This Week on The Boxoffice Podcast: Jungle Cruise Producers on Disney’s Hybrid Release Model

Dwayne Johnson as Frank and Emily Blunt as Lily in JUNGLE CRUISE. Photo by Frank Masi. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This week on the Boxoffice Podcast, co-hosts Daniel Loria and Rebecca Pahle sit down with veteran producers John Fox and John Davis of Davis Entertainment, whose credits include Game Night, Chronicle, and Dolemite Is My Name. Davis and Fox’s latest outing—Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt—comes to theaters and Disney Premium Access this weekend. In the following conversation, edited for length and clarity, Fox and Davis speak candidly on the film’s hybrid release model and the struggles of setting a metric of success for a film being released during the pandemic era.

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Could you tell us how you came to be involved in this project–when that was, and how the process developed to finally getting this film out in theaters?

John Fox: It’s been a long process. John, when did we first pitch Disney?

John Davis: It’s been six years, right?

John Fox: Six years. First of all, we love the ride. Both John and I have been going to the theme park our entire lives, and we love, love, love the ride. It felt like a unique opportunity, because there’s a character in the jungle boat captain, and there’s a loose story for the ride. The Imagineers always, for those iconic rides, tell a story. So we felt like, “Okay, those are two assets we can use as jumping off points to build a bigger story for the movie.” We went to Disney, we pitched them our own original story for the movie, and they said, “Hey, this is great. Can you go get a movie star?” And we said, ‘Sure, okay.’ We reached out to Dwayne [Johnson], who I had made a movie with years and years and years ago, and we stayed in touch over the years. Dwayne read the story, called us not even a day later and said, “I’m in.” And then he called Sean Bailey at Disney and said, “I’m your jungle boat captain. I’m in. Let’s do this.” And then John, you called Alan Horn, right?

John Davis: I called Alan Horn, who was chairman of the Disney Motion Picture Group, who I’ve known for years and years and years. And he thought it was a great idea. Then the script came in, and it was great. It was time to make sure we cemented Dwayne Johnson’s involvement in the movie. So John and myself and Sean Bailey, who’s president of production, went to the set of “Ballers,” which he was shooting in suburban L.A. We brought these great Disney picture books. We showed up on set and we said, “We’ve got four great books for you. And here’s the script for the movie.” And he just laughed, and he looked at it. And he called us Monday morning and said, “I’m in.:

John Fox: I gotta say, movies can be a tortured process. This wasn’t. We got very lucky that we had a supportive studio from the get-go. And we had a movie star who was passionate about this role and about this movie as a potential franchise. We got the stars aligned on this one.

Jungle Cruise has been compared to a franchise like Pirates of the Caribbean. Do you guys think that’s a fair comparison? Are you comfortable with it?

John Fox: Yeah, I think that’s a great comparison. If somebody tells you, “You’re as handsome as Brad Pitt,” are you going to be like, “No, I don’t think so?” Pirates of the Caribbean—we should be so lucky to be in that same conversation. That’s one of the greatest, maybe the greatest adventure franchise of all time.

John Davis: And, by the way, two and a half billion people have been on the Jungle Cruise ride. Not only in Disneyland, but in Florida and in some of the international parks. So it may be the most ridden ride in the history of Disney.

And the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was one of the first that really proved the power of international markets and international audiences. The fourth one didn’t do so well in the United States, but it made a ton internationally. Dwayne Johnson himself also has that same kind of international appeal.

John Fox: He does. He really does. He’s a brand. Dwayne has evolved from just a movie star to a global brand. He is the only actor I can think of that is truly, truly a global brand. He’s reaching more people on his social media than any Disney platform, I would imagine, at this point. He’s reaching 200 million people with every post, or more. I haven’t kept track of his latest tally of followers. But yeah, it’s extraordinary. And his acumen for marketing is extraordinary. The guy is so tapped in to how to market himself, the movie, how to really get his fans excited about whatever it is that he’s promoting. Dwayne’s a marketing genius.

John Davis: He is. He did what Arnold Schwarzenegger figured out early on, that if you’re willing to go to all those international market——because, in those international markets, to become a star in those markets, they want to see you and they want you there.

You’re releasing your film with two different asterisks attached to what the box office performance will be for theater owners. First, it’s coming off of a recovering market. The pandemic is still a reality, not only here in the U.S., but in many countries around the world. And the additional asterisk is of it being available on PVOD day and date, which was a very controversial decision for a lot of our colleagues in exhibition. With all of that around the title, for you guys as producers, what is your success metric for this film, for you to be comfortable to step back and say, “Alright, we’re happy with this performance?”

John Davis: I just want to point out, the original Pirates did about $30, $31 million its opening weekend. It just kept going, and then it was huge internationally. The first Jumanji opened at $25 million and just kept going. We’ve tested this movie with audiences, and we know that it tests through the roof. We’ve shown this to distributors around the world. Theater owners. Uniformly, they love this movie. This movie really, really plays. And so I think it’s possible this movie does a six to one expansion multiple. You don’t get that very often. You certainly don’t get it on action movies. You certainly don’t get it on horror pictures. But you can get it off of a film that’s four-quadrant, has a family component to it, but has those other audience metrics to it like Pirates did. So it’ll be very interesting to see, really, not the opening numbers so much as where are we in six or seven weeks. Because there’s no other family  movies coming after us, and that we’re excited about.

I do worry sometimes about the day and date, because right now with this variant circulating, parents—we can see it in the numbers, people comfortable taking their kids to theaters, it’s been going down a little bit lately. So it may push more and more families to Disney Plus. But I am so happy, and I know John will say the same thing, that we’re going to have an opportunity to show this the way it should be shown, which is in a theater. Because it is a big movie with big sound, great set pieces, big music, and the way to see this movie and enjoy it is with an audience and seeing it on a huge screen. We shot that way, and it’s supposed to be [seen] that way.

