Red birds, green pigs and a large slingshot are the key elements of “Angry Birds,” the mobile gaming app that launched in December 2009. It proved to be a winning combination, leading to three billion downloads, a merchandising line and two television cartoon series.
And when “The Angry Birds Movie” arrives in theaters May 20, it will go down in history as the first movie based on an app.
The animated feature by Sony Pictures and Rovio Entertainment, the game’s maker, features the voices of Jason Sudeikis, Danny McBride and Josh Gad, plus a soundtrack with songs by popular artists such as Blake Shelton and Demi Lovato. Yet even with the app’s massive built-in audience, “The Angry Birds Movie” isn’t shaping up as a blockbuster. It’s expected to gross a respectable $140 million overall, according to the industry website BoxOffice.com.
“If you say ‘Angry Birds,’ people know what that is, but it’s mostly games and toys,” says Daniel Loria, vice president of content strategy at BoxOffice. “You don’t really know the characters that well.”
The outcome is always in question when Hollywood makes a movie based on a popular “property” like toys, games or theme park rides. For every successful “Transformers” film, there’s a sunken “Battleship.” Here are some unlikely properties that spawned feature films, and how they fared at the box office.
Paramount Pictures released a feature film based on the classic board game “Clue” in 1985, perhaps attracted to its cinematic mystery theme. Director Jonathan Lynn, who co-wrote with John Landis, assembled a fine cast to play the color-coded characters, including Christopher Lloyd as Professor Plum and Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White. As an added gimmick, “Clue” was shipped to theaters in three versions, each with a different ending.
Audiences, however, didn’t care which one they saw, and critics, who were shown all three, didn’t like any of them. “Clue” fell just short of making back its $15 million budget.
Ever since, board games have fared rather poorly at the box office. Other disappointments include “Dungeons & Dragons” (2000), although the low-budget horror flick “Ouija” earned an impressive $103 million. And meanwhile, yes, a “Monopoly” movie is in development.
Back in 1987, Topps, the company known for baseball cards and rock-hard chewing gum, released “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie,” a feature based on its gross-out trading cards (themselves a spoof of the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls). Produced on a scant $1 million budget, the film featured repugnant characters like the snot-nosed Messy Tessie and the flatulent Windy Winston, played by dwarves in costumes. The poster’s tagline: “Out of the garbage pail and into your heart!”
No such luck. The movie was universally panned and sank into such obscurity that even today it pulls in unsuspecting viewers. “I didn’t know whether to vomit or cry,” one stunned commenter wrote on IMDb.
One problem may have been Topps’ unpleasant source material. By contrast, Hasbro’s super-macho “Transformers” movies have earned $3 billion, while “The Lego Movie” — with its smiling, yellow-faced heroes — became a smash hit with several follow-ups in the works.
Although video games boomed during the 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that they regularly became theatrical films. “Super Mario Bros.” (1993), based on a nearly decade-old game, flopped, but 1995’s successful “Mortal Kombat” signaled the existence of a ticket-buying public.
The genre has since been dominated by two sexy heroines. Angelina Jolie became a tight-suited action-icon in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001), and a similarly clad Milla Jovovich helped turn the “Resident Evil” movies into a $915 million franchise.
Video games have proved a mixed bag at the box office. In recent years, “Max Payne” bombed despite Mark Wahlberg’s star power, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (starring Jake Gyllenhaal) pulled in a healthy $336 million, and this month’s animated “Ratchet & Clank” opened with a feeble $5.4 million.
Remember Jim Varney? He played Ernest P. Worrell, the lanky good-old-boy who hawked everything from soda to orange juice to his unseen neighbor, Vern. Ernest’s favorite phrase, “knowwhatImean?” became such an ubiquitous cultural meme during the 1980s that Touchstone Pictures gave Varney his own movie, “Ernest Goes to Camp” (1987), a $3 million cheapie that earned $23.5 million.
That was good enough for four more theatrical releases, which kept Varney in the public eye through the early 1990s. He’s the rare example of a commercial pitchman anchoring a major movie franchise. As a side note, Rowan Atkinson’s spy character in the “Johnny English” films was inspired by his commercials for a Barclays credit card.
THEME PARK RIDES
Not surprisingly, Disney essentially has this genre to itself. Its 2002 effort, “The Country Bears,” flopped badly, but 2003’s “The Haunted Mansion,” starring Eddie Murphy, fared surprisingly well. That same year, Disney struck pay dirt with “The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
Thanks to Johnny Depp as the comically roguish Jack Sparrow — the actor claimed his two inspirations were Keith Richards and Pepé Le Pew — “Pirates” became a $654 million smash. Three more films followed (one starring Richards himself as Sparrow’s father), each earning impressive sums despite increasingly chilly reviews.
The lesson? As with any movie, compelling characters — be they pirates or birds — will carry the day. “It really comes down to the product and the film, and how they can deliver on that,” says BoxOffice’s Loria. “Will people respond to it? Do they like it? And do they want to see more?”