Pixar’s newest offering, Lightyear, debuted with a thud on its opening weekend. Early projections from Deadline had the projected box office at $135 million. Other outlets had early projections around the $100 million mark. Those estimates were then trimmed down to $90 million. Then a day or so before the debut of Lightyear, projections were cut down again to $70 million.
After the conclusion of the opening weekend, Lightyear crashed and burned to an opening weekend box office of just $51 million. This was an incredibly disappointing box office debut for Disney who has been banking on Lightyear to return Pixar to its traditional position as a box office beast.
To make things worse, Lightyear was an expensive movie for Disney. The budget was $200 million. Add to that another $100 million for advertising and marketing. This means that means Disney needs to earn $300 million just to break even. In general, the domestic box office money is split 50/50 between the theater owners and the studios. However, the international box office operates at varying different percentages. In the United Kingdom, the studios receive 30% of the box office money. In Russia, the studios receive around 39% of the box office money. In China, the studios receive just 25% of the box office money.
Let’s assume estimates most favorable to Disney and simply use the 50/50 split for their entire worldwide box office. Even under that generous estimate, Disney needs Lightyear to earn $600 million worldwide. Currently, Lightyear is sitting at a paltry $91 million worldwide box office. Given the traditional declines that movies experience week-to-week after their opening weekend, it is looking like Disney is going to lose money on Lightyear at the box office.
To put it in historical perspective, Cars 3, generally viewed to be one of the worst Pixar movies, pulled in $53 million in the opening weekend. Even that was better than Lightyear. The only two Pixar movies that performed worse than Lightyear are The Good Dinosaur ($39 million) and Onward ($39 million). Onward’s box office numbers were obviously impacted by the pandemic as it was released in March 2020 when the COVID lockdowns were being put into place.
It gets even worse when Lightyear is compared to the last Toy Story movie. Toy Story 4 pulled in a whopping $121 million during its opening weekend in July 2019.
Looking at Pixar’s history, it is clear that Lightyear is one of Pixar’s worst-performing movies of all time. This is certainly not the way that Disney wanted Pixar to return to the theaters after being shunted to Disney+ over the course of the past three years.
Disney wanted Lightyear to be Pixar’s triumphant return to the movie theaters. Instead, Disney got embarrassed as Lightyear landed on its face. All that is left is for Disney to figure out what they did wrong and how to avoid similar problems in the future. Pixar is too valuable of an asset for Disney to allow it to lose its status as the gold standard for children’s animated movies.
How did we get here? Well, nobody knows 100% why Lightyear failed. There are numerous possible explanations. People will look for the explanation that best fits their narrative. Out of the four possible explanations we will be discussing, the first two explanations will be based on your social and political views. The latter two are actually the two explanations that I buy into the most.
Disney+ and Devaluing Pixar
Those people who are on the far left progressive end of the spectrum are going to pick this explanation as the biggest reason for Lightyear’s failure at the box office. During the pandemic, Disney made the decision to release several Pixar movies on Disney+ for free to all of their subscribers. Onward was released theatrically on March 6, 2020. However, just two weeks later, on April 19, 2020, Disney released Onward on Disney+ for free.
Disney then released Soul on December 25, 2020, on Disney+ for free to all subscribers. Disney then released Luca on March 23, 2021, on Disney+ for free for all subscribers. Disney then release Turning Red on March 11, 2022, on Disney+ for free for all subscribers.
It is understandable that Disney felt they had to go in this direction during the pandemic. After all, Warner Bros dropped their new releases onto HBOMax for free during the pandemic. However, what was notable was that Disney did not release their other movies for free on Disney+. Movies like Black Widow, Cruella, Mulan, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Jungle Cruise were released on Disney+ for an additional fee of $29.99.
What was the messaging that Disney was sending to consumers? That movies from Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Pictures, and Walt Disney Animation were all worth consumers paying money to see them. However, movies from Pixar Studios? Consumers could get those movies for free.
