The atrocious response from audiences and critics toward the feature adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats has no doubt upset execs at Universal and Working Title this weekend. The movie wound up opening below its $10M-$15M projections to $6.5M, and while you can’t expect much business-wise from adult-skewing movies outside of Star Wars before Christmas Day, the audience PostTrak exits of 2 Stars and a C+ CinemaScore indicate a significantly less than Greatest Showman or Mary Poppins Returns box office future (those two holiday films scored A and A- CinemaScores) for the Tom Hooper directed musical.
In an age when we demand other prolific choices on the marquee outside of standard superhero and family franchise IP, musicals have shown to be a solid form of counterprogramming that taps into female audiences. Hence, the biggest mistake would be (yes, critics, I’m saying this) for Universal and Working Title to not make a movie version of Cats.
WTF why? All the logic was there for Universal and Working Title to make a movie of Cats. The studio has had a hot streak with musicals between its Mamma Mia franchise and their 3-time Oscar winner Les Miserables, the latter a Christmas 2012 release. Oscar-winning filmmaker Hooper after doing justice to that stage opera on screen could certainly be trusted in adapting Cats. The Lloyd Webber musical has grossed close to $4 billion worldwide and is the fourth-longest running Broadway musical of all-time. Why the hell wouldn’t you make a movie version of this musical? The audience is certainly there. And as far as the whole song-driven nature of Cats, well, Mamma Mia proved that masses of females would come out for a non-linear, flimsy plotted pic. Hooper and the studio smartly casted up Cats in a way that would appeal to young females (Taylor Swift in what is arguably her cinematic debut and pop singer Jason Derulo) as well as actors who have respect among Broadway fans and sophisticated moviegoers (Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, Judi Dench). While Les Miserables featured a Foghorn Leghorn vocal turn by Russell Crowe as Javert, there wasn’t one offbeat note sung in Cats. No one was miscast. In order for the movie to one-up the stage musical, there was a great degree of CGI and mo-cap implemented with the costumes, plus sets built twice the size of its human actors. Hooper blew Cats up beyond its stage confines.
So several factors here why business has gone to the litter box for Cats. Obviously the school yard assault by critics goes all the way back to the uncanny valley response to the trailer that was dropped during San Diego Comic Con. Universal wanted to get a trailer out for the film timed to the release of The Lion King, which was opening over Comic-Con weekend, to appeal to mass family audiences. Note overall it was a challenge for Uni to market this movie because Cats footage was never ready. In fact, Hooper was still working on the film up until the night of the pic’s world premiere in NYC on Dec. 16 and exhibition received a note over the weekend that future prints with better VFX are on the way. So, the proper lead-up time to campaign was never on Uni’s side, heck the new Lloyd Webber song performed by Swift “Beautiful Ghosts” didn’t even make the Oscar shortlist, though it received a Golden Globe nom. I understand that while VFX were improved following the social media backlash to the 100M-plus viewed trailer back in July, the whole notion of dancing actor-felines continued to divide, if not freak out audiences. I hear that even Cats EP Steven Spielberg didn’t get a chance to see a final cut of Cats given the pic’s down-to-the minute post production. Still, I don’t care what anyone says about how awful the cats look in the movie, it’s a damn improvement upon the stage show’s tacky disco fluff collar costumes.
One problem I would argue with the critics toward the film is not many of them have seen the original stage Lloyd Webber stage show. And if you haven’t seen Cats on stage, and then walk into the movie, then the entire experience is all-in-tongues. You just won’t get it. Hence in hindsight the realization is that Cats is less accessible to mass audiences than Mamma Mia, which first was grounded in some earthly humanity and had the added value of the ABBA music canon on its side, much like Bohemian Rhapsody, which also had a thin plot, but was bolstered by the Queen songs.
While Cats was lost on the millennial generation, it comes as no surprise to hear that the 55+ crowd gave the movie its best grades of 50% excellent and a 67% definite recommend. The 55+ crowd showed up at 15% while those over 35 made up 38% of the audience. I hear older-skewing markets like West Palm Beach, Fort Myers and Tampa are over-indexing with Cats.
