‘Sing 2’ and the Art of Franchise Survivalism

Sing 2 premiere
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty
Matthew Belloni
January 30, 2022

Stop me if this sounds familiar: In the lead-up to the late December release of Sing 2, Universal Pictures faced a predicament. Omicron was spreading, fears of family moviegoers were spiking, and, during internal discussions, some thought it made sense to either delay the film again (the sequel to the animated American Idol with farm animals had already been pushed a year), or ship it directly to streaming, or do some kind of hybrid release. A version of this debate has taken place almost daily on studio Zoom calls for two years now. It’s depressing.  

NBC Universal C.E.O. Jeff Shell and film chief Donna Langley decided to keep the theatrical exclusive, then drop the film on premium video on demand 17 days after its release, for a higher-than-normal $25 rental charge. That strategy would potentially kneecap the box office of a film whose 2016 predecessor grossed $634 million worldwide, though films available at home recently have held up O.K. in theaters. I’m told it also meant cutting mid seven-figure checks to the voices of those farm animals—Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson, with smaller payouts for the rest of the main cast—to buy out a big chunk of their box office bonuses.

The buyouts weren’t necessarily required; Sing 2, after all, was getting an exclusive theatrical window, and Universal’s deal with theater owners allows an expedited P.V.O.D release for films that open to less than $50 million (with theaters getting a small cut of that at-home revenue). But given the Covid climate, the stars knew that if the film wasn’t pushed, their bonuses likely weren’t happening, and the last thing Universal wanted was an acrimonious, Black Widow-esque situation over the lost pay, especially involving the star of Black Widow. Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek learned in the ScarJo litigation how quickly the town can turn on you when you piss off top talent.   

More importantly, Universal needed those stars to enthusiastically promote the film, to make Sing 2 feel like a big theatrical blockbuster, even if its numbers wouldn’t ultimately get it there. Above all, Langley and Illumination C.E.O. Chris Meledandri, who made the film with writer-director Garth Jennings, were concerned not only with Sing 2 but also with Sing 3 and Sing 4 and potential spinoffs and origin stories–the Sing franchise, future installments of which presumably can play in theaters, if that business still exists by the time they are released.

So this particular $85 million-budgeted installment will probably top out at about half the gross of the original—a franchise killer under usual rules—but it’s doing fine within the lowered expectations of pandemic-era Hollywood. Sing 2 is at $268 million worldwide as of today, with a strong week-to-week hold and a big U.K. opening this weekend as Omicron fades. And sources say it’s Universal’s second-biggest P.V.O.D. movie, behind the early-pandemic hit Trolls: World Tour, which the studio said grossed $100 million at home. My 5-year-old loved it; we saw it at our local AMC and, a couple weeks later, my wife awoke to an email from Amazon Prime informing her that someone using her account had rented Sing 2 at 6:30 am that morning. (This introduced us to the “parental control” function on Amazon.)    

Universal considers Sing 2 a success in this weird moment not because it is particularly profitable—it will make money, though a lot less than initially planned—but because the studio can make another Sing, and plans are afoot, I’m told. “Highest grossing animated feature since the pandemic began. Yes, I’d qualify that as a success,” responded Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock when I asked him what he thought of Sing 2’s performance. “Obviously, different box office barometers are in play specific to genre, and especially regarding family films.” So it’s a flop and a hit, which pretty much sums up Hollywood in 2022. Langley and the other modern studio heads are essentially franchise managers, and these days, franchise management has morphed into franchise survivalism. This sequel far underperformed the original, but the franchise will live on, so mission (sorta) accomplished.  

What is a theatrical franchise and how can studios create and grow them when most movies are going direct to streaming? That has become perhaps the most difficult and debated question in Hollywood. We’ve all seen the studies showing that audiences don’t create emotional attachments to streamed movies like they do when they go to a theater. There’s no mindshare, is how I’ve heard it described. Taking that affirmative step to go to a theater ends up meaning something to consumers, even if it’s a pain in the ass to do so. Without event-izing movies via huge marketing spends and opening-weekend box office headlines, the films feel smaller—and that smallness reverberates all the way to whether a sequel is something to get excited about. Despite all those billions of minutes viewed, Netflix and the others have yet to show that they can launch a movie that people care about enough to follow through the traditional flywheel of consumer products, live experiences, sequels and spinoffs that capture the public zeitgeist.  

At the same time, we all know fewer and fewer movies will be deemed theater-worthy. Look at this past weekend: Zero big releases in the U.S. Box office for the top 10 was an anemic $31 million. January was a desert, and not just because Sony’s Morbius moved to April. In recent years, the studios released between 110 and 130 movies. So far, there are 89 films scheduled for wide release in 2022. Even with some expected additions, that’s a big slide.

Fewer releases means fewer chances to create new franchises. Can you name an original movie that has launched a theatrical franchise since March 2020? I’d say Ryan ReynoldsFree Guy is the only one. Disney would probably argue for Cruella and Jungle Cruise, both of which have sequels in development. But those seem like probable direct-to-Disney+ plays, and both are based on strong Disney I.P. Maybe Encanto, which was event-ized by an exclusive 30-day theatrical window, even if most people are watching it on Disney+ now. It’ll be interesting to see the trajectories of Free Guy vs. Reynolds’ other 2021 franchise-starter, Netflix’s Red Notice. Both are getting sequels; which one will audiences actually care about?