Disney Banks on 'Finding Dory' Swimming Past Soggy Openings of Recent Movie Sequels

In Finding Dory, the Walt Disney  (DIS) animated film that opens in theaters on Friday, the lead character is a blue tang fish that can't swim against the tide. Disney is banking that its Pixar-produced film, a sequel to the mammoth 2003 film Finding Nemo, doesn't face the same fate in a summer box office season in which sequels are sinking faster than a waterlogged raft.

Disney is spending an estimated $200 million to make the film, which features the voice of comedienne Ellen DeGeneres as Dory and a cast that includes the voices of Ed O'Neill, Ty Burrell, Albert Brooks and others. By comparison, it spent $94 million to make Finding Nemo, according to the IMDb website.

This summer hasn't been kind to sequels, with follow-ups to such blockbuster films as Fox's (FOXA) X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from Viacom's (VIAB) Paramount studio performing below industry expectations.

Disney flopped with Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to its 2010 blockbuster Alice in Wonderland. This year's installment opened on May 27 with a puny $26.9 million in its first weekend, according to movie site Box Office Mojo, far below its predecessor's $116.1 million opening weekend.

"There are so many high-profile films that had disappointing openings that it looks like a micro-trend," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior movie analyst for audience measurement company comScore. "But it not as much a bias about sequels as it is about films that haven't delivered. These days if audiences don't like films, they don't tweet about them, and that hurts."

Finding Dory arrives at movie theaters with generally strong reviews. Metacritic thus far gives it a score of 77 out of 100, based on 11 critics it surveyed, and calls them "generally favorable reviews." The film also has received "fresh ratings" from 22 of 23 critics polled by Rotten Tomatoes, giving the film an approval rating of 96%. It also said 99% of moviegoers it surveyed said they wanted to see the movie.

As it does with its big-budget event films, Disney is pulling out all the marketing stops to promote the film. Its 13 marketing partners include Kellogg's (K) , Coppertone, Subway sandwich shops and Kraft's (KHC) Macaroni and Cheese, according to Disney's studio site.

Disney's theme parks began selling blue Dory candy apples in May and on June 11 declared Speak Like a Whale Day at its parks, cruise ships and other venues, based on Dory's claim she learned to speak like a whale. Visitors were given buttons and invited to take part in undersea games and parties and meet characters from the film, the company said on its site.

A Disney spokesman did not return an email seeking comment.

Pixar, whose films include the Toy Story and Cars films, has one of Hollywood's most enviable track records, but it nevertheless isn't bomb-proof. It flopped in November when it released The Good Dinosaur, which was made for $200 million and, according to Box Office Mojo, generated worldwide revenue of $331.9 million. (A studio collects about half the domestic box office sales and as little as 25% of foreign sales.)

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held positions in Disney, Viacom and Kraft.

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