How to Gain from 'Dragon'

by Brandon Gray
How to Train Your Dragon

May 20, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon has been an enduring yet unlikely success since its launch on Mar. 26. Enduring in the longevity of its box office run, and unlikely due to its genre and how it strayed from the DreamWorks Animation norm.

With close to $209 million through its eighth week, Dragon has grossed nearly five times what it did on its opening weekend, which is the biggest multiplier of any 2010 nationwide release thus far and, among major animated releases, the biggest multiplier since Finding Nemo. Its average weekend drop-off rate has been a slim 26 percent. When it led the April 23-25 weekend, it was the first movie in over four years to reclaim the weekend top spot, and it's been in the Top Five since it opened. The last animated feature to spend that much time in the Top Five was Toy Story in 1995.

When How to Train Your Dragon drew $43.7 million on its opening weekend, it was unfairly maligned. The media and the industry had some random, largely unfounded expectations that the picture didn't live up to (as they often do). Sure, Dragon had an enormous release of 4,055 theaters, and it had a ubiquitous marketing campaign, which had some questionable elements like renaming the picture "DreamWorks' Dragons" and interstitials that interrupted the Winter Olympics. Its start also paled compared to Monsters Vs. Aliens' $59.3 million debut on the same weekend in 2009.

But Dragon was a different beast. In the media's typically context-dropping, subjective rush to judgment, what was ignored is that movies about dragons or Vikings have never been big at the box office, nor has action-oriented animation. Dragon was a tough sell that people had to warm up to, making its $43.7 million debut a very good showing, even if the movie only went on to have a normal animation trajectory. After all, it was the top-grossing start ever for a dragon or Viking movie by a wide margin. Also ignored was the fact that Dragon had eight weeks as the market's only significant family movie until the launch of Shrek Forever After on May 21.

Unlike Monsters Vs. Aliens and its brethren, Dragon lived beyond what its sizable opening suggested because it was a marked departure for DreamWorks Animation. There were no superstar voices to overwhelm the proceedings. Celebrity voices were employed, but they weren't that famous nor was their presence shoved down moviegoers' throats. More importantly, pop culture references and flippancy did not abound, like they have in most DreamWorks titles.

Instead, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (the team behind Lilo & Stitch) and DreamWorks focused on creating a timeless story, developing character relationships and emotional resonance, all supported by the picture's soaring spectacle. With that universal approach, Dragon was arguably more in the tradition of Pixar than DreamWorks, and that paid off in word-of-mouth.

"Dragon was unique for DreamWorks," said Anne Globe, head of worldwide marketing for DreamWorks Animation. "We're very proud of it, and we always felt that the story itself was the kind that needed to be nurtured and handled in a unique way. It just doesn't adhere to the playbook from a marketing point of view." Ms. Globe credited Dragon's emotional component combined with its natural 3D integration. "People really feel something. That sort of deeper connection to the story has been the key. The whole of it was greater than the sum of its parts."

Dragon is on pace to replace Kung Fu Panda as DreamWorks Animation's highest-grossing non-Shrek release. Panda generated $215.4 million, though Dragon's unlikely to top Panda's attendance due to its inflated 3D prices. Overall, 3D has accounted for 67 percent of Dragon's total gross. Sift the 3D ticket price premium out and Dragon's $209 million would adjust to the equivalent of less than $170 million.

"We're committed to 3D for all of our films and the new horizons that the technology offers on the marketing side," said Ms. Globe. "If you think about a year ago, the challenge at that point was to tell people that Monsters Vs. Aliens was coming in the new, modern 3D. This year, we were able to trailer Dragon on Alice in Wonderland and Avatar. 3D's a completely different arena in just a year."

Trimming Dragon's margin over Panda will be the advent of Shrek Forever After. On May 21, Dragon's theater count drops from 2,620 to 1,751, due in part to the fourth Shrek lumbering into a whopping 4,359 theaters. Shrek will also claim a record 2,373 3D sites, and, though the nationwide 3D screen count has been steadily increasing, a big new release still means that aging 3D holdovers must relinquish screens. In this case, Dragon's 3D theater count will fall to 243. The loss of those venues and their ticket price boost as well as Shrek grabbing the same audience's attention means that, from here on out, Dragon will drop off at a faster rate than it's accustomed to.

DreamWorks Animation has a sequel to How to Train Your Dragon in the works, unofficially targeting a 2013 release.

More 'Dragon' Analysis:
1/15/10 - 2010 Preview: 'How to Train Your Dragon'
3/25/10 - Briefing: 'How to Train Your Dragon'
3/29/10 - Weekend Report: 'Dragon' Takes Flight in Its Opening
4/26/10 - Weekend Report: 'Dragon' Dominates by Default

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