Why The Animated ‘Super Mario Bros’ Shattered Box Office Records & The 1993 Pic Failed

Breaking News, Illumination, Marketing, mcdonald's, Movies, Shake Shack, The Super Mario Bros Movie, Universal

While streamers typically get by on thrifty marketing budgets, pushing content largely on their menus, most motion picture studios, like Universal, still have all the superpowers in the world to blast a movie out of a canon.

But here’s something to keep in mind as we detail Universal’s promo playbook below in propelling Illumination/Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros Movie to several opening records ($377M WW, $204.6M 3-day).: IP and marketing machine alone don’t propel a movie to great box office heights.

The Super Mario Bros Movie

The movie also needs to be great. As subjective and simple-minded as that sounds, when it comes to the feature take of the ever-popular video game Super Mario Bros, it meant staying faithful to the source material itself: The game. And that’s exactly what Illumination and filmmakers Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic did in this second big screen go-round of the Nintendo game. That all started by teaming with the original Super Mario Bros game architect Shigeru Miyamoto, who was a hands-on producer on the animated film.

He’s an asset the first 1993 live-action feature adaptation did not have, with the Disney/Hollywood Pictures-distributed title ultimately finaling a disastrous $40M WW off a near $50M production cost.

The best movie marketing machines in town –and Universal has one of ’em– don’t work without a film that connects with audiences (and studios can decipher that appeal well in advance). Super Mario Bros easily notched an A CinemaScore and 88% PostTrak exits, with a 75% Definite Recommend, as opposed to the 1993 film’s B+ and 29% Rotten Tomatoes audience score.

The Super Mario Bros gaming universe since its mid 1980s inception has minted a reported $22 billion worldwide and sold close to 400M games. Back in 1993, Super Mario Bros. was still popular enough to spur a potential stampede at the box office. Midwest exhibitor Rick Roman fired off a letter (correspondence which we’ve read) to then-Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, detailing his theories as to why the Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel movie buckled.

“How can a movie that has a primary market of 56M kids who play the Mario video game relentlessly attract less than 10% of them?” wrote Roman in a letter dated June 22, 1993. The pic opened to a 4-day of $8.5M domestic over Memorial Day weekend.

“The answer lies in the advertising slogan chosen to sell the movie, ‘This ain’t no game.’ The film Super Mario Brothers was precisely that ‘It wasn’t the game’,” wrote Roman.

Katzenberg responded to Roman a month later on July 22, 1993 writing, “We have a few theories of our own around the studio and feel that, clearly, for whatever reasons, the film fell short of satisfying the many fans of the video game. Although the film was long on ambition and imagination, it did not attempt to merely bring the video game to the screen. The filmmakers were quite successful in creating a fanciful world, but ultimately the script did not deliver in the way it could or should have.”

Katzenberg further added, “As you may know, Hollywood Pictures did not fully finance or oversee the creative control of Super Mario Brothers. The film was made by our partners at Cinergi with the Hollywood banner, and Buena Vista Pictures Distribution serving as the distributing entity in this case.”

Like any great animated film (think Shrek), Illumination stunted Super Mario Bros by matching the biggest names in film right now to their respective character likenesses, i.e. Charlie Day as Luigi, Jack Black as Bowzer, Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach, Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong, etc.

Then there was Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt in the title role of Mario. At first there seemed to be some negative chatter online coming away from the fall trailer drop that Pratt’s impersonation wasn’t Italian enough. However, that thankfully blew over for Universal/Illumination/Nintendo, and clearly did not impact the animated pic’s ticket sales. The failure of the 1993 live-action production, which was mired in production problems (read the Variety piece here), was intended to be a prequel, and concocted a story unrelated to the video game with the setting being in sister world Dinohatten. Female protag Daisy learns she’s a descendant of dinosaurs, and she’s kidnapped by King Koopa (Dennis Hopper). Toad isn’t a talking mushroom but a punk rocker. Brooklyn plumbers Mario and Luigi (Bob Hoskins and John Leguziamo) ultimately rescue her from Koopa. Miyamoto’s lack of involvement further exacerbated the pic’s failure. At the time, the movie was a licensing experiment for Nintendo, and the video game corp gave creative control to the filmmakers. That wound up being a bad hindsight move that prevented Nintendo from making another Super Mario Bros movie again, until they teamed with Illumination decades later.

Universal blasted off the Super Mario Bros. Movie trailer at a New York Comic-Con panel back in the fall with a synchronous integration on Nintendo Direct (YouTube digital press conference for the brand), along with a global digital launch. The second trailer dropped in November and was also attached to the holiday’s must-see film, Avatar: The Way Of Water. The second trailer was also boosted with an integration on The Game Awards, a 60-second spot on Sunday Night Football, and a 30-second spot in the World Cup Championship Game. To-date, the three The Super Mario Bros. Movie trailers have amassed more than 750+ million global views.

