How ‘Inside Out 2’ Broke Hollywood’s Box Office Curse 5

Embarrassed? Hardly. Sad and fearful? No way. Joyous? Absolutely. That was the vibe on the morning of June 17 when Disney Entertainment co-chairman Alan Bergman cracked open the champagne to toast those who had worked on the making and marketing of Inside Out 2, which is the year’s first box office blockbuster. “It’s been a while since we did this,” says one person attending the celebration on Disney’s Burbank lot, in reference to rough times for the once-invincible Pixar, where Pete Docter also arranged a toast.

For its part, Pixar delivered a film that has won over both critics and audiences in continuing the story of Riley, who is now 13 and must contend with a new crew of emotions invading her head in addition to the old standbys, led by Joy (Amy Poehler). And Disney orchestrated a marketing campaign that stayed on message and resonated with moviegoers around the globe. “A lot of people have ingrained knowledge of the 2015 Inside Out, so for us, it was much more about finding the thing that was new and relatable to as many people as possible across as many demographics as possible. Everybody has turned 13, or will, and you’re going to be flooded with a whole new set of emotions,” says recently promoted Walt Disney Studios exec vp of marketing Martha Morrison, who ran the campaign (she was also in charge of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, which had been one of the few solid swings of summer).

The movie opened to a historic $154.2 million domestically, the second-biggest animated launch of all time and the biggest since Barbie almost a year ago. And it is doing huge midweek business, where it is also doing near-record business. On Tuesday, it grossed $29.1 million, the biggest Tuesday ever for an animated film and the eighth-biggest among any film. Inside Out 2 is also a force of nature overseas, where it started off with nearly $300 million, a record when comparing like-for-like markets.

Inside Out 2 couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Year-to-date revenue was lagging more than 25 percent behind last year. Now, thanks to the one-two-punch of the Pixar sequel and Sony’s Bad Boys: Ride or Die, moviegoing is on the rise, with year-to-date revenue up by two points, according to Comscore. Over the June 7-9 weekend, Bad Boys 4 began the rebound with a better-than-expected $56.5 million domestic opening. In in its second weekend, it fell a scant 40 percent even with Inside Out 2 sucking up most of the oxygen (the Barbenheimer effect at work).

Historically, white moviegoers made up 40 to 50 percent of a Pixar movie’s audience domestically. In the case of Inside Out 2, there was a notable shift. Latinos made up 38 percent, followed by Caucasians (34 percent), Black moviegoers (13 percent), Asian moviegoers (10 percent) and Native American/other (5 percent), according to one of PostTrak’s real-time surveys over the weekend. Sources say Inside Out 2 never would have done the kinds of numbers it did without that level of diversity. At the same time, the movie is marketed around Riley and the emotions, and not a particular character’s ethnicity (though diverse races and ethnicities are notably part of Riley’s world). 

Since returning as Disney CEO and getting caught up in a showdown with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, including over a same-sex kiss in Lightyear, Bob Iger has said movies don’t work if they are all about messaging versus entertaining, and that some Disney titles had indeed strayed into the messaging arena at their own peril (he has never named names). “Look, we’re trying to reach a very, very diverse audience,” Iger said last fall. “And we just have to be more sensitive to the interest of a broad audience.”

Latinos over-index for moviegoing, and especially family pics. Elemental, for example, rebounded in a major way thanks to a strong turnout among Latinos, a detail not lost on Disney when setting out to sell Inside Out 2. Elemental ultimately earned $496.4 million worldwide, while DC’s The Flash, which opened the same weekend to $55 million, flamed out with $271 million globally.

Disney always works with Univision and Telemundo, but did more custom integrations than usual, including featuring all of the emotions in the film in a new game show on Univision. And in Mexico, spots were shown during the final Club America versus Club Azole game. Inside Out 2 is on fire across Latin America and is pulling in near-record numbers in numerous markets, including Mexico, where it earned $30.2 million to rank as the second-biggest start of all time. And it was Hollywood’s biggest opening ever in Colombia ($5.1 million).

In the U.S., Morrison and Disney’s publicity team organized a major press junket in Miami, one of many stops on the film’s worldwide tour. Amy Poehler, who voices the character Joy, couldn’t be in Florida event but was in invaluable in the global push. She cross-crossed the country and globe attending many events, including a Disneyland press junket.

While kids under 12 made up a large chunk of the opening weekend (23 percent) audience for Inside Out 2, there was a huge nostalgia factor among young adults who grew up with the first film. In an 11th-hour stunt designed to entice all age groups — and in a first-ever for Disney — the Joy and Sadness walkaround characters usually confined to Disney’s theme parks visited select theaters over Memorial Day weekend and then again when the movie opened (they were also present at the Miama junket). It is the first time ever that a character has been allowed to leave a theme park, underscoring how much is riding on Inside Out 2.

The marketers knew they were going to get younger adults based on the response to early teasers and so, among other things, organized a “college footage tour” and screened the first 35 minutes of the film at 20 universities in the U.S. It paid off. Nearly 55 of those showing up were non general audience, including almost 40 percent between ages 18 and 34, according to Comscore.

“When you see an animated movie get this kind of number, it’s clear you are getting a ton of people who are coming without kids,” Morrison says.

The nostalgia factor is also in full force overseas, including in South Korea where young affluent women knowns as “YAFs” wield huge consumer power. Inside Out 2 opened to $14.9 million in South Korea, the second-highest animated opening of all time behind Frozen II. YAFs are also a phenomenon in Japan, one of many major markets where Inside Out 2 has yet to open.

Much has changed in the nine years since Inside Out first hit theaters but emotions — joy, sadness, grief, fear, envy, embarrassment, ennui and anxiety — are universal. And joy is certainly what Pixar and Disney are feeling over Inside Out 2‘s early results. Ditto for the entire industry.

“The importance of Inside Out 2 cannot be overstated both to Pixar and movie theaters that have been struggling to get on a consistent box office roll in 2024,” says Comscore chief box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “And as the first $100 million-plus opener of ’24 and as a morale and revenue-boosting juggernaut, it is the perfect cure for the summertime box office blues.”

A version of this story appeared in the June 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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