... [P]opping up in fourth place, with a surprisingly strong $16.1 million, was a 3D cartoon that seemed to have come out of nowhere, "Escape From Planet Earth." Here's a kids' film that's not based on a familiar title or franchise, one without A-list stars in the leads, made by off-brand animators (Rainmaker Entertainment, which had never made a theatrical feature before) for an indie studio (The Weinstein Company), with marketing below the radar, no screenings for critics, and a nasty stench from the legal battle that kept the movie out of theaters for two years. Plus, the alien-invasion premise recalled last year's biggest animated flop, "Mars Needs Moms." In short, "Escape" seemed like the kind of unwanted picture that studios dump into theaters in the dead of winter when no one will notice. Certainly no one expected it to open in the upper teens.
So what's behind the surprising success of "Escape From Planet Earth"? Here are some galactic guesses:
Timing is everything. Yes, February is a box office dead zone, but it also has turned out to be a month sorely in need of a family-friendly movie. In fact, there really haven't been any since the start of 2013, a year marked so far by R-rated action fare, horror, teen romance, and Oscar-bait dramas. There's been nothing for kids, especially kids under 10, so "Escape" had the marketplace all to itself. And parents were apparently so happy to have something to take their kids to see that they even ponied up for the 3D surcharge, adding even more to the film's take.
[And] an original premise isn't a bad thing. ...
Here's a musty secret: The trailer for Escape From Planet Earth has been in theaters a good while now. I know this because I've seen the trailer for a good while. And the trailer always played well and got positive audience reaction. (There were usually other animated trailers; Escape got more pleasurable noises from the people in the seats.)
Audience response to a preview isn't necessarily a big predictor of audience attendance, but the trailer indicated a DreamWorks AnimationBlue Sky Studios kind of experience, and I think the trailer -- at the end of the looong preview cycle -- helped get fannies in the seats.
In any event, $16 million earned by a picture for which nobody had high expectations is pretty impressive. And no Big Star voices either! (Who would have imagined?)