That is a terrible message to send. Pixar has been the gold standard of children’s animation for decades. I did not think it was smart for Disney to continually give way the Pixar movies for free when they were charging a premium fee for all of the other Disney movies. If you tell your customers that something is not worth paying for then the consumer will eventually change their view of that product.
Having said that, Warner Bros gave away their movies for free, too. This was not just a Disney issue. And getting movies for free during the pandemic did not prevent The Batman from pulling in nearly $770 million.
So, for me, I do not find this explanation that persuasive. The pandemic was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. People can forgive studios for doing strange things in unprecedented times. I think it would take more than three Pixar movies being offered for free during a worldwide pandemic that nobody alive has ever seen before in order to ruin Pixar’s reputation as a product worth spending money on to consume. If you put out a quality product that the general public finds interesting then they will spend money on it. Period.
Those on the conservative right end of the political spectrum are going to point to the Culture War as a reason why Lightyear failed at the box office. It is no secret that Disney executives identify with far-left progressive ideals. This has led to the creation of Disney’s Reimagine Tomorrow initiative which has been the subject of much political debate. On top of that, Disney went to war with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill dubbed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Disney then paused all political contributions to Florida.
Since then, there was a video leaked where executive producer for Disney Television Animation Latoya Raveneau stated, “In my little pocket of Proud Family Disney TVA, the showrunners were super welcoming . . . to my not-at-all-secret gay agenda. I was just, wherever I could, adding queerness. No one would stop me, and no one was trying to stop me.”
This leaked video was just more fuel on the fire in the Culture War between conservatives and progressives that seems to be playing out in nearly every aspect of life these days.
To be sure, Disney has actively placed itself right in the middle of the Culture War with their actions in Florida. That is certainly their right to do so. However, as a publicly-traded company, if executives take positions and actions that hurt stock value then they run the risk of being voted out. After all, the number one responsibility of a publicly-traded company is to make money, increase profits, and increase stock value.
The problem is that Disney is quickly becoming an active player in the Culture War. The result is that people who are on the other side of the Culture War from Disney are beginning to actively encourage people to not support Disney’s products. In fact, once news of Lightyear’s disappointing box office numbers was released, plenty of conservative pundits immediately came out and said that Lightyear was another example of “Get woke, go broke.”
Honestly, I have no idea at all how much the Culture War, which is playing out in every corner of America, happened to impact Lightyear’s box office performance. Maybe it was a major factor in Lightyear failing at the box office. Maybe it was only a minor factor. Maybe it was no factor. Again, much like the first explanation, your political and social views are going to influence what you think is the biggest factor in Lightyear’s disappointing box office numbers.
No Tim Allen
One massive problem for Lightyear was the fact that Disney did not cast Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear. Personally, I think this is one of the biggest reasons for the failure of Lightyear. Tim Allen made Buzz Lightyear. Period. There is no debate. It is Tim Allen who brought Buzz Lightyear to life. It is Tim Allen who made Buzz Lightyear one of Disney’s most beloved characters. TO not have Tim Allen voice Buzz in Lightyear was a massive mistake by Disney.
Now, there will be those pedantic ones out there who will point out that Tim Allen has not always been the voice of Buzz Lightyear. That is a true statement. However, it belies the point. Ask anyone in the world to tell you who is Buzz Lightyear and they will say, Tim Allen. Period. Tim Allen has been the voice of Buzz Lightyear in anything of real importance.
It is true that Disney has cast Patrick Fraley, Patrick Warburton, and Mike MacRae to voice Buzz on various projects.
Patrick Fraley’s list of Buzz Lightyear credits includes:
- Toy Story Video Game (1995)
- Disney’s Activity Center: Toy Story Video Game (1996)
- Toy Story Animated StoryBook (1996)
- Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster Disney World Ride/Attraction
- Disney’s Activity Center 2: Toy Story Video Game (1999)
- Buzz Lightyear Second Grade Video Game (2000)
- Disney-Pixar Learning – First Grade Video Game (2001)
- Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure Video Game (2003)
So, Patrick Fraley voiced Buzz in six video games that you probably have never heard of in your life. Fraley also voiced Buzz in an animated storybook. Lastly, Fraley is the voice of Buzz at the Disney World ride where Fraley sounds like…Tim Allen. I would say Fraley’s work as Buzz is probably not as well known as Allen’s work as Buzz.
