Finding Dollars: Does Critical Reception Dictate Pixar’s Box Office?

Pixar’s latest release, Finding Dory, is smashing box office records across the US (where it’s currently the highest grossing film this year) and marks a return to form in critics’ eyes after lukewarm reviews for the studio’s previous effort, The Good Dinosaur. This provides an excellent opportunity to analyse the impact review scores can have on a film’s performance, and in Pixar’s case it is profound…

Pixar’s average US box office gross over their 17 theatre releases is $234 million dollars with an average review score of 85% (amalgamated between Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic). Add to that their impressive Best Animated Picture haul of 8 Oscars (they’ve won the category more than 50% of the time since its inauguration in 2001 and have only lost twice when nominated) and it’s fair to say that Pixar are a brand associated with success and quality both financially and artistically. This isn’t to say they ever rest on their laurels, though…

After the opening weekend of every Pixar film, John Lasseter announces the box office returns over the PA and then calls out their next project’s director with the gentle ribbing of “No pressure”. Looking at the graph below, one must wonder if he’s starting to do the same with review scores:

The trend between the critics’ ratings and box office is uncanny: film-on-film, virtually every time the critical rating goes up, so does the box office, and likewise their earnings drop when the scores dip. While this isn’t to say that the higher a film is praised, the higher the box office -Ratatouille is their joint highest rated film, but it’s also their 5th lowest earner- it is a near unfailing indicator of how their latest release will fare compared to the last. It would seem Mr. Lasseter would do just as well to keep an eye on Rotten Tomatoes as much as Box Office Mojo.

Of course, such a clearly defined and predictable trend between critical response and box office takings as Pixar’s isn’t necessarily typical. For example, this year’s high profile critical bomb, Batman vs. Superman, managed a measly overall critic’s rating of 35%, and yet it’s America’s sixth highest grossing film this year with a gross of $330 million.

It is then perhaps Pixar’s own reputation for quality filmmaking that brings such a conjoined relationship between critics and audiences. Only one Pixar film has ever received a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes (Cars 2 at 39%) and cinema goers must see the studio as an indicator of worthwhile watching since none of their releases could be considered a financial flop. So while a Pixar film is a box office guarantee and a likely critical darling, there does seem to be evidence that the overall level of audience attendance is being finessed by their films critical form in relation to the previous release.

Often people scoff “Critics? What do they know?” and sometimes with good reason, but in Pixar’s case the critics are -quite literally- right on the money.