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'Spider-Man,' 'Super Mario Bros' signal 'new era' of competition for Disney

Animation has been viewed as a laggard in Hollywood's recovery from COVID. Two recent movie releases show that isn't the case anymore.

Last weekend, Sony's "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" (SONY) secured a $120.65 million domestic debut, according to the studio, beating conservative estimates of $80 million. It was the best opening ever for Sony Pictures Animation and the third-biggest opening weekend for any Spider-Man film.

The film’s gross marks the second biggest opening of 2023 thus far, narrowly surpassing Disney's (DIS) "Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 3," to land behind another animated title — Universal's "Super Mario Bros. Movie" (CMCSA.)

The films add to the firepower of Universal and Sony at the US box office, which is dominated by Disney.

"These were huge franchises and characters that people love, but maybe underpinning that even more is the fact that there has been this pent-up demand," Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro, told Yahoo Finance. "The last couple of years, even though movies have been coming back, the straggler out of all of the content was animation and family-friendly content. A big part of that is because those films take so long to produce and were naturally going to be the most impacted from all of the COVID delays."

The economics of animated film

'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse' (Source: Sony)
'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse' (Source: Sony)

According to Robbins, animated films typically require a production window that is two to three times longer than that of traditional movies due to the intricate work of animator teams, which have to create each second of the film from scratch.

At the same time, such movies tend to cost less because they don't require physical sets and actors. That means significant potential upside for studios — especially if a movie is based on a pre-existing franchise with a built-in audience of children and their parents, Robbins said.

"Kids tend to rewatch content they love over and over, and that's an affordable cost that parents can certainly justify in their household budgets as they try to save money and keep their children entertained at the same time," he continued.

Robbins said "Spider-Verse's" success can also be attributed to its diverse cast of characters with the film featuring a Black and Puerto Rican title character, Miles Morales.

"So many people from different ethnicities are represented in the movie. It's broader appeal outside of just the traditional Marvel fan base that we talk about," he said, adding positive reviews from both critics and audiences likely boosted receipts, as well. "People just want to go out and spend money on content that they know they can come out and feel good about and spread that word of mouth."

'Changing of the guards'

The successful debuts of both "Spider-Verse" and "Super Mario Bros." show how Disney, historically the pioneer in animation, is getting some fresh competition from other studios.

In 2022, Disney led the box office with $1.93 billion in ticket sales, or 26% of the overall market share, according to a Deadline analysis based on Comscore data.

Universal came in second with $1.64 billion, or 22% of market share. Sony is in a smaller bucket, with its 2022 domestic box office coming in at $843.8 million, representing 11% of market share.

Despite Disney's position as the top film producer, the company has faced recent struggles, particularly around its animation business.

Last summer, Pixar's "Toy Story" prequel "Lightyear" fell short of expectations, securing just $51 million in its domestic debut before going on to gross a mere $118 million in theaters ahead of an expedited Disney+ release.

More recently, the animated film "Strange World," starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid cost the company a reported $200 million after it opened to dismal reviews during Thanksgiving week, marking one of the worst flops of 2022.

Industry watchers blamed the misses on poor marketing plans and audience confusion over which titles were theatrical exclusives and which were streaming-only releases on the company's Disney+ platform.

That, coupled with poor word-of-mouth reviews, contributed to these films' lackluster performance, in Robbin's view.

"I think we're in a new era," he said. "It certainly looks a little bit like a changing of the guards with other animation studios doing so well and Disney not necessarily being at the forefront of it right now."

Disney CEO Bob Iger referenced "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" during the company's latest earnings call, suggesting more upside to its own theatrical business as the executive resets the company's strategy.

"Allow me to digress for a moment to congratulate Universal for the tremendous success of ‘Super Mario Bros.,'" Iger said on the call. "It certainly proves people love to be entertained in theaters around the world, and it gives us reason to be optimistic about the movie business."

Comcast, the owner of Universal, noted the success of the franchise, along with others such as "Despicable Me,""Shrek,""Pets," and "Minions" on its own earnings call.

"These are the results of the strategic decision we made years ago to become a leader in animation and the conviction we've had to continue to invest in the business even during the depths of the pandemic, which are now clearly paying off," CEO Brian Roberts said.

Alexandra Canal is a Senior Reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @allie_canal, LinkedIn, and email her at

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