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Why terrible reviews didn't kill The Emoji Movie

Critics gave a great big Thumbs Down to The Emoji Movie, but that didn't stop audiences from flocking to the theater to see it in its opening weekend. The movie managed to pull in just over $25 million, good for second place behind Christopher Nolan's war epic Dunkirk, a figure which has left many, many people feeling Confused Face.

While it's surprising that a such a critically loathed film was able to find box office gold, there were actually a few signs suggesting it would be a hit regardless of its quality. Here's why terrible reviews didn't spell doom for The Emoji Movie.

Kids' movies rely on reviews the least

While good reviews don't necessarily guarantee a hit, bad reviews for big budget blockbusters do tend to have an impact, as they did recently for Baywatch, Transformers: The Last Knight, and The Mummy. However, with The Emoji Movie, that was clearly not the case. The movie briefly held the dubious honor of a zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and although that has since been bumped up slightly thanks to a handful of positive reviews, the movie still falls below all of the aforementioned films when it comes to critics' ratings. 

So why did it succeed? While some studio execs believe that reviews (and specifically the power of review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes) are having an increasing effect on young adults, data also shows that they have less of an impact when it comes to children, who are more likely to pick what they want to see based on their gut reaction. This can be shown through examples like 2012's  Ice Age: Continental Drift, which holds a 37 percent on Rotten Tomatoes but still opened to $46.6 million, good for first place, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, which holds a 16 percent on Rotten Tomatoes but still opened to $14.28 million and second place. 

While both of those films were buoyed by the fact that they were part of a franchise and people were already familiar with their characters, The Emoji Movie also enjoyed that benefit through its familiar concept. As these examples show, kids are more likely to consume media based off of their own attraction to it regardless of the concern of others, which means that The Emoji Movie's reviews were much less of an issue than they would have been for another type of blockbuster.

The movie got a strong advertising push

The key to bringing in viewers is making sure they're aware of the film—and that holds true for young viewers, with kids more likely to push their parents to the theater for a product they've been inundated with. This was definitely something that worked in The Emoji Movie's favor, with the movie getting a massive advertising push that made sure that just about every media consumer knew it was being released. 

This advertising push started in May, months before the movie was set to be released, with billboards going up all over the country. Like most films, the advertising included multiple trailers and a load of TV spots, with the film topping TV ad spending in the week before its release. The advertising also included a notable stunt in which star T.J. Miller parasailed into the Cannes Film Festival, although that particular bit of marketing was more likely to hit parents (and critics) than children.

The Emoji Movie also received a lot of organic buzz on social media, much of it due to the movie's oft-discussed concept and Patrick Stewart's decision to lend his voice to the Poop Emoji. (The film also garnered controversy—and discussion—by tweeting and then deleting an ad parodying Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale.) While a lot of the conversation surrounding the film was negative, it was tough to avoid, meaning that it stuck out in the minds of both parents and children. 

There are a lot of stars attached

Much has been said recently about the declining effect of star power at the box office, but it's hard to deny the power of having a buzzy actor attached to a project. In the case of The Emoji Movie, there were quite a few huge names signed on, including T.J. Miller, whose controversially frank comments keep him in the news often; the always likable James Corden; and stars like Sofia Vergara, Christina Aguilera, and Anna Faris. 

The real get for the film, though, was Patrick Stewart as the Poop Emoji, a bit of casting magic that immediately sparked curiosity. Stewart as the Poop Emoji was a huge source of conversation around the film, adding just the tiniest smidgen of respectability—or something—to a movie many immediately viewed as a cynical cash grab.

There was no similar competition

Parents want to be able to take their kids out to the theater for a few hours of air conditioning and relaxation in the summer months, and The Emoji Movie presents one of their few options right now. The movie arrives in theaters more than a month after the last big notable kids release, Despicable Me 3, and its other animated competitors, Cars 3 and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, have been in theaters for even longer.

The live-action films dominating the box office charts right now aren't exactly kid-appropriate, either. This week's box office winner, Dunkirk, is an intense and violent war movie that definitely earns its PG-13 rating, while Girls Trip and Atomic Blonde both show off different sides of the hard-R spectrum. Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets come the closest to being acceptable for children, but all of those films are only okay for older kids. (Spider-Man and Wonder Woman have also been in theaters for a while already, while viewers may be turned away from Valerian after a highly disappointing opening weekend.) For families looking to take their young kids out to the theater this weekend, there really wasn't anything else to choose from.

And there are no other huge kids movies for a while

The Emoji Movie won't see any popular kid-friendly competition any time soon. August 11 will see the release of The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature, but that film, a follow-up to the badly reviewed 2014 original, hasn't gotten anywhere near the advertising push of The Emoji Movie.

The Nut Job 2 and The Emoji Movie's next competition will come from Animal Crackers, which is an unknown property that hasn't seen its advertising ramp up yet for its Sept. 1 release. While the film shows promise, with John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, and Danny DeVito as part of the voice cast, it probably hasn't popped up on parents' radars yet due to its far away release.

The next huge animated property that parents will see their kids pushing to see is The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which isn't set to arrive until late September. With the dearth in kids' entertainment for the next couple months, it becomes easier to see why parents would be willing to take their kids out to see The Emoji Movie, awful reviews notwithstanding.

Reviews that bad could actually bring some people out to the theater

There's been a long history of very, very bad movies achieving cult status, and The Emoji Movie could be the latest in that group. The film's zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while since sullied, put it in some infamous company which could have pushed some viewers out to the theater.

Of course, not everyone who went to see The Emoji Movie was there to hate-watch, but it makes sense to assume that at least some of the film's success can be attributed to people who were curious to witness the work described by New York magazine's Emily Yoshida as "one of the darkest, most dismaying films" she'd ever seen. Considering the film is one of the worst reviewed movies of the year and one of the worst reviewed animated movies ever, it's certainly in unique and intriguing company—at least as far as fans of bad cinema might be concerned.

Will people keep coming?

Just because reviews didn't put much of a dent The Emoji Movie's first weekend doesn't mean they won't slow its future performance. It still remains to be seen how the film will hold in its second week, with negatively reviewed movies showing a trend of seeing steep drops during their theatrical runs.

While it's hard to say for sure if The Emoji Movie will fit this pattern, there's already some support for the idea that the movie will stumble in its second week. It saw a drop from Friday to Saturday, falling from $10.05 million (including Thursday previews) to $8.66 million. This could imply that word of mouth turned off some potential viewers. 

Still, it's tough to judge The Emoji Movie's full run this early on, and it remains to be seen what kind of staying power it might have at the domestic box office—or how much appeal it'll hold for international audiences. No matter what happens, though, the film's strong opening in spite of awful reviews can only have left Sony execs breathing a sigh of relief.