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Why Cats Bombed At The Box Office

Pour one out for Cats as it fades away to the Heavyside Layer. 

The box office verdict has rolled in for director Tom Hooper's second movie-musical foray, and it's not exactly the cat's meow. Initial box office estimations suggested that Cats, the feature film adaptation of the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical of the same name, would earn about $15 million in its opening weekend. When the film opened on December 20 (against Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, no less), it plummeted well below those expectations, pulling in a pathetic $6.5 million domestically.

Such a number is an anemic but acceptable kind of revenue for a limited-release art film. But it's completely unacceptable for a tentpole Christmas release festooned with triple-A cinema and music talent that cost $100 million to make. This poor outcome for Cats was somewhat expected given the many oddities of the movie, but the severity of its opening weekend failure does surprise us. $2.2 million dollars on a wide-release opening day (and half million of that being from Thursday-night screenings) means basically no one saw the movie — and yet, everyone knew about it. So what happened?

There are many reasons for Cats' critical failure, some more obvious than others. Let's take a look at why it happened and if anyone can learn any lessons from this slow-rolling disaster.

The summer trailer for Cats first foretold doom

We can't talk about Cats without talking about its first teaser trailer released in July 2019. What a day that was for social media. The old adage insists that all press is good press, but that certainly wasn't true for this trailer, which landed on the internet with all the grace of an upsettingly wet and gelatinous slap on ceramic tile. The response to the first look at the CGI dancing cats with famous people's faces poorly stapled onto their heads cited the concept of the Uncanny Valley: some were merely put off, and others were outright frightened by the Cats trailer

Not every trailer performs well in its marketing for a film. Usually, that's totally okay because by the time the movie debuts, most people probably won't remember the content of the trailer that was released six months to a year prior. A production is in major trouble, however, if the trailer achieves viral meme status based on terrible it is — and that's what happened to Cats. Going viral guaranteed everyone would remember that trailer for all the worst possible reasons, especially because it was released less than six months before the film was set to come out. Despite promises that the visual effects would be improved when the second full trailer for Cats was released in November, very few people felt assuaged, still horrified by what they'd seen over the summer.

An insane production turnaround

Any movie that relies so heavily on post-production VFX — and markets itself on the idea that said VFX is new and groundbreaking – needs a lot of time to breathe, fail, and improve iteratively as it's finished. For example, Pixar films have an average development cycle timeline of four years to seven years from concept design to finished animation. Cats had seven months of post-production to render everything. Principal photography began in December 2018 and wrapped in April 2019. Yes, you read that correctly: 2019, all in the same year. Universal Pictures released the trailer purporting to deliver finished Cats footage a mere three months later, and the film, of course, was released almost exactly a year after filming began. Shooting and editing a standard live-action film from start to finish in just a year is an insane demand — it's inhumane to ask of a movie that requires so much post-production work. 

Cats had a golden opportunity to step back and reassess itself when Paramount Pictures' Sonic the Hedgehog had a similar trailer disaster and expressed wisdom in deciding to eat humble pie and push back the release date to redesign Sonic. (For the record, the redesign was a massive success, and fans who were initially alarmed by the looks of the film had suddenly changed their tune and fallen in love with Sonic the Hedgehog.) Instead, Cats stuck to its guns, flailed around as it tried to little avail to fix its character design in a minuscule window of time, and continued to show incredible hubris believing it could pull in a sizable audience looking as slapped-together as it did. What was also working against the film was the fact that it debuted the same day as The Rise of Skywalker. How would Cats, with its hurried VFX, make money when people had the option to see an at least visually appealing Star Wars movie instead?

Reviews for Cats put the nail in the coffin

Perhaps odd visual effects displayed in trailers can be forgotten — or even forgiven if the final release redeems itself. Pre-launch footage doesn't represent a finished product, and trailers can end up poorly cut in a way that damages the full storytelling context that will feel appropriately rich in the complete film. Unfortunately, it was all but impossible for Cats to make up for its prior missteps when the press preview for the film went as poorly as it did. Reviews for Cats that came out after Universal lifted the embargo weren't just disparaging — critics took absolute ecstatic delight in being given a movie so terrible they could write elaborate and colorful metaphors about it. 

Movie critique as a job can grow rote over time; it's rare for a film to make such an ignoble debut that critics' work reviewing employs lush and vivid language in describing their bodily recoil. In the case of Cats, one can easily imagine critics rubbing their hands together with anticipatory excitement as they left their screenings to get in front of their laptops and write. All the critic pull quotes on Rotten Tomatoes' page for Cats (the rating is at a deplorable 18 percent, by the way) are a treat to read no matter how much or how little you want to see the film itself — and that is the ultimate death knell for Cats

Once again, the only excitement reflected by its consumers is to relate how much they hated it. Critic reviews still count for something among those who aren't Extremely Online (and will want to see Cats specifically because of the atrocious reviews), which means the overwhelmingly negative consensus on Cats will reach even your out-of-touch grandma and put her off from suggesting the film for her once-a-year trip to the movie theater with the family.

The Cats version 1.01 patch

Director Tom Hooper danced for months around admitting anything about the production of Cats was a mistake. He tried very hard for the "actually-I'm-laughing" response to criticism over the teaser trailer before confessing he was still learning about the technology that's so critical to the film. Honestly, that's expected for a film as expensive as Cats – a corporate line needs to be kept and the smile has to stay plastered on as you soldier through. 

Immediately after release, however, that veneer evaporated in a way not seen before in a film release: a patch was made for Cats. On the very same day Cats hit theaters, Universal emailed thousands of theaters to let them know that a rush package containing an updated version of the film would arrive sometime in the next couple days. 

Every time Cats made the news in the final days before release was about whether or not a final cut would come to fruition. It nearly didn't qualify for the Golden Globes (another effort made in extreme hubris), and Hooper reportedly watched the "final" cut the morning of its press screening. We put "final" in quotes because that's now demonstrably untrue, since Universal put thousands of new jump drives in overnight shipping envelopes. As of this writing, there's even a viral tweet getting around telling viewers what to look for to know if they're seeing Cats 1.0 or Cats 1.01. Top to bottom, Cats represents a strange new world in tentpole filmmaking: the unshakeable studio belief that anyone will show up for anything as long as it has existing goodwill as a property, and if not, patching it like it's World of Warcraft will make it okay.