Pixar’s box-office success was built on movies such as “Toy Story” and “Cars” that feature male characters in central roles. Now Walt Disney Co.’s animation studio will try pulling in crowds with its first female lead.
“Brave,” which opens today, stars a headstrong Scottish princess who bests her male suitors in archery and rejects her parents’ plans for a political marriage. U.S. opening-weekend forecasts range from a low of $58 million at Box Office Guru, among the least for a Pixar film, to as much as $81 million at Lazard Capital Markets.
The movie will test whether Pixar, which Disney acquired for $7.01 billion in 2006, can extend a successful track record based on films with toys, cars, fish and monsters to a movie about a rebellious princess in medieval Scotland. A key factor will be whether “Brave,” focused on a strained mother-daughter relationship, can draw both girls and boys.
“‘Brave’ is not about a princess. It’s about a world,” said Jeff Gomez, chief executive officer of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a New York-based company that advises studios on how to reach young people. “It’s action-packed and that’s accessible to boys.”
Historically, Disney’s animated female leads have been joined by strong males, as in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Lady and the Tramp.” Pixar’s writers decided Merida, the red-haired princess in “Brave,” didn’t need the help. The company makes up for that by focusing its marketing on the action and colorful medieval Scotland.
“It was quite conscious as a decision,” Katherine Sarafian, the film’s producer, said in an interview. “It is a love story, but it is about family love. That allows Merida to propel the story forward herself and not have it resolved by some guy coming in and saving her. There are lots of characters in there for boys to relate to.”
Gomez, whose company advised News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox on “Avatar,” likened Burbank, California-based Disney’s campaign to Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.’s marketing of “The Hunger Games.” That film ranks as the year’s second-biggest, with $402.2 million in domestic sales, according to researcher Box Office Mojo.
“The Hunger Games” featured a bow-wielding heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who resists manipulation by an oppressive government while dealing with the overtures of two suitors. Ads for the film focused on the action and the bizarre world of the Capitol, the ruling city in a dystopian society where teens are forced to fight to the death on live television, Gomez said.
Over its U.S. theatrical run, forecasts for “Brave” range from a low of $180 million, the estimate of David Bank, an RBC Capital Markets analyst, to as much as the $260 million predicted by Barton Crockett at Lazard.
Pixar’s top performer, “Toy Story 3,” collected $415 million in domestic sales while No. 2 “Finding Nemo” brought in $339.7 million. The studio’s lowest-grossing film at the box office was the 1998 release “A Bug’s Life,” with $162.8 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
Sarafian declined to say how much “Brave,” which will be shown in 3-D, cost to make. The average budget for the last five Pixar films was $181 million, based on Box Office Mojo estimates.
The film, cable and theme-park company leads the domestic box office this year with ticket sales of $806.7 million as of June 17, on the strength of “Marvel’s the Avengers.” The film started the summer last month with a record $207.4 million in opening-weekend revenue and has collected $1.42 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.
Disney rose 0.2 percent to $47.47 at the close in New York, near the all-time high of $48 set on June 19. The stock has gained 26 percent this year, making the company the fourth-best performer in the 16-member S&P 500 Media Index.
“Brave” doesn’t need to be a huge box-office hit to be profitable for Disney, said Jim Silver, editor of Time to Play magazine. The characters are easily channeled into toys and clothing for the company’s consumer products division, as they were in “Cars” and “Cars 2.” Toys from those films, ranked 10th and 6th in global ticket sales among Pixar’s 12 movies so far, may be Disney’s top merchandise sellers of all time, Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger said on a May 8 conference call.
“We think this will be one of the better ones,” Silver said.
Cinema operators could use a boost. Summer ticket sales are up 1 percent over 2011 at $1.58 billion, according to Hollywood.com Box-Office, held back by disappointments including “Battleship,” from Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures.
Last weekend, two new releases, “Rock of Ages” from Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. and Sony Corp.’s “That’s My Boy,” failed to meet the estimates of box-office forecasters.
“That was a pretty big hit having both of those movies tank on the same weekend,” Jeff Bock, box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co., said in an interview. “The industry was expecting those films to make $100 million apiece and they’ll probably get half of that.”
“Brave” will probably be the first in a series of more consistently successful releases, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com’s box-office unit. Others include Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” set for release on July 3, and Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20.
Princess Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, prefers archery and horseback riding to more traditional palace duties. She runs away after her parents try to force her to choose a husband from among several politically connected suitors. Her flight from responsibility leads to a crisis that forces her to reassess her turbulent relationship with her parents. The mother is voiced by Emma Thompson.
Historically, Disney’s female leads, beginning with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, counted on a male hero for the last-minute rescue.
The lack of a Prince Charming may reflect what matters to to modern boys and girls, Gomez said. Like Everdeen of “The Hunger Games,” Merida appeals to both sexes because of her independence and resistance to authority.
“This is not a feminist development,” Gomez said. “It’s a generational development. The people seeing these new movies find values more aspirational than gender.”