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Unpacking ‘The Emoji Movie’s’ $25 Million Box Office Opening

What to do with “The Emoji Movie’s” box office debut? Should it get a thumbs up? A thumbs down? Should we simply throw up our hands and leave it alone?

Here are the facts: Sony Animation’s latest opened this weekend in second place at the domestic box office behind “Dunkirk,” and as recently as Saturday was projected to be in the running for first. By the weekend’s end, the animated adventure based on Unicode characters should make $25.7 million, about in line with expectations earlier in the week.

But this is not just any release. This is “The Emoji Movie.” This is the movie that (pardon the crassness) was Sir Patrick Stewart-ed on by critics, eliciting vitriol that sparked a second wave of headlines after the initial reviews that included “The Meanest Lines From ‘The Emoji Movie’ Reviews,” the more promising (?) spin “‘The Emoji Movie’ Lost Its 0% Rotten Tomatoes Rating Thanks to This Positive Review,” and put simply, “Nobody Likes ‘The Emoji Movie.’” Yes, it was a blood bath.

So how can “The Emoji Movie” weather the critical storm,and not flop? How does this fit into the narrative pushed by some studio execs in recent months that review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes are increasingly important in helping audiences make decisions, especially as ticket prices increase, and the market is crowded and alternative platforms are diversifying? One possible explanation is that “The Emoji Movie’s” performance doubles down on the theory that films targeting children are the most critic-proof. That is, considering kids are more likely to act on instinct, and not based on what someone says on Twitter.

But despite its solid initial showing, there are signs that word of mouth could hurt the movie’s bottom line after all. While animated movies including recent releases based on pre-existing IP “Lego Batman” and “Trolls” saw grosses increase between Friday and Saturday (the idea being that a family-friendly movie is also Saturday matinee-friendly), “The Emoji Movie” saw a dip in earnings between Friday (which includes Thursday previews) and Saturday. In this case, only time will tell if the flick has legs.

If that sounds unfairly negative, it’s worth noting that budgets on animated features can run the gamut, and “Emoji” is far from the biggest gamble. For its $50 million price tag, the studio says it’s pleased with the opening number. A huge part of what has made the movie click with ticket-buyers as much as it has can be attributed to the highly-visible marketing campaign behind it. After all, you probably knew “The Emoji Movie” was coming out. It was truly difficult not to know. On top of that, the release date provided enough space after “Despicable Me 3,” and another week in the clear before “The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” hits theaters to try to steal “Emoji’s” thunder.

But on top of the more analytical look at “The Emoji Movie’s” mark on the box office, is an emotional one. Three and a half years ago “The Lego Movie” taught critics (and pretty much everyone else) to keep an open mind about the potential for what, on paper, might seem like a shameless IP grab. Even a movie that seems to exist solely to sell toys can have creativity and heart.

In an industry that is often decried for its lack of originality, the bar for a movie to be praised for (or despite its lack of) originality seems quite low. “Girls Trip” and “Dunkirk” were both praised for being non-sequel, non-franchise films (at least, not yet), and have been celebrated by critics and audiences. It’s very rare that a movie that is truly original comes along. “Inside Out” was one of those rare films. Now “The Emoji Movie” has been clobbered (including in Variety‘s review) for being a “witless ‘Inside Out’ knockoff.” Just the fact that there has never been a movie about emoji before is not enough.

And so Sony and “The Emoji Movie” will be fine, and life goes on, but the fear remains that we as theatergoers are made even more cynical. If the bar for originality is low, failure to meet that is all the more heartbreaking. In many ways the question of “What to do with ‘The Emoji Movie’?” seems unanswerable — at least for now until its run is completed, and analysts can observe its longterm performance. But after rounding up the numbers we have to go off of, and, yes, the emotions too, a simple thumbs up for a solid number will not suffice.

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