BOB GARFIELD: Producer Ken Viselman, the marketing guru behind the explosive American success of the Teletubbies and Thomas the Tank Engine, had a vision, a movie for toddlers that encouraged the audience to sing, dance and interact with the onscreen action. The result was The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, a self-distributed affair that premiered late last month on more than 2,000 screens and featured celebrities like Cary Elwes, Toni Braxton, Christopher Lloyd and Chazz Palminteri. It was historic in that The Oogieloves had the worst opening weekend box office in history, earning less than $500,000 over three days, or just $206 per screen. We got ahold of Entertainment Weekly’s Grady Smith, fresh from seeing The Oogieloves in the theater. Honestly, he sounded a little dazed.
GRADY SMITH: It is so many levels higher on the demented scale than I could have imagined. There is this pillow that only speaks his own pillow dialect. There are magical balloons. There is a vacuum cleaner named J. Edgar. It is so colorful –
- and the- the songs are so weird, and you are forced to say Goofy Toofie, pick up your pants – a myriad of times. I just wasn’t even expecting something that weird.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s kind of like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory meets Alice in Wonderland meets Rocky Horror Picture Show.
GRADY SMITH: It’s like all those mixed with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] It only grossed $448,131. [LAUGHS] They spend something like $40 million on this film. How much of that was for advertising?
GRADY SMITH: Well, they spent 20 million to make the film, and then reported 40 million just to promote it, so that 40-million figure is all marketing.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I’m a parent of former toddlers. And I certainly understand the dynamics of a big toddler-targeted film. The kids somehow know about it through the ether, and somehow you wind up in a line with a bunch of other toddlers to see the opening weekend. Why did that phenomenon not take place with Oogieloves?
GRADY SMITH: I think the demographic of children seeing a movie like Brave which made over $230 million this summer, it’s a couple of years older than the type of crowd that Ken Viselman intended on coming to see The Oogieloves. He really wanted this to be an experience for young, young, young children. He thinks other kids [?] there, like Kung Fu Panda is too violent and too many pop references. So he wanted this to be an interactive experience, where toddlers could jump up and down and goof off in the theater. But it clearly didn’t work out the way he was intending it to. In 1999, another similar film called Elmo in Grouchland – it only made $11 million total, and it cost 26 million - it was another similar flop and another example of the fact that maybe toddler entertainment is best left for television or direct-to-DVD or video titles.
BOB GARFIELD: I saw some – the clips from the film in one of your blog posts, and I have to say that although the production values are simply pitiful, there was something kind of endearing about watching these celebrities just completely surrender dignity just to be cute in a three-year-old way. I kinda liked it.
GRADY SMITH: I mean, there’s something to be said for that. I think the film cost $20 million and, like you said, the production values, they aren’t that impressive. So that money had to go somewhere, and I’m guessing these celebrities were paid very well for these appearances. So they have good reason to be gung-ho into their characters. The tolerability [LAUGHS] of their performances varies. I think Toni Braxton is actually sort of funny. I think Cary Elwes is sort of unbearable. He played the character named Bobby Wobbly, who literally can’t stop wobbling and speaks in a yodel almost and blows bubbles out of his mouth.
BOBBY WOBBLY/SINGING: Wobble to the le-eft Wobble to the
ri-ight. Wobble Bobble all around, and bow with all your mi-ight.
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GRADY SMITH: About five minutes of him onscreen gets pretty grating after a while. But I see what you’re seeing. It is sort of funny to see them be shameless a little bit and not take themselves so seriously that they wouldn’t make a movie like this.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the film, in and of itself, is pretty bizarre, but not as bizarre as what Ken Viselman told one of your competitors at thewrap.com. He said [LAUGHING] that having terrible box office was all part of his master plan, a master plan to turn this not merely into a single one-off film, but a – a franchise of what?
GRADY SMITH: He says there are plans to make two more movies, shot back to back in October. And he told us that he – he had no intention of making money with this money. I mean, he did say that he’s not gonna lie and say that these were good numbers and that they were disappointed with them. But, by all accounts, it looks like he’s planning on moving forward. And, according to Ken, the investors are still on board and they’re still excited to see where The Oogieloves go.
BOB GARFIELD: When Viselman talks about how the opening weekend is not gonna disrupt his long-term plans, is it possible that he’s counting on The Oogieloves’ instant entry into Hollywood lore, for having failed so gigantically that that will somehow propel subsequent projects into the public eye?
GRADY SMITH: I think he really is looking at the big picture. I don’t know that he’s looking it totally as a joke, just yet. He’s really interested in creating a culture of an interactive theatergoing experience, which doesn’t exist. You’re not trained to get up out of your seat when you’re sitting in a dark room and dance around. I think though there may be the sense that because this bombed this badly, it instantly gains this cult status, whether it’s for families or for drug users, in various states, that wants to just laugh along with this film.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Grady, thank you very much.
GRADY SMITH: Absolutely, Bob. Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Grady Smith writes for Entertainment Weekly and ew.com.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Doug Anderson, with more help from Lita Martinez and Ariel Stulberg, and it was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Cambra Moniz-Edwards. Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts and read our fabulous blog at on onthemedia.org. You can also find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, and you can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.