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Universal Pictures faces at least $70-million loss from ‘Cats’ debacle

Film Title: Cats
Idris Elba as Macavity, left, and Francesca Hayward as Victoria in a scene from “Cats.”
(Universal Pictures)

Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures is bracing to lose at least $70 million after its critically panned movie “Cats” bombed over the holidays, according to a person close to the project.

“Cats” has drawn just $38.3 million globally so far — including $17.8 million in the U.S. and Canada, according to Box Office Mojo — a disaster for a big holiday movie based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit musical.

The studio expects domestic box-office sales to reach at least $30 million, after production costs of about $100 million and close to the same amount in marketing costs, according to estimates from those close to the project who were not authorized to comment.

Such losses are a painful reminder of the risky film business and further evidence of the challenges studios face drawing in audiences to theaters, even for features with stars such as Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson and Idris Elba.

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Even though this year has set records for individual movies, it has also delivered other flops, including STX Entertainment’s “Playmobil: The Movie” and Warner Bros.’ “The Goldfinch.”

However, unlike other misfires from 2019 such as Fox’s X-Men saga “Dark Phoenix” or Paramount’s “Terminator: Dark Fate,” “Cats” isn’t tied to a larger franchise that would be the basis for future sequels and spinoffs.

After “Cats” was released on Dec. 20, executives expressed hope that the movie would eventually reach its target audience during the holidays.

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“The story isn’t necessarily over on how ‘Cats’ is going to play domestically,” said Jim Orr, president of domestic distribution at Universal Pictures. “This audience group doesn’t necessarily rush out on opening weekend.”

A loss of $70 million for Universal would not rank among Hollywood’s biggest write-offs, which include a $200-million hit taken by Disney in 2012 for the movie “John Carter.”

The movie’s prospects weren’t helped by the studio’s choice of trailer, which was widely lampooned on social media. Despite last-minute tinkering on the film by Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper, the studio still had to revise the movie to fix special effects blunders, such as the appearance of Judi Dench’s hand in one scene.

Hooper had already had success with “Les Miserables” in 2012 for Universal, and “Cats” was highly anticipated. Representatives for Hooper did not respond to requests for comment.

After “The Rise of Skywalker” and “Little Women,” 2019 is closing the year out at $11.23 billion in the U.S. and Canada, down 4.4% from last year’s record levels, according to Comscore. That’s despite massive hits from Walt Disney Co. including “Avengers: Endgame,” the highest-grossing global title ever (not adjusting for inflation); “Lion King”; and “Frozen 2.”

Home distributors like Netflix, meanwhile, are filling film fan needs with highly acclaimed films like “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman.”

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Universal hopes to be able to move on from the “Cats” flop when the war epic “1917" is widely released in theaters on Jan. 10, a movie critics and audiences so far seem to love.

The studio will focus on “1917" among other titles for its awards campaign for the coming weeks. The studio removed “Cats” from the list of movies for which it will campaign for awards.


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