Patrick Warburton’s list of Buzz Lightyear credits includes:
- Buzz Lightyear of Star Command Video Game (2000)
- Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins (2000 movie)
- Buzz Lightyear of Star Command (2000 TV show)
So, Warburton voiced Buzz in a video game, a TV show that lasted a season, and a movie. That is not quite the level of Tim Allen’s resume as Buzz.
- Leapfrog Leapster Learning Game: Toy Story 3 Video Game (2010)
- Toy Story 3: The Video Game (2010)
- Kinect Disneyland Adventures Video Game (2011)
- Kinect Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure Video Game (2012)
- Disney Infinity Video Game (2013)
- Kingdom Hearts III (2019)
MacRae voiced Buzz in six video games. I would think it is safe to say that nobody in the general public probably even knows Mr. MacRae’s name or that he has ever voiced Buzz.
Now, let’s look at where Tim Allen has been cast as Buzz Lightyear. That list includes:
- Toy Story (1995 movie)
- Toy Story 2 (1999 movie)
- Toy Story 3 (2010 movie)
- Toy Story 4 (2019 movie)
- Ralph Breaks the Internet Wreck-it Ralph 2 (2018 movie)
- Disney Magic Kingdom Video Game (2016)
- Toy Story The Toy Time Forgot (2014 TV show)
- Toy Story of Terror (2013 TV Show)
- Toy Story Toons (2011 Shorts)
- Toy Story Mania Video Game (2009)
- Toy Story: Midway Mania Disney World Ride/Attraction (2008)
- Cars (2006 movie)
- Toy Story Racer Video Game (2001)
- Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins (2000 movie)
- Toy Story 2 Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue Video Game (1999)
- Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover Disney World Ride/Attraction
So, Tim Allen’s total comes to playing Buzz Lightyear in seven movies, two TV shows, one series of shorts, four video games, and two rides/attractions at Disney World. I think that is safe to say that Allen’s resume crushes Warburton’s one movie, one TV show, and one video game. It certainly spanks MacRae’s six video games. It also crushes Fraley’s six video games, one storybook, and one Disney World ride/attraction.
The point is that Tim Allen is Buzz Lightyear. It is stunning to have anyone other than Tim Allen voice Buzz Lightyear in a major theatrical release. Period. To say that replacing Tim Allen was no big deal is to be disingenuous at best.
Now, there is plenty of speculation as to why Disney did not cast Tim Allen as Buzz. Some have claimed that Tim Allen would have been too expensive. I find this hard to believe. Chris Evans is now a big-name actor and is certainly expensive. On top of that, Disney has plenty of money as evidenced by the fact that they shelled out $200 million for Lightyear. Money was not the reason that Disney did not hire Tim Allen.
Many people claim that Disney did not hire Tim Allen due to obvious political differences. Disney, and its leadership, are decidedly left-wing progressives. Tim Allen is most definitely not. Disney has become more and more comfortable with weighing in on politics. Further, video and print materials about Disney’s internal training materials show that Disney’s leadership is pushing a left-wing agenda within the company. It would not at all be surprising for the current Disney leadership to have no desire in hiring a big-name actor like Tim Allen who is clearly contrary to their political and social agenda.
Having said that, Tim Allen is working with Disney on a Disney+ mini-series called The Clauses. It seems odd that Disney would not also hire Tim Allen for Lightyear. I am unsure what is going on. To this date, I have not seen a satisfactory reason from Disney explaining why they did not cast Tim Allen for Lightyear. All I have ever seen is Disney saying they wanted a voice actor with “gravitas” to play the role of Buzz in Lightyear because it was a more serious movie. I find that to be total bullshit. Tim Allen is a talented actor that could voice Buzz in a more “serious” movie. In fact, the director, Angus MacLane even stated that Disney did not even approach Tim Allen about being in Lightyear. Not even approached?! Really?
