LOS ANGELES — The ability of video games to entrance people for hours on end have made them the stars of Sony’s balance sheet. Now, the company’s embattled film studio is hoping a movie based on a mobile game can change the score at the box office.
Rovio Entertainment’s “Angry Birds” was released in 2009 and has since been downloaded more than 3 billion times, but seven years is a long time in the world of pop culture. Sony Pictures Entertainment hopes there’s still enough magic in the video game to make it the foundation of a true and much-needed children’s film franchise for a studio still reeling from a high-profile computer hacking incident and some tepid recent movies. But Sony’s been on a hot streak with its console gaming business, and it may be a game-based film that has enough worldwide appeal to reset its box office performance.
Opening this weekend, “The Angry Birds Movie” is coming out at a time when competition for younger viewers at the multiplex is only getting fiercer. Disney has romped to collect almost one-third of the entire domestic box office take for this year to date, led by blockbusters such as “Zootopia” and “The Jungle Book.” And NBCUniversal’s recent scooping up of DreamWorks Animation has consolidated some of the competition, adding the latter’s “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda” franchises to Universal’s “Despicable Me.”
Topping the studio leaderboard as recently as 2012, Sony needs a hit in the worst way: Through May 15, Sony ranked seventh out of all studios with 4.7 percent market share — despite releasing the second-highest number of movies out of all the majors and mini-majors.
Sony rolled out a monster marketing campaign for “The Angry Birds Movie” that cost $400 million, the Los Angeles Times reported. It is the most ever spent to promote a Sony animated film, and double the take of a standard big-budget flick. The studio partnered with everyone from frozen yogurt chains to home improvement stores, a testament to the ubiquity of “Angry Birds” across demographics in its prime. A big reason for the full-court press: that prime was almost five years ago. But a Rovio representative told the Times that the company views “Angry Birds” as a true tentpole franchise worthy of multiple sequels, so it’s going all in.
So far, it appears to be working. Despite the online critic database Rotten Tomatoes reporting a middling 45 percent score — which isn’t bad for a video game-inspired film, but “Kung Fu Panda 3,” “The Jungle Book” and “Zootopia” all scored at least 86 — “The Angry Birds Movie” is off to a good start. It has already cleared $43 million internationally despite not yet opening in the U.S. or China, the world’s two largest cinema markets.
China has been a particularly strong market for animated Hollywood fare recently, and its film calendar could work nicely for “The Angry Birds Movie,” as it is going through a slow period with little competition ahead of the production’s release there this weekend. China is also the home of the first “Angry Birds” theme park attraction, which opened in 2011, and mobile phone applications have as much cross-cultural penetration as anything else nowadays.
Sony is hoping it can all add up to deliver the true international blockbuster that has eluded the Culver City, California, studio lately. Last September’s “Hotel Transylvania 2” earned more than $470 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, but that and the latest James Bond flick, “Spectre,” were the only 2015 Sony films that made in excess of $250 million worldwide, a hurdle cleared by 29 movies in all. And Sony’s biggest production to this point in 2016, “Risen,” has grossed a little more than $45 million worldwide, putting it in 18th place. That trails the top performers of all the other major studios and even comparatively minor ones such as Lionsgate and Focus Features.
In fact, since leading Hollywood with 16 percent market share in 2012, driven by the releases of “Skyfall” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Sony hasn’t placed in the top three. And, of course, it was hit by a major hack that cost the company $15 million directly and plenty more in missed opportunities. The Seth Rogen North Korea-mocking film “The Interview” — which the hackers demanded to be pulled from theaters — was effectively neutered and wound up reeling in a measly $11 million worldwide.
Even if “The Angry Birds Movie” takes wing, box office gold only goes so far: With all the majors being part of much larger organizations, ups and downs in the film divisions can be muted by other concerns. Disney’s stock is down more than 6 percent this year, despite its movie studio recording its best-ever performance. And Sony, which doesn’t have a substantial cable TV business, is a diversified electronics conglomerate that makes about twice as much profit on camera equipment as it does on films and TV shows.
However, if “Angry Birds” catches lightning in a bottle again at the multiplex, it could help Sony’s studio become a much more relevant player in the sizzling animated sector, and maybe a more attractive acquisition target at a time that seems ripe for deals. Placing a winning bet on a video game movie, historically a terrible genre, would also provide a nice boost in confidence, not just money, for a studio that’s gone through some tough things at work lately. Executives there could no doubt use a little joy. Which, of course, is why billions of adults played “Angry Birds” in the first place.