an estimated pre-marketing budget of $200 million. With a $476 million worldwide box office total, it will make a small profit at best.

Disney doesn’t make these films to show a small profit. It makes them to score big in theaters, score big on VOD, and then score more subscribers on its streamers. This summer, the Disney slate is full of expensive risks.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (May)

The key summer Marvel title recovered from a low opening of $118 million and is on track for $325 million domestic. Still, with a $250 million budget, that’s disappointing. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” from the same time last year brought in $411 million, and with a B+ Cinemascore compared to the A for “Guardians.”

“The Little Mermaid”

Estimates diverge on how this might open with ranges from $80 million-$130 million for the three-day weekend (Monday’s holiday will add more.) With an estimated budget of $200 million (based on past live-action remakes of animated classics),

As a potential point of comparison, the 1989 animated “Little Mermaid” saw about a third of the attendance of the 1994 animated “The Lion King.” The 2019 live-action “Lion King” grossed over $600 million (adjusted).

The 2023 live-action “Mermaid” found mixed reviews, as did the live-action “Lion King.” A potential factor in its reception is celebrating a diverse cast at a time of right-wing hysteria about a supposed “woke” Disney.

“The Boogeyman”

This Stephen King adaptation cost about $40 million — low budget, by Disney standards. One of the few options for a summer sleeper, any success might nudge Disney away from all-franchise nearly all the time.

FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT -- In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” fiery young woman Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) lives with her immigrant parents in Firetown—a borough of Element City, where fire-, water-, land- and air-residents live together. Directed by Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Party Cloudy” short) and produced by Denise Ream (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2”), Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is over $550 million; “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is expected to see huge results. As for Pixar’s latest original animated film — file it under To Be Determined.

Just before COVID, Disney Animation’s “Frozen II” grossed $477 million and its in-house animated titles have struggled ever since. Those released theatrically (two with 30-day windows) failed to reach $100 million in domestic grosses. Last year, only the disappointing “Lightyear” saw a significant theatrical window.

Based on Pixar precedent, the cost here might approach $200 million. What helps justify the cost is the same thing that could hurt its grosses: During the pandemic, Disney exploited many of its films (including Pixar releases) for exclusive, same-day, or early-window Disney+ play. If this falls short, that expectation might be part of the reason.

“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”

Certainly Disney hoped that the Cannes magic dust that fell upon “Top Gun: Maverick” and Tom Cruise last year would happen for this film and Harrison Ford. Attention achieved, as well as a decidedly tepid response and an emphasis on its iconic star being 80.

With $300 million as the reported budget, Disney could gross $200 million domestic, $450 million worldwide, and struggle to turn a profit. Ford’s last film in a lead role to exceed $100 million was “The Force Awakens” in 2015; before that it was “Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” in 2008. It also won’t benefit from the immediate release that boosted “Maverick.”

HAUNTED MANSION, from left: Tiffany Haddish, Rosario Dawson, LaKeith Stanfield, Danny DeVito, 2023. ph: Jalen Marlowe / © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
Tiffany Haddish, Rosario Dawson, LaKeith Stanfield, and Danny DeVito in “Haunted Mansion”©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

“Haunted Mansion”

Kudos to Disney for assigning top films to directors with creative credibility. Case in point: Sundance discovery Justin Simien (“Dear White People”) directed the latest theme ride adaptation, “Haunted Mansion,” joining the franchise canon of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the 2021 “Jungle Cruise.”

The last starred Dwayne Johnson, which opened in theaters with same-day Disney+ and PVOD availability. Even so, it grossed $120 million domestic.

“Mansion” might provide late-summer comic relief with a cast that includes Tiffany Haddish, Jared Leto, LaKeith Stanfield, Jamie Lee Curtis, Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Danny DeVito, and Winona Ryder.

It speaks to the nature of current franchise mindset that this sounds like the most original and fun title in the bunch.

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