I also have not seen Tim Allen publicly comment at all on the Lightyear movie. It is possible I missed something. But, it is strange to see the man who brought Buzz Lightyear to life not comment at all about Chris Evans or the Lightyear movie. Especially if you believe that Tim Allen and Disney are on good terms. If Allen and Disney were working well together you would think that Disney would have had Tim Allen come out and endorse Lightyear to try and whip up fan support.
No offense to Chris Evans, but he is simply not Buzz Lightyear. Nor will he ever be. Without Tim Allen, many fans much like myself, immediately had zero interest in going to see Lightyear.
Another huge reason why Lightyear failed at the box office may have been the weird and confusing story. Personally, I think this reason, along with the lack of Tim Allen, are the two biggest factors in Lightyear’s box office failure.
I have no idea why anyone at Disney would ever read the pitch for Lightyear and think, “Hell yeah! This would make for a great movie that plenty of kids, parents, and long-time fans of the Toy Story franchise would definitely want to see!”
This story is beyond bizarre. I do not want to get into spoilers, but I do not think that the version of Buzz that we get in Lightyear lines up at all with the lovable and heroic alpha male Buzz that we got in the four Toy Story movies. Nor do I think any viewers at all were clamoring for Pixar to do to Zurg what they did with him in Lightyear.
The entire story just seemed like one bad idea after another. It is stunning that executives in Disney would ever green light this movie and think that they had a huge hit on their hands. Shareholders who are watching Disney stock fall in a death spiral should be rightfully questioning the decision-making abilities of Disney executives.
On top of a weird and unappealing story, Disney completely bungled the promotion of Lightyear. Disney’s messaging was completely confusing. Was this a Buzz Lightyear movie? Was this related to the Toy Story Universe? Disney said that Lightyear was not a new “Toy Story” film. Disney said this movie was based on the real-life character of Buzz that the Toy Story Buzz was based on. The fuzzy messaging was that Buzz Lightyear was a real person in the fictional “Toy Story” universe.
Then Disney continued to confuse consumers by saying that Lightyear is the movie that Andy saw that made him want a Buzz Lightyear toy. However, later, the director, Angus MacLane said that Andy might not have even watched “Lightyear” when it was a new movie. MacLane said that the movie Lightyear was made in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Disney then doubled down on the nonsense when MacLane then said that the Buzz Lightyear toy could have been based on an animated spin-off show that aired after the original movie. Huhbutwhat?! Did someone give Disney executives a combination of meth, acid, peyote, and cocaine and then tell them to come up with the story for Lightyear, how it fits with Toy Story, and how to market it to consumers?
It gets even worse from here! Does that mean the Buzz in the movie Lightyear is just an actor and that Buzz is still a fictional character? Further, there is nothing in Lightyear that suggests that it is a movie! There are no sets, movie crew, director, special effects or actors rehearsing lines. Lightyear is presented as an actual real occurrence. All of this is absolute insanity!
The entire premise for Lightyear made no sense and it was obvious that nobody at Disney understood it, either. Lightyear seemed like an utterly pointless movie that served no purpose at all. This made messaging to the consumer a psychotic mess of jumbled words. It is no surprise that so many consumers found no point in Lightyear and simply skipped it altogether.
Where does Pixar go from here? That is a damn good question. It looks like Disney is headed for a loss with Lightyear. Even a company as big as Disney cannot afford to have too many losses at the box office. Especially coming out of the pandemic and with their stock prices performing so poorly.
Disney executives would be wise, to be honest in their self-criticism when evaluating where they went wrong with Lightyear. The last thing Disney can afford is for Pixar to completely lose its status as a premier brand. Pixar simply cannot have back-to-back duds at the box office. The pressure is on Elemental, which is due out on June 16, 2023, to be a big hit.