With ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ big at box office, Paramount catches ‘lightning in a bottle’

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Sonic the Hedgehog‘s road to theaters was a particularly long and winding one, marked by more speed bumps than Paramount Pictures executives could have imagined in greenlighting an adaptation of the popular Sega video game.

But—ironically, for a film about a fast-racing space hedgehog—Paramount’s decision to hit the brakes and postpone Sonic‘s release from last November may have been the key to its runaway success at the box office this past weekend.

Across its four-day opening frame, Sonic the Hedgehog raced past expectations to cross $70 million domestically, bringing in a worldwide haul of $113 million. That blockbuster sum made it the weekend’s top film, dethroning DC Comics adaptation Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), while also securing it the biggest-ever opening for a movie adapted from a video game, a title previously held by last year’s Detective Pikachu, a Warner Bros. title. Reviews, meanwhile, have been mixed-to-positive, an accomplishment in of itself for as critically maligned a subgenre as “movies based on video-games.”

“It was lightning in a bottle the way all of this came together,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, while discussing the box office results. “That movie’s road to the multiplex has been really interesting and unpredictable, but everything came together for it in the end, and it all really worked out. Some magic’s going on there.”

Making this end result all the more impressive is the fact that, mere months ago, Paramount’s franchise hopeful was the Internet’s preferred punching bag, this thanks to a poorly received first trailer in which Sonic appeared far too humanoid—down to his nightmare-inducing set of human teeth.

“The Sonic the Hedgehog movie is blight upon this weary earth,” wrote Kotaku’s Gita Jackson at the time, echoing the less printable sentiments of many on social media. Even Sonic’s original creator, Yuji Naka, tweeted more or less the same thing, also questioning the character’s head-to-body ratio. But instead of simply staying the course like some other similarly maligned CGI fests, Paramount executives and director Jeff Fowler engaged with the criticism head-on, postponing Sonic by three months and vowing to redesign the titular character so as to bring it more in line with fans’ expectations.

This strategy appears to have worked, and then some. Social media reaction to the overhauled character design was far more favorable when another trailer arrived later last year, and the film’s stellar box-office results suggest that Sonic‘s public profile may have been raised by all the controversy, drawing more audiences to the theater on opening day.

“This is an extremely fortunate outcome for this movie,” says Dergarabedian. “Any change to a movie can create the perception there’s trouble for it, issues the movie can’t recover from. Often when movies change release dates or edit their content, those things can derail a movie. Movies where they have publicly presented behind-the-scenes issues, that can often live with the movie forever.”

Instead, Dergarabedian says that the Sonic team’s choice to overhaul its main character’s design—treating the Twitter and Facebook feedback as “free market research”—actually worked to get audiences on board with the film, either out of curiosity as to how the animators’ attempts to salvage the character would go or genuine appreciation toward their efforts to please fans.

“It made people feel like they had a vested interest in the movie,” he says. “That these filmmakers were nimble, malleable, and non-monolithic—because usually a studio is a monolith that is impenetrable—is to be commended. The director and Paramount execs can say, ‘Yeah, we listened to our audience.’”

For Paramount, Sonic‘s stellar box office marks a sorely needed victory, as well as its first franchise starter to hit big in recent years. It’s the studio’s biggest opening since Mission: Impossible – Fallout back in 2018. In a Hollywood studio ecosystem evermore dominated by Disney, the Mouse House’s biggest competitors are in dire need of tentpoles, and Paramount stumbled badly with its two most major ones last fall, ultra-expensive Will Smith vehicle Gemini Man and would-be series restarter Terminator: Dark Fate.

Moving Sonic out of a crowded November release date also may have worked in its favor. Even before Frozen II opened later that month to wipe the floor with any and all competition, especially among family audiences, it had been a crowded month at the box office, with some titles—war epic Midway, car-racing drama Ford V. Ferrari—opening decently and many others more—Charlie’s Angels, Doctor Sleep, Motherless Brooklyn, and Terminator: Dark Fate—flopping outright. By month’s end, there’d only been one major, non-Disney hit: Rian Johnson-directed whodunit Knives Out.

Opening in February, by contrast, the only recent family programming that Sonic had to contend with was Universal’s ill-fated Dolittle, hardly a major box-office threat. Despite some audience overlap with DC Comics title Birds of Prey, the two films had enough separating them for both to enjoy relatively solid weekends, with the latter film earning $20 million over Presidents’ Day weekend, bringing its domestic total to $62 million.

