The Bad Guys was our savior last spring. It was an unseasonably hot day, and Sunday afternoon stretched on endlessly with two kids—five and three years old—who were as sick of the weekend as I was. Based on a graphic novel none of us had ever heard of, the animated film was nonetheless right there when we needed it: an air-conditioned popcorn escape for matinee prices. 

Which is one of many reasons I wasn’t remotely surprised when The Super Mario Bros. Movie crossed $200 million at the Easter weekend box office. Even for a generation raised in the on-demand streaming era, a trip to the movie theater can still be a worthwhile adventure. But for the first few months of 2023, Hollywood seemed to have forgotten that entirely. 

All of Hollywood except Universal Pictures, at least. Before they opened Super Mario Bros. Movie, virtually the only family-friendly competition in theaters was the studio’s own film Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which hung on in the domestic-box-office Top 10 for 12 whole weeks. Even with Super Mario in theaters—and even though Puss in Boots is currently streaming on Peacock—it pulled in $222,000 this past weekend alone. From Christmas break until most school spring breaks, Puss in Boots essentially had theaters to itself when it came to kids. As ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer has pointed out, it made a trip to the multiplex for, say, a five-year-old basically impossible. I personally wound up taking my children to see the 3D rerelease of Titanic at the end of a long, looooong Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, but that’s not exactly a strategy that works for everyone. 

My kids have not lacked for worthy new movies in the past three pandemic years. We watched Soul and Turning Red within days of their streaming debuts; we revisited Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines and Pinocchio many times; we’ve mastered both Encanto and Encanto at the Hollywood Bowl. But all of this, of course, happened at home, on the same TV that can play Bluey and Gabby’s Dollhouse and whatever YouTube video we want to pull up. The only reason my kids know that movies can be even better when you go somewhere else to see them is because I have doggedly emphasized it—despite so many studios, Disney in particular, trying to keep them locked in that streaming ecosystem at home. 

Disappointing box office returns for Lightyear and Strange World last year made it look like a permanent generational shift—kids and parents accustomed to watching anything they wanted on their devices could not be brought back to theaters. But it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. By putting kid stuff on Disney+ and reserving theatrical releases for the broader audience plays of Marvel movies, Disney was teaching families—an audience they have an incredible sway over—where to focus their attention. The failure of Strange World last November remains something of a mystery, but it’s not hard to imagine that the people who had just watched 2.7 billion minutes of Hocus Pocus 2 looked for Strange World on Disney+, couldn’t find it, and gave up. 

Other studios also pivoted to streaming during the pandemic, with Sony selling its animated films to Netflix and Amazon, and Warner Bros. launching its whole day-and-Date HBO Max experiment. All of them—save Netflix, of course—are now more or less walking that back, as part of a broader industry recognition that Top Gun: Maverick is not the only film that can succeed with a theatrical release. That should have seemed like an obvious assumption for kids movies, which have long been the bedrock of the theatrical exhibition industry. But animated films, still a majority of the kids movies that get a theatrical release, take time to complete, and Hollywood shifts can take even longer. 

The long family-movie drought is not quite over. Disney’s Peter Pan & Wendy will, alas, be headed directly to Disney+ on April 28, so Super Mario will have the field to itself for a while. But this summer brings a wide range of films for both younger and older kids: the anticipated blockbusters The Little Mermaid and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, a Pixar original in Elemental, even an adaptation of the picture-book classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. That weekend is shared by DreamWorks Animation’s Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. Two kids movies in a single weekend! An unimaginable bounty. Then again, according to The Ankler, there are still just 12 family films slated for release this year, compared to 24 in 2019—a year they collectively earned $8.2 billion at the global box office. 

I’m not going to teach my children to be cinephiles by taking them to see The Super Mario Bros. Movie, of course. And particularly screen-wary parents might argue that it’s no better having them swap the smaller screens at home for a larger one at the theater. But given how many grown-ups have rediscovered the joy of moviegoing—the box office is up more than 36% from this time last year—why shouldn’t kids get the same chance too? The window for being old enough to see a movie in theaters but not old enough for a Marvel movie or Shazam! is admittedly small, but it’s a prime time for setting lifelong habits. If Hollywood wants moviegoing to exist in 20 years, the industry has to pay attention to its most valuable customers. 


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