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Box Office Bomb: How Creepy CGI and Bad Buzz Killed ‘Cats’

Variety logo Variety 12/23/2019 Rebecca Rubin
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(Video provided by TODAY)

When Universal first debuted the trailer for “Cats,” social media, to put it mildly, lost its mind.

Initial footage for director Tom Hooper’s big-screen adaptation gave a glimpse at the computer wizardry, a phenomenon known in popular culture as “digital fur technology,” used to transform the actors into four-legged felines. The result, an unsettling amalgamation of CGI, shook Twitter to its core. It appears the moviegoing masses never recovered.

When “Cats” finally arrived in theaters, Universal anticipated that its starry cast — a group that includes Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo and James Corden — mixed with surrounding publicity could muster up at least $15 million in ticket sales. Instead, “Cats” fell short of expectations and clawed its way to $6.5 million at the domestic box office. It was a dismal showing for any major studio release, but especially one that cost $100 million before accounting for global marketing and distribution fees.

“The [social media] blowback was massive and that did hurt it,” said Jeff Bock, a media analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

a cat sitting on a bed © Universal Pictures Any curiosity about “Cats” flamed out after critics ravaged (and we mean ravaged) the film. Reviews were brutal, picking apart the plot (or lack thereof) and the dodgy VFX. Instead of leaning into kitschy spectacle of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s off-kilter stage production, critics question Hooper’s unusually serious approach. As The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon put it: “The thing isn’t even campy, goofy fun. It’s inexplicably joyless and morose.” Like the musical, “Cats” centers on a tribe of cats called the Jellicles, one of which will be selected to receive a new life.

On paper, bringing “Cats” to the big screen seems like an obvious choice. The stage show is bizarre, sure, but it became a global phenomenon and endured on Broadway and beyond for years to great financial success. Moviegoers, uninspired to find out what Jellicles can and Jellicles do, appear to be less endeared.

Moreover, Universal has scored with movie musicals like “Les Miserables,” “Mamma Mia” and its 2018 sequel and the “Pitch Perfect” franchise. The studio hired Hooper again after the director steered the studio’s 2012 “Les Miserables” to $441 million globally and a handful of Oscar nominations. But Hollywood has missed the mark before when it comes to re-imagining beloved shows for the simple reason that built-in fanbases won’t compensate for quality. See: “Rent” ($31 million in 2005), “A Chorus Line” ($14 million in 1985) and “Rock of Ages” ($59 million in 2012).

“Star Wars” sagas aside, December releases are less reliant on splashy opening weekends, instead banking on healthy multiples during the busiest time of year for moviegoing. For that reason, bullish box office analysts believe there’s a chance that buzz around “Cats” could inspire audiences to see for themselves what all the fuss is about. That kind of intrigue did little to drive opening weekend ticket sales, but “Cats” still dominated social media chatter.

The eternal optimists point to Fox’s unexpected success with 2017’s “The Greatest Showman.” That musical, starring Hugh Jackman as circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum, was virtually dismissed by critics. It launched in late December, arriving with an uninspired $8.8 million. But audiences fell in love with its soundtrack and returned to multiplexes multiple times for singalong screenings that encouraged crowds to belt catchy tunes like “This Is Me.” “The Greatest Showman” became a sleeper hit, ultimately earning $174 million in domestic ticket sales and $435 million globally. Ticket buyers haven’t shown the same affection for “Cats,” which landed a C+ CinemaScore from audiences. “The Greatest Showman,” in contrast, received an A grade. Other than “Memory,” sung in the movie by vocal powerhouse Jennifer Hudson, the musical is devoid of zeitgeist-catching hits that could galvanize repeat viewings. (Though even this hardened box office reporter must admit “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” is objectively a banger.)

Universal intended for “Cats,” targeting younger female moviegoers, to work as counter-programming against “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker.” The studio even hinged much of its marketing on Swift, who appears in the movie for exactly one song. It certainly didn’t help that Disney’s “Frozen 2,” appealing to a similar subset, made more money from just domestic theaters in its fifth weekend of release ($12.4 million) than “Cats” did globally ($10.9 million) this weekend. Swift did minimal promotion, perhaps sensing her loyal fans weren’t interested in how to go to the Heaviside Layer. Older audiences skewed the few tickets sold: 55% were between the ages of 18 and 44. It’s a demographic that’s not known to rush out on opening weekend.

“Let’s see if ‘Cats’ has nine lives. Sometimes we have to let movies play for longer to see what the final verdict is,” Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analysts with Comscore, said.

At the world premiere of “Cats,” Hooper admitted that he rushed to complete the film in time.

“I finished it at 8 a.m. yesterday after 36 hours in a row,” Hooper told a packed crowd last week at New York’s Lincoln Center. “This genuinely is a premiere.”

In this case, Hooper’s mad dash to the finish line didn’t pay off.

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