The end of 2022 also saw the launch of a McDonald’s global Happy Meal campaign for the pic, which featured a Happy Meal Box takeover, themed point-of-sale, digital and social activations, and a custom animated/live-action hybrid TV spot. The campaign canvassed 118 markets and 35K-plus locations. The partnership included two different ranges of Happy Meal Premiums, including plastic figures, which were available in pretty much every global location of McDonalds around the globe.

Late January and February saw the Super Mario Bros. Movie campaign extending to several spots in the NFL Championships games and the NBA All-Star Game, leading into the launch of the movie’s SMBPlumbing site, which powered through the noise with its launch on Super Bowl Sunday. Website traffic has hit more than 35 million interactions and more than 1.6 million users globally. The chatbot feature on the site reportedly reached capacity within an hour of launch and had to be rebuilt to accommodate all the demand.

At the end of February, essentially a month before release, Universal decided to move the pic’s domestic release date to the Wednesday before Easter (instead of Good Friday) in order to sync a complete global day-and-date release. Smart move, as Super Mario Bros. Movie notched a record opening for an animated movie worldwide, beating Frozen 2‘s $358.2M, as well as hitting a 5-day record for Illumination (beating Despicable Me 2‘s 5-day of $143M) and a $146.3M 3-day record (beating Minions‘ $115.7M).

March 10 has been Nintendo’s Mario Day since 2016 (Mar10 resembles the Mario name). That’s when advance tickets went on sale for the movie. The third trailer dropped and the cast appeared on The Kelly Clarkson Show and assembled together with the Roots, Illumination Boss Chris Meledandri, and Miyamoto to sing the Mario theme song on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.

There were TV spots for the pic during March Madness, as well as during Hispanic and Latino programming, that demo leading all stateside audiences at 40%. There were in-game displays for the movie on such kids game sites as Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite. 

What’s remarkable about this opening for Super Mario Bros. is that it was pulled off without a $100M+ global promotional partner campaign, many of which typically include an automobile partner (vehicle partners aren’t standard for an animated movie marketing campaign).

In addition to McDonald’s, there was a Shake Shack promotion, with Super Mario Bros taking over the Shake Shack location in New York City’s Dumbo neighborhood from March 30-April 2. There was film branding inside and outside of the shack, specialty food items, product giveaways, and photos opportunities with the large Question Mark Block, The Super Mario Bros. Plumbing Van, and Mario Kart. 

To kick-off the partnership, there was an influencer and press event held on March 30 hosted by Chance the Rapper. Shake Shack also promoted the partnership in their stores nationally.  In 20 of their locations, as well as on social and digital, they messaged a chance to win tickets to see the movie with the purchase of a ‘Shroom Burger’.

In Mexico, 7-Eleven was a partner, with Super Mario Bros. taking over the inside and outside of stores in Monterrey (their biggest Mexico location), as well as Mexico City. To celebrate the Monterrey installation, 7-Eleven hosted a launch event on March 28 where they invited press, influencers, and consumers. The event had a lighting ceremony, lights and music, and an appearance of a Mario Kart. The larger 7-Eleven program included in-store signage across all 1,875 7-Eleven stores in the country.

Aimed at girl Mario Bros fans, LUSH Cosmetic had a line of products in their 850 stores in 50-plus worldwide markets connected to the pic’s release, including Princess Peach body spray, Mario and Luigi shower gels, and a first-of-its-kind ‘surprise’ mystery Question Block bath bomb, with power-up soaps hidden inside.

Hot sauce TRUFF got into the pic’s action with a Super Mario Bros sauce collection featuring custom designed bottle labels (Mario – Hotter, Princess – Hot, and Toad – Black Truffle) and outer packaging inspired by the Mushroom Kingdom.

NBCUniversal’s Symphony program –which promotes Universal’s feature tentpoles throughout all tenacles of the Comcast empire– included a cobranded Xfinity 10G campaign and a NBC theme night of Despicable Me 3 that featured nearly three minutes of promo time dedicated to The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

At Universal Theme Parks across the globe, attendees were treated to a Mario Kart photo op, theater wraps, a spot on the Studio Tour Tram tour, and retail merchandise. On Mario Day, NBCU Symphony support included a TODAY Show segment, a Peacock ad takeover ahead of every Illumination film on the platform, and custom MAR10 DAY 15-second spots that ran across NBCU cable networks.

Again, all this loudspeaker marketing works when a studio has a movie that they can hook the masses on. While Super Mario fans were let down with the first movie, Universal, Illumination, and Nintendo from the get-go were set to sell them on nothing less than genuine.

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