Toy Story 3 (in 3D)
d. Lee Unkrich / 2010 / USA /
Cinema 1 @ Barbican (London, UK)
The third installment in the wildly successful Toy Story franchise, yawn! ‘Greatest film trilogy of all time‘, yawn! It apparently makes grown men cry, yawn! Don’t get me wrong, Toy Story 3 is great – entertaining, engaging and full of giggles – but I just don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as pretty much everyone would have us believe.
In fact, is anyone else getting a little tired of Pixar’s continuing success, both critically and at the box office? Okay, so I’m not being entirely serious, but honestly, just how long can Pixar go without failure? It’s bound to happen eventually, but pity whichever fool is responsible for it. Lee Unkrich, the director of Toy Story 3, approached production with more than a hint of trepidation precisely because he didn’t want to be responsible for producing Pixar’s first ‘dud’.
The very fact that Pixar has remained a solid success, financially and critically, has almost seen this narrative turn into cliche of late – consistently mentioned in passing, but never really investigated in depth, especially when you compare Pixar’s figures with those of its nominal adversary, Dreamworks.
There are a handful of articles out there comparing the two companies, but I’m yet to find one which provides a direct comparison between their relative fortunes across the board. I did consider compiling all the figures for both studios – budgets vs. box office – but it’s already been done by plenty of folks, not least those tireless Wikians (Pixar figures vs. Dreamworks figures). And so, rather than bombard you with basic figures, I thought I’d see how the studios fared against each other according to the law of averages, spread across Pixar’s eleven productions since 1995 and Dreamworks’ twenty-one since 1998.
Going by the numbers listed on Wikipedia, Pixar currently has an average production budget of just under $119 million, the majority of which follow a steady trajectory from Toy Story‘s $30m in 1995, up to Toy Story 3‘s $200m. For Dreamworks, the average budget is a slightly more conservative $107.5m, largely a result of their partnership in smaller productions like Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) and Chicken Run (2000), the studio’s two cheapest film at $30m and $45m respectively. At $175m, Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) is Dreamworks’ most expensive production to date.
When it comes to returns on investment, Dreamworks’ $107.5m spend yields an average of just under $380m at the worldwide box office (returning a shade over 250%), whilst Pixar leaves them in the dust with that average spend of $119m netting approximately $600m per film (a whopping 400% increase).
Looking at the films individually, however, tells a slightly different story. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dreamworks’ most profitable venture was Shrek (2001), for which a $60m outlay led to a $484m global box office (a return of over 700%). And whilst the success of Shrek (and its sequels) no doubt helped to consolidate the profitability of the Dreamworks venture, it’s important to remember that it was sandwiched between two of the company’s biggest failures. Chicken Run (2000) might have made a decent return on a modest investment ($225m from $45m / 400%), but Dreamworks’ high profile release of that year, The Road to El Dorado, was budgeted at $95m, but only made $76m worldwide.
Similarly, very slight returns – 53% and 35%, respectively – saw Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) labelled box office duds, and it was left to Shrek 2 (2004) to pull the company out of danger, posting $920m worldwide from a $150m investment (513%). Even working strictly off numerical box office figures, The Road to El Dorado remains Dreamworks’ lowest grossing film ($76m), with the company still struggling to return to the dizzying heights of Shrek 2 ($920m).
The story at Pixar is, unsurprisingly, much more consistent, even if – percentage wise – they’ve never bettered the results of Toy Story (1995), which scraped $362m worldwide from its $30m investment (a 1106% return). However that film did also provide Pixar with their lowest ever numerical box office, with takings rising steadily right up to Toy Story 3 (which is, of course, the first film released by either company to crack that magical $1 billion mark, with a return of over 430% on a $200m outlay). Interestingly there hasn’t really been so much as a hiccup along the way for Pixar, and certainly nothing of the magnitude of Dreamworks’ losses on The Road to El Dorado. Percentage wise, Pixar’s worst performing title against budget is actually WALL-E (2008), which cost Pixar $180m and managed to take a highly respectable $521m (a shade under a 190% return).
The key to Pixar’s ongoing success, it seems, is not only its patience and willingness to develop projects over a number of years (eleven films in sixteen years, as opposed to Dreamworks’ twenty-one in thirteen), but also its keen sense of internal quality control. Admittedly, since the company has often displayed a willingness to delay or even shelve projects that aren’t up to scratch, there are sure to be plenty of hidden figures in Pixar’s production slate, and so it is important to remember that box office figures alone can never tell the full story. But when it comes to financing future projects, and engendering brand loyalty around the world, the consistent success of Pixar – both financially and critically – has all but assured the future in years to come.