Another movie that was very suited to the big screen experience and that had four-quadrant appeal—though not so much the family elements—is Black Widow, which also had a hybrid release from Disney. That second week drop was pretty steep. What’s your reaction been to seeing Black Widow‘s theatrical run play out?

John Fox: You know, I honestly don’t know. I absolutely loved the movie. I thought it was such a good time. It’s smart and fun. I loved it. I thought word of mouth would have been better. Did Disney Plus cannibalize it a little bit more on the second weekend? Maybe. I honestly don’t know. But that steep of a drop off, there has to be some fundamental reason why. It’s too big a drop off for it to just be margin of error. There has to be a very clear reason why. I don’t think it was the quality of the film, so I can only attribute it, possibly, to the Disney Plus of it all. But listen, I don’t know.

John Davis: Where Disney Plus, I think, is really going to help us is in those Latin American countries, because they’re under-vaccinated right now and the virus is really raging there. I suspect that in a lot of those great Latin American markets like Brazil, Argentina, or Colombia, people are going to be uncomfortable going into theaters. So the fact that we can go into their homes I actually am thankful for. But, look, we believe the movies should be in movie theaters… That’s why I got into this business as a kid growing up. I saw those movies in Denver, Colorado. My father owned a movie theater. We had the first twin in Colorado, and I used to see like 300 movies a year. We used to get really excited when we would have Star Wars, and there was a line around the block. We would watch the line and go, “This is the greatest thing in the world.” And I just think, as an industry, we have to do everything we can do as we come out of this pandemic to make sure those theaters are thriving and survive, and that people watch movies that way. Because I believe they want to, and there’s nothing like the communal experience of watching a movie. That is half the fun of it.

John Fox: Amen to that. But I will say—Disney Plus, for families, for people who are not comfortable taking their kids to the movie theaters right now, what a great asset to have. For this movie, for every movie right now, it’s good. It’s good that families can see it.

John Davis: Because they otherwise, especially now, a lot of families would probably be afraid to go to the theaters. And we needed to release this movie sooner or later, right? We’d sat on it for a year.

It’s easy for us to sit down and analyze performance theatrically. When it comes to making decisions based on these hybrid models, how in the dark are you guys as producers? Do you have access to data points? Or is that a gap for producers as much as it is for the rest of the industry?

John Davis: You get them incidentally. They kind of share them with you. We do this at Netflix a lot. John and I had a big movie at Netflix, Dolemite [Is My Name], [the] Eddie Murphy movie.

One of my favorites of the year, by the way. I hate to interrupt, but that was just a spectacular movie. And I wish I’d seen it on the big screen.

John Fox: Thank you. It’s fun on the big screen.

John Davis: It is. John and I got to test it with audiences, where they went crazy. With a comedy, half the fun of the movie is the raucous audience, that laughter, right? If something is funny, the audience makes it even funnier with the way they react to it.

What kind of data did Netflix give you on Dolemite?

John Davis: They gave us an incidental [data]. They didn’t print anything out. They didn’t give us comparisons. They said, “You did really great. You did really great in the foreign market. You overindexed. The algorithm went to sleep happy last night.” You know what I mean? They kind of suggest it so you can put it together, but nobody really shares the hard facts or puts it into context.

Dwayne Johnson is Frank Wolff in Disney’s JUNGLE CRUISE. Photo by Frank Masi. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Does that make your job tougher, as producers, that you sort of have to poke around and guess on audience response? Or are the success metrics different today than they were five years ago?

John Davis: Our job is to make great movies.

John Fox: I was going to say the same thing. Tell great stories. That’s our job. Release strategy, what platform, theatrical, streaming—it’s out of our control. I get frustrated, especially when you’re working with a streaming platform, and they don’t give you—they kind of hint at numbers, but then they don’t give you comps. Like, OK, I hear that number, but I don’t know—what are the comps? Am I above the comp? Am I below? I don’t know what the expectation is. So that can be frustrating. We’ll find out with Jungle Cruise. But Disney Plus has only been around for a little bit, so they don’t probably have real historic comps yet. They’ve got a few films. But I’m curious. Nobody has told us what their expectations would be for either a theatrical number or a Disney Plus number.

John Davis: And I think, in these pandemic times, they really don’t know themselves. They don’t know how to calibrate—I mean, they can look at profit and loss, I’m sure. But they don’t know how to calibrate, really, what’s a success and what’s not a success. It could be what a success is is that the movie spawns—like we believe our movie will—a sequel. The movie did really, really well, audiences loved it, and you go and you make a sequel knowing that the sequel will come out when everybody’s back to theaters and the world gets back to normal.

Right now, there are so many question marks in the recovery process for movie theaters. As producers, what role does theatrical play for you in the coming years?

John Davis: Every movie we are trying to make, every movie we have in development—and I believe we have 39 movies in development right now—every one of them is geared for a theatrical movie experience. We love movies coming out in theaters. That is how we grew up. That is how people traditionally have seen movies in this country. And I think that we have a real obligation, this generation of movie producers and this industry, to the people of the last 80 years who got us to this point. Who created this tradition, who created this industry, who created this uniquely American form of entertainment that’s now gone around the world. I will do everything possible to support in-theater movie viewing—our movies or anybody else’s.

John Fox: A hundred percent. We’re in this to make movies that people can see in a theater. A communal experience. Laugh and cry together. That’s why we do this. That said, if they happen to roll it to a streaming platform, okay. That’s the way it works.

John Davis: We made a movie that we always wanted to make. A Disney movie, a big blockbuster movie, a big event movie, a movie with a great, big movie star. We could never [have] predicted the road the distribution of it would take, but we’re rolling with the punches. 

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