The Mario Bros. Effect: Why Sonic, Pokemon, and Minecraft Movies Will Struggle to Achieve It
Calling the success of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” a testament to video-game IP would be a disservice to Illumination and Nintendo. Universal confirmed that it grossed $454 million worldwide in its first week and the Mario movie achieved something that even HBO’s “The Last of Us” did not: It’s a four-quadrant success.
A ton of kids turned out, sure, and it didn’t hurt that the last family movie in theaters was months ago with “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.” However, as IndieWire reported last weekend, 84 percent of the film’s audience was above the age of 13. It’s a rare movie that attracts both kid-friendly crowds and nostalgic adults, that played for all genders and ethnicities, and performed strongly across international markets, and that made it the biggest worldwide animated opening of all time.
Success like that inevitably sets off a frenzy of aspiring copycats, but that level of performance can’t be expected from upcoming adult-skewing video game adaptations like Eli Roth’s “Borderlands” or Neill Blomkamp’s “Gran Turismo.” Similarly, no one’s going to plunk their kids in front of in-development TV series like Amazon’s “God of War” or Netflix’s “Bioshock.”
But could we expect a similar alchemy from other rated-PG, kid-friendly video game movies?
“That’s the sweet spot,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Comscore. “Video game movies had a very uneven track record at the box office, and maybe the codebreaker is PG animation when you’re trying to get box-office numbers.”
While those en route are all live-action with CGI, they include “Sonic the Hedgehog 3” from Paramount and Sega (set for 2024 release), a sequel to “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” in development at Legendary, and a “Minecraft” movie starring Jason Momoa that Warner Bros. just dated for release on April 4, 2025.
While 2020’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” can take credit for kicking off renewed interest in video-game adaptations, “Super Mario Bros.” made more money in five days than “Sonic” did in its lifetime. (It topped out at $317 million worldwide, but the pandemic had something to do with that.) “Sonic 2,” released this time last year, opened to $72 million and grossed a total $405 million worldwide; “Super Mario Bros.” surpassed that in a week.
Still, it’s not a stretch to believe that a third Sonic film could be a stronger performer than its predecessors, especially with a Christmas 2024 release slot. In the interim, Paramount is also working on a spinoff series for Sonic’s buddy Knuckles (voiced by Idris Elba), which could further bolster the brand. That Paramount+ show could arrive later this year.
“Sonic the Hedgehog 2”
“Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” was a $449 million hit back in 2019 (against a $150 million budget), but there was no confirmed sequel until Legendary announced in March that “Portlandia” co-creator Jonathan Krisel would direct. (Still TBD is the participation of the original film’s star, Ryan Reynolds.) A steady clip of Pokémon games keeps the property enormously popular among both millennials and Gen-Z, and the anime series still runs on Netflix.
WBD’s “Minecraft” is a wildcard. The live-action film will be produced by Mary Parent and Roy Lee with Swedish video game studio Mojang, but this game doesn’t lend itself to easy interpretation. Rather than playing with discernible characters, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure 3D “sandbox” game with a blocky look. The diehard fanbase of kids who pour hours into the 12-year-old game is enormous, but the appeal may not carry over to their parents.
There’s also a live-action Pac-Man movie in development with Japanese video game publisher Bandai Namco and Justin Baldoni’s Wayfarer Studios, but would anyone say no to a series based on Epic Games’ Fortnite? Would Sony try its luck with a Crash Bandicoot movie? It’s not the only Playstation game with cross-generational appeal; what about Spyro the Dragon?
And then there’s Nintendo, which holds the most untapped, family-friendly video game IP around. It’s made only tentative steps into exploiting those characters: Nintendo cameos in movies like “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Pixels,” a short-lived “Donkey Kong Country” cartoon from the late ’90s, and a Kirby anime in the early 2000s. However, collecting 50 percent of the “SMB” profits should be enough to pique the Japanese company’s further interest.
A Mario sequel seems all but inevitable (and we’re among those who vote Wario and Waluigi as villains), but there’s also real potential in video-game movies or shows like Kirby, Zelda, and Animal Crossing, should Nintendo choose to go down that Rainbow Road. These are properties that could over-perform and surprise as much as “Super Mario Bros.”
However, Dergarabedian notes that slapping “Super Mario” on the title wasn’t the key to the film’s stratospheric success. A lot had to go right. The marketing had to land and make clear this was a movie for kids. Universal and Illumination had to be on the same page with Nintendo in keeping true to Mario’s spirit and iconography. And families had to come back to theaters.
And Dergarabedian admits when he’s wrong: His original prediction was topping out around $500 million. Now, “the sky is the limit.”
“To belabor the cliché, it’s like capturing lightning in a bottle,” he said. “This will be a blueprint for other studios to put up on the chalkboard and go through that problem and try and reverse engineer this thing. That isn’t so easy.”
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