When “A Dog’s Purpose” hit theaters a couple of years ago, it looked like a flop.
In addition to dismal reviews (a 34 percent “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes), just three weeks before opening, the family film had been accused of on-set animal abuse. In the wake of the controversy – launched when a video leaked to TMZ depicting a German shepherd apparently nearly drowning while performing a stunt – industry tracking services lowered their box office estimates for the movie.
Still, the film, based on the best-selling novel by W. Bruce Cameron (who grew up in Prairie Village), went on to gross $64.5 million in North America. While that’s a pretty strong tally for a film that cost roughly $20 million to make, what was more surprising was just how well “A Dog’s Purpose” did overseas. The movie collected $140.5 million internationally – $88.5 million of which came from China.
“When I heard we were getting released in China, I thought maybe we could make $5 million in box office or something, and that would be helpful to break even,” recalled the film’s producer, Gavin Polone. “And then when we saw the numbers out of China, it was a shock. Nobody was prepared for the tsunami.”
The Chinese government allows only about 35 American films to be released annually, and U.S. productions are granted just 25 percent of ticket sale revenue. So while the dog movie’s success in the country was a welcome surprise, Polone said, it wasn’t the only factor in getting a sequel greenlighted – though it certainly increased the urgency for a follow-up film.
That film, “A Dog’s Journey,” will debut domestically May 17. (It’s the second film based on a Cameron novel to come out this year. But “A Dog’s Way Home,” which opened in January, was not an official sequel.)
Like “A Dog’s Purpose,” the latest film centers on a canine whose spirit is reincarnated in different generations of dogs, serving a life-changing purpose for each one of its owners. American moviegoers will again recognize the franchise’s biggest star, Dennis Quaid. But those in Asia may be more inclined to show up for the film because of its young male lead, Henry Lau.
Lau, 29, grew up in Canada as the son of Hong Kong and Taiwanese immigrants. Toward the end of high school, the classically trained musician won a local talent competition held by SM Entertainment, the Korean company behind the biggest K-pop groups. He was quickly granted a spot in Super Junior-M, which would go on to become one of the biggest boy bands on the K-pop scene. Lau remained in the group until last year and has since embarked on a solo music career, amassing 6.2 million followers on Instagram.
Though he appeared opposite veteran actress Michelle Yeoh in a 2013 Korean film, “Final Recipe,” Lau had little acting experience when he was cast in “A Dog’s Journey.” He was suggested to the filmmakers by Alibaba Pictures, the Chinese company that owns a stake in Amblin Partners, the Steven Spielberg-led studio behind both of the dog movies. (Amblin has a distribution deal with Universal Pictures, which is releasing “A Dog’s Journey.”)
“We wouldn’t have gone with him if we didn’t think his reading was fantastic,” insisted Polone. “But if we have a character that gives us the opportunity to be more effectively marketed in China and Korea – and at the same time, have him be good – why wouldn’t we want that?”
Polone attributes the first film’s success in China almost entirely to Alibaba, which created an elaborate marketing strategy to promote the movie. As part of the company’s relationship with Amblin, it helped the studio determine which films might have potential in China.
“A Dog’s Purpose” wasn’t an “obvious choice,” acknowledged Wei Zhang, president of Alibaba Pictures. But after screening the film, she had a feeling its heartwarming tone could work in the country. Zhang dug into some research and discovered that 30 percent of China’s population owned pets. Through the parent company’s online marketplaces like Taobao and Tmall – where nearly 700 million consumers shop – she discovered that the sale of pet products had been rising healthily.
“There was a substantial group of superusers – people who treat their pets essentially like children and buy them very high-quality products,” Zhang explained. “This is a big change. When I was growing up, no one had dogs. But we have a huge and rising middle class in China today with disposable income. Owning pets is one way people are enriching their lives.”
Zhang set up a partnership with a dog marketing agency, creating an event where pet owners could bring their dogs to walk a red carpet in conjunction with the film. Lau, who splits his time between China and South Korea, remembers the film being so popular it earned a nickname.
“I didn’t even know the title of the movie, but everyone kept talking about ‘the dog movie,’” Lau said during a recent trip to L.A., where he was trailed by a makeup artist, a hair stylist, his brother, multiple publicity representatives and a man documenting his activity for social media feeds.
“That’s what it was called. When I found out that I was doing the sequel, everyone was like, ‘The dog movie?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, dog movie 2!’ But there’s a lot of pressure because it did so well there. I think it’s because of the culture. The themes in this movie – it talks about forgiveness, family, love – I think those are very powerful things, especially in China. Those are themes that every Chinese person can relate with.”
With Lau cast for “A Dog’s Journey,” Polone was busy making sure no further allegations of animal mistreatment would arise from the franchise. Instead of relying solely on American Humane – the oft-criticized organization tasked with ensuring “no animals were harmed” on Hollywood sets – the producer hired an additional animal supervisor, Jami LoVullo, who runs a nonprofit called the Animal Protection Agency.
And though Amblin “was very wedded” to the animal trainers who had worked on “A Dog’s Purpose,” Polone said he persuaded the studio to hire new handlers in which he felt more confident. Finally, he made a key change at the top.
Lasse Hallstrom, the Oscar-nominated Swedish director who had helmed the first film, was not asked to return for the sequel. Referring to Hallstrom as a “giant f––g a––e” who was “insensitive and not prepared,” Polone sought a female filmmaker to lead “A Dog’s Journey.”
“I just think women are more sensitive to animals than men,” said Polone, adding that he didn’t care whether that’s controversial. “Even though the trainers on ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ weren’t bad people, they were men, and there’s a male thing; you become very goal-oriented and, like, ‘I’m gonna get this done.’ I think women are less that way and think more about what is going to be right and the feelings of the animals.”
Hallstrom did not respond to a request for comment.
Gail Mancuso, who has won two Emmys directing television series including “Modern Family” and “Roseanne,” got the directing gig. Though “A Dog’s Journey” marked her first time at the helm of a feature film, Mancuso had worked with animals before and has five dogs of her own. She said the film set was one of the “happiest” she’s ever worked on, with the crew erupting into applause for the dogs after each scene wrapped.
“We had so many animal representatives on the set watching with us while we were shooting, and the dogs had their own security teams,” Mancuso said, “just to make sure that they get from set to their trailers. It sounds silly. But I think it’s a great idea, now that I’ve seen it. … I totally relied on the trainers to gauge how the dogs were doing. It’s not like they have to sit with us for the whole scene. They do little bits here and there, and we had doubles. If a dog was tired and they thought, ‘Let’s take a break,’ we took a break.”
Quaid, who worked on both films, is still insistent that no animal mistreatment occurred on “A Dog’s Purpose.” That’s why, in the wake of the 2017 controversy, he “went out and took the movie on my back and did the press for it, because I thought it was really wrong, what they were claiming.”
He said he asked Universal to show him footage of the alleged stunt-gone-wrong from all angles, including b-roll. After reviewing the camera shots, the actor said he felt there’d been “a big misrepresentation” promoted largely by PETA. “I think people were intimidated by that because they didn’t want to get seen on the wrong side of a politically correct issue.”
A lifelong dog lover who has brought his miniature English bulldog, Peaches, on the promotional circuit for “A Dog’s Journey,” Quaid said he’s glad the first film was able to reach an audience despite the flak it received. And he’s eager to go to China to promote the sequel, which does not yet have a release date in the country.
“I’m actually lobbying to go over there,” the actor said. “The last time I was there was 1978, when they just had oxcarts and bicycles. I’d love to see it now. China’s crazy about dogs.”