“On paper, November seems better because of the holiday period, with Thanksgiving and kids being out of school,” says Dergarabedian. “But they went into February, where we’ve seen Deadpool and Black Panther succeed, and they found a real opening. It was a little bit of kismet, of luck, the road for Sonic to the multiplex being this unpredictable, interesting, and ultimately a Cinderella story.”

Sonic the Hedgehog marks the most recent instance of early social media reactions to a film leading its studio’s executives to take corrective action, a growing phenomenon also seen recently in Warner Bros.’ decision to retitle Birds of Prey as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey after the film’s wide (and softer-than-expected) opening. By contrast, Universal didn’t respond in a comparable manner to social-media criticisms lobbed at the first trailer for Cats last year. Its now-infamous rollout for the ill-fated holiday musical (complete with CGI glitches and errors that led Universal to send theaters a modified cut of the film after it had opened) led the film to become a box-office bomb, grossing jus $73 million against a $100 million budget.

Sonic, on the other hand, spent a reported $5 million to redesign the character and will have undoubtedly made back that money many times over by the time the film leaves theaters.

“They did this one for the fans—they really did,” observes Dergarabedian. “Most movies are made hoping fans will show up, but usually it’s bracing for impact, not making changes as you go along.”

Such a strategy may have been of particular importance to a video-game adaptation such as Sonic. The risk-reward proposition of adapting pre-existing IP to the big screen, especially ones with already-fierce fan followings, has been understandably tempting to filmmakers and studios over the years. But doing so successfully depends on having a clear, cinematic story to tell with a video game’s characters and mechanics—and getting fans of the original on board. Historically, this has proven challenging.

“They have a very checkered past,” admits Dergarabedian. Look at 1993’s Super Mario Bros., a critically maligned flop that was made for a then-expensive $48 million and grossed only $20.9 million, despite its source material’s global success. More recently, films like Need for Speed, Assassin’s Creed, and Tomb Raider have struggled critically and commercially, while other titles—among them Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and Max Payne—live in infamy as some of the worst movies released in their respective years.

Even the more successful video-game adaptations have generally been met with mixed results. Warcraft, considered a critical and financial disappointment upon its stateside release, is actually one of the more commercially successfully video-game adaptations, owing to its strong box-office performance overseas. it grossed $439 million worldwide, and only $47.4 million of that in the United States.

“I call it the Rodney Dangerfield of genres, because it can’t get no respect,” Dergarabedian says. “It’s a vastly untapped resource to have video-game movies, with all those concepts available, yet filmmakers and studios have been unable to connect the dots.”

Sonic the Hedgehog‘s overperformance at the box office will surely lead to talk of sequels within Paramount, but competitors should be wary of seeing the film’s surprise success as an easy-to-replicate feat, says Dergarabedian.

“Achieving this kind of success again would be very difficult,” says Degarabedian. “It was this perfect storm, this confluence of factors that came together for the movie. And let’s face it—everything we’ve said that made it a hit, had the film failed, would have been attributed to the same reasons. We would have said they shouldn’t have changed the character, shouldn’t have listened to audiences, and shouldn’t have gone to February.”

If any lessons can be taken away from Sonic‘s long road to the top, Dergarabedian says that it could be in the use of teaser trailers to test audience’s reactions to fresh takes on their most-beloved brands.

“You don’t want social media repainting the Mona Lisa because they don’t like something about it,” he says. “And sometimes, in the creative process, you have to go with your gut, and you can’t rely on market research, so I’d say it’s an anomaly rather than a new trend that the audience had a say in Sonic. But its director, Jeff Fowler, deserves all the kudos he’s getting, all the positive attention, for turning that negative into a positive.”

Such efforts, as Sonic demonstrates, may lead to big business at the box office.

“It’s good for the whole industry, because this weekend was up 22 percent over this same weekend last year, and this year’s generally well ahead of last year,” says Dergarabedian. “So much has been made of the fact that 2020 was going to be this sinkhole, and here we are, running ahead.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

Rob McElhenney on exploring misogyny and censorship in gaming with Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet
Portrait of a Lady on Fire filmmaker Céline Sciamma on the female gaze and her “architecture of desires”
Contagion writer, scientific adviser reflect on film’s newfound relevance amid coronavirus crisis
Ava DuVernay on the “radical act” of black love in OWN’s Cherish the Day
Summertime director and cast on crafting a “love letter” to Los Angeles
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