How Sonic Went from Design Disaster to the People’s Champion
There was a time when Sonic the Hedgehog was synonymous with the Sega brand. That time is no more, but the hedgehog might be symbolic of a bit more nowadays.
In 2001, Sega discontinued the Dreamcast, its last home console. After this, Sonic games would be ported onto other consoles as Sega transitioned to a third-party software developer. In 2007 Sonic collaborated with former-rival Nintendo for Mario & Sonic at the Olympics, marking an end of Sega exclusivity for the hedgehog. Sonic wasn’t dead, but things weren’t looking great for the Sega brand.
In 2018 Paramount Pictures filmed Sonic the Hedgehog, a movie based on the franchise. The movie was a fairly risky move. Sonic had been making a steady flow of games, he wasn’t the same icon he was during Sega’s heyday. Then, the trailer was released at CinemaCon in April, 2019. To put it simply, it was a disaster. Sonic appeared to be a humanoid hedgehog, a far cry from the lovable mascot of 90’s Sega. He didn’t look cute, he looked creepy.
To be fair, the intent of the original design wasn’t awful. 2012’s Ted gave its main CGI character a very human-like approach and that worked for their film. Unlike Ted, Sonic already existed. He was a hedgehog, not a human. When the public saw the trailer, they were appalled.
Paramount quickly became aware that this Sonic design was not going to work. Viewers were calling this design “disgusting” or “nightmare fuel,” and those were the nice reviews. The original trailer had more thumbs down on YouTube than thumbs up. The movie appeared to be dead before arrival unless something change.
Quickly, change was promised. Director Jeff Fowler took to Twitter to acknowledge fan responses:
Thank you for the support. And the criticism. The message is loud and clear… you aren’t happy with the design & you want changes. It’s going to happen. Everyone at Paramount & Sega are fully committed to making this character the BEST he can be… #sonicmovie #gottafixfast
Good start, Mr. Fowler. At least fans knew someone was listening, but a redesign meant Paramount might have another issue on their hands: a delay. Plus, redesigning the movie would imply an additional cost.
As a result, the movie moved back from a November, 2019 release to a Valentine’s Day 2020 release. It also cost Paramount an additional $5 million to redesign Sonic. This brought the total budget for the film to an estimated $81–95 million. Not an outrageous amount by Hollywood standards, but it’s high enough that there is potential for it to be a costly flop. By summer 2019, the likelihood that the movie would flop seemed high.
Sonic opened this past weekend and grossed $58 million at the domestic US box office, nearly $70 million if you include the President’s Day Monday in the long weekend. Worldwide, Sonic has grossed over $100 million and it’s just the first weekend. This already puts profits in the green.
To further its success, it had the highest opening weekend for any movie based on a video game. It broke a record held by 2019’s Detective Pikachu, and surpassed other movies like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Angry Birds Movie, or any of the Resident Evil films. All things considered, it would be hard to call this movie a failure.
How did this happen? A movie trailer met with so much criticism was met with many viewers when it finally hit the theaters. It’s really quite simple. Paramount failed, they listened to their viewers, they acknowledged their mistake, and they rebuilt trust.
Perhaps that’s oversimplified, but Paramount decided to lean into the criticism. They learned quickly they weren’t going to be able to make people watch a movie starring scary Sonic, so they went back to work. They allowed their criticism to become the first stage of their new advertising campaign, and people responded to this approach fairly favorably.
There’s no denying that the new Sonic is a closer representation to the Sonic from the Sega games. The head, hands, legs, eyes, and mouth fit the proportions of the video game character. The old design looks like it could be an animatronic. It’s easy to see why people weren’t a fan of that design, and it’s good Paramount took the feedback to heart.
Power to the Fans
The initial blunder after Sonic was released is an example of social marketing at its finest. The original design was crucified by the public, and Paramount felt compelled to respond. This is not a bad thing, if you release a video on YouTube or a photo on Twitter, people are going to react. In the 90’s Paramount would not have had such instantaneous feedback, and they certainly would not have had the same volume. In the era of social media they get the chance to respond, and they made the changes people wanted to see.
They never played the victim either, and that’s an important element of regaining the public’s trust. They knew they took some creative liberties and they admitted those decisions weren’t the best. Then they made a Sonic that looks like Sonic. I’m not going to say I’m blown away by the final Sonic design, but I know exactly who he is. This is what I expect Sonic to look like, and Paramount delivered that.
The delay didn’t seem to hurt the movie either. It would have initially been part of the Holiday 2019 releases. That could have worked to its advantage, but instead it was able to capitalize on the less competitive beginning of the year season. Opening weekend was a long weekend, kids had Presidents’ Day off, and some states are on vacation this week. Ultimately, Sonic is a kids movie, and they’re going to get an increased audience from the kids looking to do something when school is out and the weather is cold.
Redesigning Sonic became part of the movie’s promotion in an unexpected way. Paramount initially received a lot of hate, but with that hate came attention. Then, they redesigned Sonic and received praise, or at least acceptance. The people who followed this timeline had the Sonic movie burned into their memories. They were aware of the film and knew when it was going to be released, and they knew Paramount heard their criticism.
Paramount would have struggled to succeed if they never took criticism to heart. They recognized who their most important audience was: the Sonic fans. There will always be kids who see these movies, but when a movie is based around an existing franchise the support of the fandom is essential. Sonic the Hedgehog eventually received the support of Sonic fans, and Paramount gained favor by listening to fans. They designed the character for the right audience, and were successful in the end.
Reviews for the movie are mediocre to bad, currently sitting at 63% on Rotten Tomatoes, but only getting one star from Roger Ebert . Does this really matter? No. This is the type of movie that doesn’t need critical approval, it needs approval from the people who know Sonic. These fans felt heard by Paramount and had their faith restored in the film. This is why Sonic didn’t bomb and turned into a redesigned success.