‘Home’: How DreamWorks Animation Brought in Girls and Beat the Critics

Heading into the weekend, “Home” looked like yet another box office disappointment for DreamWorks Animation.

The studio has suffered through a grueling period of film flops like “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” “Penguins of Madagascar” and “Turbo.” “Home,” with a projected opening of $30 million to $35 million, seemed unlikely to break the cold streak.

For one thing, reviews of the story about a cute alien who befriends a young girl after earth is invaded were mediocre at best. Plus, the film is of the most dangerous of gambles — it doesn’t have a numeral affixed to its title.

Instead, “Home” put box office prognosticators to shame when it kicked off to $54 million stateside, the company’s third-biggest non-sequel opening ever, behind only “Kung Fu Panda” ($60.2 million) and “Monsters vs. Aliens” ($59.3 million). Overseas the film pulled in $24 million, pushing its global total to $102 million after two weeks in foreign theaters.

“It shows there’s an appetite for quality entertainment,” said Chris Aronson, domestic distribution chief at Fox, which is overseeing the film’s rollout. “The critics missed the boat.”

Fox and DreamWorks felt confident about the picture, Aronson said, because they had screened it extensively and the audience reaction was more favorable than reviews suggested. That continued through the opening weekend, with ticket buyers handing “Home” an A CinemaScore rating.

“The only reviews that matter are the exit polls,” said Aronson. “We let the audience speak and they voted in favor of ‘Home.'”

There were other factors working in “Home’s” favor. Its voice cast features Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Jim Parsons and Rihanna, an ethnically diverse and distinctive list of performers that enable the film to bring in adults as well as children. The numbers back that up — 43% of the audience was over 25, 22% was African-American and 15% was Hispanic.

The picture is also the latest in a long line of recent hits such as “Cinderella” and “Insurgent” to feature a female protagonist. That enabled “Home” to attract an opening crowd that was 60% female.

Word of mouth helped drive crowds who might otherwise have been turned off by lackluster reviews. Exit polls indicate that 64% of those surveyed said they would post positive things about the picture on social-media sites.

“You had parents talking to one another and saying it was a good movie for kids and that’s enough for something to be successful,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and analyst with BoxOffice.com.

The first three months of 2015 have seen an onslaught of R-rated fare such as “Chappie,” “Run All Night,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Focus,” many of which have been box office disappointments. In contrast, pictures like “Cinderella,” “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” and “Paddington” have done robust business by appealing to all ages and have wisely spaced out their debuts so they don’t cannibalize each other’s audience.

“There is a sea of adult content, and they were able to march right in and take advantage of an enthusiastic and underserved family audience,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “DreamWorks needed a hit and they got one.”

Of course, one hit alone won’t brush aside the very real problems the studio faces. It is one of the only publicly traded pure-play entertainment companies in the business, which means its share price can soar or crash to earth with each film debut. Likewise, prior box office disappointments have resulted in massive writedowns and deep staffing cuts.

What is promising, however, is that “Home” was produced by Mireille Soria. She and Bonnie Arnold have been tasked with rediscovering DreamWorks Animation’s creative mojo as the new co-heads of its feature film division. Given “Home’s” performance, that trust appears to have been well placed.

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