For a while there it seemed like Cats was just crazy enough to work. Sure, the idea seemed roundly preposterous, the trailers were borderline horrifying, and the CGI was, to put it politely, off-putting. But the stage version is one of the biggest blockbusters in musical theater history. Throughout its history-making runs on Broadway, the West End, and elsewhere, it’s made around $4 billion, more than any single Marvel movie. Plus, we figured the sheer intrigue factor alone might help to bump its box office take.
Besides, musicals released during the holiday season have a recent track record of sneakily raking in the cash. The Greatest Showman (aka Hugh Jackman’s circus musical) also had a ridiculous premise, but despite a non-blockbuster opening weekend of $8.8 million, it stretched its legs and ended up taking $435 million around the globe. La La Land, Les Misérables, and even films like Into The Woods and Mary Poppins Returns have all at least made money for their studios, if not turned into full-on sensations in recent years.
Yet, it seems Cats is not in for the same success. Not only did critics roundly drub it (it has a paltry 20 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), but audiences generally felt it wasn’t worth the price of admission, either. It got a C+ CinemaScore from opening night moviegoers—a score usually reserved for bad horror movies. Even horrible movies can often squeak by with a B. (The much derided Playmobil: The Movie managed to get a B+.) Universal Pictures has reportedly scrapped any plans for a serious awards season push for the film as well, which at one time seemed like it could have been a contender in below-the-fold categories like Best Original Song or Visual Effects. And on top of all that, Deadline now estimates the film could end up losing $71 million for its studio when all is said and done. That’s not hard to believe, considering the film has only racked up $41 million worldwide.
Broadway heads have been quick to point out that the stage magic of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is tricky to reproduce on film. Previous adaptations of his plays like 1996’s Evita and 2004’s Phantom of the Opera took critical drubbings. Though, they did manage to not only squeak out a profit, but each received multiple Oscar nominations (Madonna even won an acting Golden Globe for the former). The industry and audiences have a way of being kind to musicals even when film critics aren’t, more so than most genres.
Cats seems to be the exception to the rules in every way, and—thankfully for your Broadway-loving aunt or best friend—the big December musical release will carry on. Hollywood has two very, very big guns lined up for the next two Decembers after all. Next year we’ll be treated to Steven Spielberg’s take on West Side Story. The famed director has never helmed a musical before, but he’s chosen one of the most successful. Unlike Cats, it also has a recognizable plot. It’s borrowed from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet after all.
In 2021, Universal will also bring us a Wicked adaptation. Not much is known about that film yet. No stars are attached, but it also has all the makings of a success. Wicked, too, has a recognizable plot and is based on a well-known IP (The Wizard of Oz, if you’re not aware). Unlike Cats, which found its biggest theater success during the heyday of the baby boomers, Wicked is massively popular amongst millennials as well.
You’d almost have to actively work to make either of those projects as big of a bomb as Cats. So, the December musical, as an idea, is safe for now.
Sadly, the fate of one possible musical adaptation does still remain in doubt. A production of Sunset Boulevard, also a Webber musical, was announced last year with Glenn Close set to star, but no updates have been provided since.