How Internet Backlash Helped ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ Avoid Box Office Disaster

Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE
Photo Credit: Courtesy Paramount

It’s not a stretch to say Universal’s “Cats” and Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” had two of the most polarizing movie trailers in recent memory. Both caught fire online for all the wrong reasons after fans on social media torched the questionable CGI.

“Cats,” an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, used a new science called “digital fur technology” to bring the four-legged felines to the big screen. The expensive CGI, which had been teased relentlessly, would have been too costly to completely retool before it was unleashed over the holidays. The film became a box office disaster and lost $100 million theatrically after factoring in marketing costs.

“Sonic” could have easily suffered the same fate. But rather than releasing the movie when it was initially slated to debut last November, Paramount delayed the film so director Jeff Fowler could redesign the animated character, whose creepy teeth initially made him look a little too human. It was an unusual move, but one that ultimately resulted in positive reviews and a three-day opening weekend of $58 million, the best showing ever for a movie based on a video game.

“I can’t remember another time there’s been a reset, but it was incredibly smart of everyone involved to listen to the fans and  give them what they want,” said Paramount’s president of domestic distribution Chris Aronson, who worked at Fox when the studio pumped the brakes on “Sonic.” “The consumer always determines what is right and what is wrong. They made their voices clear, and we listened.”

The family friendly adventure brought in an additional $43 million at the international box office, boosting its global total to $100 million. That’s an encouraging start, however “Sonic” will need enthusiasm to maintain overseas to make up for the fact that the coronavirus epidemic is negatively impacting moviegoing in Asia. So far, a release date has yet to be set in China, the world’s second biggest movie market. “Sonic” cost $87 million to make, not including global marketing expenses.

“On paper if you look at everything that happened, you’d say this movie is in trouble,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “A lot of people would have written it off.”

Messes behind the camera that spill into public consciousness can often signal trouble to audiences. Instead, the retooling of visual effects only heightened awareness and  increased interest in the film. The live-action and CGI hybrid follows the world’s fastest hedgehog (voiced by Ben Schwartz), who teams up with a local cop (James Marsden) to defend the planet from a waxy mustached villain named Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). As one of the only options for ticket buyers with young children, “Sonic” won over family crowds. It won’t face much competition among that demographic until Disney’s “Onward” opens on March 6.

“Huge changes to marketing or the movie itself are usually a kiss of death because, generally speaking, it connects the film with something negative,” Dergarabedian said. “This was really a huge win because the studio was able to, in an efficient way, take that negative and turn it into a positive.”

Dergarabedian adds, “It shows how important social media is to studios. It could be a new paradigm to take the temperature of the audience.”

“Sonic” might have struggled at the box office even without the need for a high-profile redesign. Audiences, especially in the U.S., aren’t always receptive to movies based on video games. “Detective Pikachu” was a modest hit for Warner Bros. last year, but other attempts to turn video games into blockbuster movies like 2018’s “Tomb Raider” reboot, 2016’s “Assassin’s Creed” and “Warcraft” all faltered, in part because moviegoers felt they weren’t faithful to the source material. But “Sonic,” by comparison, was mostly embraced by critics (it has a 63% average on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (who gave it an “A” Cinemascore).

“This movie exceeded [audience’s] expectations,” Aronson said. “That’s a testament to that reset and terrific performances by Jim Carrey and the entire cast.”

For Paramount, “Sonic” was a crucial box office victory. The studio has been saddled with a series of big-budget disasters such as “Gemini Man” and “Terminator: Dark Fate” last year, while smaller movies such as “Wonder Park” or “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” hardly brought in the kind of ticket sales that inspire new franchises. But power players at Paramount are optimistic that “Sonic” signals a change in tides. “Top Gun: Maverick” and “A Quiet Place 2” are among its most anticipated titles set for 2020.

“This is part of the Jim [Gianopulos] turnaround of the studio,” Aronson said, referring to the studio’s CEO. “This is the first step. Paramount Pictures will be back.”