“Cats,” the big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash musical, has been the subject of much internet scrutiny since Universal first debuted footage over summer. Will curiosity for the art form now known in popular culture as “digital fur technology” translate into commercial success?
As anticipation for the cinematic spectacle heightens ahead of its Dec. 20 release, “Cats” is still on pace to make $15 million to $17 million in its inaugural outing. Universal positioned the film as counter-programming against “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” and Disney’s final chapter in the Skywalker saga is projected to land one of the biggest opening weekends of the year.
Musicals are a polarizing genre, making it tricky when it comes to predicting box office fortunes. But “Cats,” in a way, is its own kind of four-quadrant movie: those genuinely excited (including fans of the property), those cautiously curious, those interested in a hate-watching and those who wouldn’t be caught dead buying a ticket.
It’ll take all kinds to fuel the lengthy theatrical run needed for “Cats” to turn a profit. Universal shelled out $100 million to produce the film, a figure that doesn’t include global marketing or distribution costs. Even if “Cats” is overshadowed by “Star Wars” on box office charts, industry prognosticators believe it could claw its way to a long life in theaters.
Box office watchers aren’t betting against “Cats,” and not just because the stage version has been a draw for decades. “The Greatest Showman” was essentially written off after bowing with a soft $8.8 million in 2017. However, the musical centered on ringleader P.T. Barnum (portrayed by the ever-charming Hugh Jackman) became a sleeper hit as singalong screenings and repeat viewings carried the movie to a mighty $434 million worldwide. Recent successes including “La La Land,” ($446 million), “Rocketman” ($195 million) and “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” ($394 million) have helped the genre enjoy a kind of box office renaissance. “Cats” is hoping to find itself in that company rather than the ignominious group of popular musicals-turned-movies like “Rent” ($31 million) and “Rock of Ages” ($59 million) that were seen as derivative.
“If history is any guide, movies that are overshadowed by bigger films upon initial release can often find favor over time with audiences once the noise of whatever juggernauts wane a bit,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analysts at Comscore. He cautions: “Of course, [that is] if the reviews and audience reaction are strong.”
“Cats” will certainly be pitched for competition. Lionsgate’s “Bombshell,” a drama about the female Fox News anchors who went public with sexual harassment allegations against Roger Ailes, is launching nationwide the same weekend. Meanwhile, movie theaters will be crowded with everything from family films like “Jumanji: The Next Level” to awards hopefuls such as “Little Women.” However, holiday releases tend to have big multiples since people often visit their local multiplex more than once between Christmas and New Year’s.
Outside of Golden Globe voters (who didn’t show much love Monday save for a lone best song nomination for Taylor Swift and Webber), very few have seen “Cats” in its entirety, so it’s impossible to know what word of mouth looks like. Both reviews and social media reactions are embargoed until Dec. 18, potentially a move to control online chatter.
“Reviews and audience buzz will be crucial for ‘Cat’ [in terms of] long-term playability,” Dergarabedian emphasized.
Director Tom Hooper has proven his musical chops with “Les Miserables,” his 2012 movie adaptation starring Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried. That film sung its way to $441 million in ticket sales and a handful of Oscars nominations. “Cats” could also benefit from a high-wattage cast that includes Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen and Jason Derulo. Like the stage version, “Cats” centers on a tribe of cats called the Jellicles, one of which will be selected to receive a new life.
“Though opening against ‘Rise of Skywalker’ may not deliver immediate perceived dividends,” Dergarabedian predicts, “patience, time and audience enthusiasm could turn the film into a marathon-style hit that will play well into 2020.”