Another thing about the critical response is that Lloyd Webber even by theater critics has continually gotten kicked in the pants for his bubble gum fare on stage, catchy songs and lack of plot. Even New York Times theater critic Frank Rich in his Broadway review of Cats back in 1982 exclaimed “if you blink, you’ll miss the plot.”
“Cats as a whole sometimes curls up and takes a catnap, particularly in Act I. The stasis is not attributable to the music or the energetic cast, but to the entire show’s lack of spine. While a musical isn’t obligated to tell a story, it must have another form of propulsion (usually dance) if it chooses to do without one. As it happens, Cats does vaguely attempt a story, and it also aspires to become the first British dance musical in the Broadway tradition. In neither effort does it succeed…It’s a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does,” wrote Rich.
“Sure enough, the only obvious candidate for redemption is chosen at the climax, and while the audience goes wild when the lucky winner finally ascends, it’s because of Mr. Napier’s dazzling Close Encounters spaceship, not because we care about the outcome of the whodunit or about the accompanying comic-book spiritualism,” summed up Rich, which right there tells you what the inherent problem was with Cats all along.
It was Cats’ song driven, plotless structure which continually became a head-scratcher for Hollywood regarding their delay in bringing it to screen. At one point in 1996, the animation arm of Spielberg’s Amblin, Ablimation, was developing an animated version with Toy Story scribes Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow and Phil Nibbelink and Dick Zondag directing. Prior to that in 1994 playwright Tom Stoppard reportedly took a crack at the screen version of the stage musical. When Ambliation was shuttered, development ceased on Cats but Amblin retained the screen rights to the Webber musical, hence the reason why they’re named as producer.
And despite any commercial stage success for Lloyd Webber musicals, that critical baggage he’s received gets carried over to his feature adaptations, impacting B.O. performance. His two previous popular stage musicals adapted for the screen, 1996’s Evita and 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera, also flamed out at the box office: Evita was too expensive and divided sophisticated audiences with the casting of pop star Madonna, made for $55M net and grossing only $141M worldwide (some even said that the lackluster performance of that movie stalled the development of musicals on screen for a while). Phantom of the Opera off a $70M production cost died in 2004 with a then-fresh face Gerard Butler with $154.6M worldwide.
Despite the great renaissance of musicals at the box office following 2002’s Oscar Best Picture winner Chicago ($306M-plus WW), sometimes the greatest of all musicals simply fail to work in cinemas. A Chorus Line which was Broadway’s longest running musical at one point before Cats beat it, didn’t find an audience in 1985 making only $14.2M stateside. 2005’s Rent which many major filmmakers clamored to make didn’t really wow anyone with $29M domestic. Just like Hooper is experiencing a thumbing down by moviegoers now with Cats following Les Miserables, Rob Marshall can relate: Following Chicago, Nine was panned by critics at 39% and died with just under $20M domestic. Like Cats, Nine was also casted up with Fergie, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren and more. The problem really was — Daniel Day-Lewis just could not sing in the lead role.
Lastly, in counting on what went sideways here with Cats, we could easily blame the release date. Rather than open a PG-rated film in the shadow of Star Wars, Christmas Day would have been more fruitful. What Cats made over the weekend here could have easily been made in one day and the box office media wouldn’t be crapping on it so much. Even though Greatest Showman went ahead of Christmas back in 2017, the movie opened on a Wednesday in a six-day holiday stretch, not a Friday (the film opened to $19M in its 6-day through Christmas). Still, release date aside, you can’t escape those bad audience scores for Cats.
Nonetheless, hope resides at Uni for Cats.
Says Universal domestic distribution boss Jim Orr this morning, “Cats features incredible performances from the most talented cast assembled in some time. We’re confident that audiences will come out and enjoy this musical fantasy as this lucrative holiday period plays out.”