Will studios take away the right message—that going weird might be the safest bet of all?
If you had any doubt, you can officially put it to rest: This is a country in which an R-rated animated comedy about grocery items cussing and fucking can be a bona fide hit. Sausage Party opened to a robust $34 million in the United States, landing far above its slim $19 million budget (and well ahead of the predictions of most analysts, who had it pegged for a $15-20 million opening weekend). With the dog days of summer ahead, it will undoubtedly earn tens of millions more.
So what explains Sausage Party's runaway success? The adults-only execution obviously stands out, and remained the focal point of an internet-savvy marketing campaign. But in concept, Sausage Party isn't exactly novel: The narrative—which presents a world in which food secretly comes to life without humans realizing it—borrows as shamelessly from Toy Story as this summer's earlier hit The Secret Life of Pets. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera et al. have a proven track record, and Sausage Party is certainly within their wheelhouse—but none of them have a spotless string of hits, either. Rogen himself has said that it took eight years to get Sausage Party made because most Hollywood studios "were too nervous to take a bet on it."
Of course, that weirdness turned out to be the key to Sausage Party's appeal. I think the easiest way to gauge the depth of Sausage Party's success is to note what it isn't: a movie that feels like it made any compromises on its way to a theatrical release. One of the biggest box-office blows of the summer came when it became clear that Suicide Squad wouldn't be screened in China, which could easily take more than $100 million out of the movie's global gross. Never mind that Suicide Squad—a movie that clearly wants to be rated R, and was hacked to ribbons in an effort to more closely resemble its fan-pleasing trailers—is practically the definition of a compromised project, retro-engineered to appeal to the largest global audience possible. Sausage Party is smaller and weirder and never had any hopes of making it through China's notoriously strict approval process. And both movies will end up grossing the same amount of money in China: nothing. The difference is that only one of them needed the help.
Critics often lament the decline of adult-oriented fare at the box office (and yes, Sausage Party technically qualifies as "adult-oriented"). But complaints are generally aimed at the creative end of Hollywood. That’s why, from a purely business-oriented perspective, it might be a more effective tactic to note that 2016 has actually been a pretty great year for R-rated movies. Bad Moms is quietly tearing up the box office. Three movies in, the Purge franchise continues to rack up an insane cost-to-profit ratio. And Deadpool remains the envy of every studio in Hollywood. Meanwhile, homogenized "sure things"—based on proven concepts and pitched to the widest possible audience in both content and subject matter—continue to disappoint: The Huntsman: Winter's War, Allegiant, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles 2, Ghostbusters… I'd go on, but we'd be here all day.
To find an apt comparison to Sausage Party, you need to go back more than a decade to Team America: World Police.
In the typical grinding process that dictates which movies get produced, Sausage Party must have looked like a risk, because there's not a lot of precedent for it. Broadly, we can probably assume that the movie exists at all because of three factors: the combined star power and track record of Rogen's crew, the unusual business model of Annapurna Pictures, and the fact that it cost $19 million to produce, which is insanely low for an animated movie. (Maybe, according to some reports, too low.)
If you dig a little deeper, you can find some recent R-rated animated movies that seem like precedents for Sausage Party—but for one reason or another, the parallels don't quite hold up. Just last month, Batman: The Killing Joke sold out in so many theaters across the country that another 300 screenings were hastily added—but that was a special one-night event that was engineered to appeal to hardcore Batman fans, so you can't really make a 1:1 comparison. Last year's stop-motion animated film Anomalisa met with enormous critical acclaim (and netted an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film, becoming the first R-rated movie to do so)—but that was an arthouse film that played in just 573 theaters at its widest release. Last year's Hell and Back, a raunchy comedy by the Robot Chicken team, arrived to terrible reviews and a meager box-office take—but that, too, played in limited release, and grossed practically nothing.
To find a genuinely apt comparison to Sausage Party, you need to go back more than a decade, to the release of Team America: World Police. Animation isn't the same thing as puppetry, but there are plenty of parallels you can find: a heap of shock value, a surprisingly pointed political subtext, and an uncomfortably long, uncomfortably graphic sex scene. The key difference is that Team America's box-office performance was muddled at best—more cult hit than smash hit. Sausage Party, on the other hand, is poised to make some real money, and Seth Rogen already has a plan for Sausage Party 2. Improbable as it seemed before Sausage Party actually hit theaters, there's a chance that this could become an actual franchise—and in time, inspire a few raunchy animators to follow the same raunchy trail it blazed.
There are certainly worse outcomes than a world in which Sausage Party inspires a new wave of animated movies aimed directly at adults. But the greatest lesson Hollywood could learn from Sausage Party is the simplest one: Audiences really do want something they've never seen before.