'A Dog's Purpose' was supposed to be a hit, until animal-abuse controversy threw the studio's plan out the window

Three weeks before “A Dog’s Purpose” hit theaters, industry estimates suggested the film was set to gross more than $25 million in its opening weekend. That would have been a strong debut for a movie that cost production company Amblin Entertainment less than $25 million to make, putting it on track to ultimately collect at least $75 million in domestic ticket sales.

But then, on Jan. 18, footage depicting a dog appearing to nearly drown during an on-set stunt turned up on TMZ. “TERRIFIED GERMAN SHEPHERD FORCED INTO TURBULENT WATER,” the all-caps headline proclaimed.

The filmmakers swiftly dismissed the clip, claiming that it had been edited to look like the dog was in more danger than in reality. Still, Amblin, which declined to comment for this story,  released a statement saying  it would continue reviewing footage of the incident. Meanwhile, in an effort to avoid a further public relations nightmare, Universal Pictures — which is distributing “A Dog’s Purpose” — canceled the film’s red carpet premiere and promotional press junket. A photo shoot that The Times had scheduled with the movie’s canine stars was also scrapped by the studio.

But it appears the damage to the film’s bottom line may have already been done. On Thursday, opening weekend estimates had plummeted by roughly 20% to about $20 million. That same day, PETA sent out a news release urging protesters to turn up at the Arclight Hollywood on Friday evening — the night the movie launches at the multiplex — to urge patrons to boycott the film. The animal rights group said it planned to show the TMZ footage to passersby via iPad, adding that a costumed dog holding a sign reading “No, I don’t want to be in your damn movie!” would be in attendance.

If “A Dog’s Purpose” does indeed struggle at the box office this weekend, it will be a rare instance of failure for a genre that has historically proved lucrative in the movie business. These are films that can be produced far cheaper than your average action flick and come with a built-in audience: 37%-47% of American households own a dog, according to the American Pet Products Assn.

One of the biggest success stories was “Marley & Me,” the 2008 film about a rambunctious Labrador retriever that grossed more than $240 million worldwide. Other films featuring dogs, including “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” “Eight Below” and “Hotel for Dogs,” all exceeded $100 million globally.

Based on W. Bruce Cameron’s bestselling novel, “A Dog’s Purpose” tells the story of one dog — voiced by actor Josh Gad — who is reincarnated numerous times in the form of different breeds so that he can affect the lives of various human owners. Since the trailer for the film began circulating in December, the emotional storyline has incited strong reactions from dog lovers on social media. “Currently pondering the amount of times I’m going to see A Dogs Purpose in theatres. Alone,” actress Zoey Deutch tweeted on Jan. 17 before deleting the message a few days later. “(Answer: Many times. Many, many, many times.)”

But the TMZ controversy has raised larger questions about the use of live dogs in film. In recent years, it has become morally questionable to use wild animals on movie sets, with studios increasingly investing in computer-generated imagery to replicate lions, tigers and bears. (This, of course, in the wake of the recent closure of the Ringling Bros. circus and the end of killer whale performances at SeaWorld.) One of the most popular films at the box office last year, a reimagining of the classic “The Jungle Book,” only featured CGI animals, and widely seen movies like “Noah,” “The Revenant” and the most recent “Planet of the Apes” films also employed the technology.

Of course, those movies all had budgets of well over $100 million. If “A Dog’s Purpose” had opted to create all of its dogs digitally, its budget would have quadrupled, said producer Gavin Polone.

“On Twitter, all of these people are messaging me, ‘Just use CGI,’” he said. “It’s like, you’re a physical therapist acting like you know what you’re talking about. Everybody seems to feel like they have an understanding of how to make a movie.”

But Robert Legato, visual effects supervisor on “The Jungle Book,” said CGI is gradually becoming less expensive and may soon become the industry standard for any on-screen animal.

“Once you pioneer the technology for the first time and make the eye believe an animal is real, it becomes cheaper and cheaper,” Legato said. “And a dog probably wouldn’t be as difficult or expensive to make, because you’re at least allowed to raise, train, photograph and study it up close without harm, unlike a wild animal.”

Polone, however — a vegan who said he once walked off a set because of the use of a fur costume — said he believes there are still ethically responsible ways to use dogs in film. “Dogs are highly trainable and want to please human beings,” he said. “Inherently, a dog is not uncomfortable being around humans.”

In an interview before the controversy erupted, Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom said he relied entirely on animal trainers to interact with the dogs during filming.

“I can’t really even get involved with the dog because then I interfere with what the trainers are up to,” said the filmmaker, who has now made three movies starring canines, including 1985’s “My Life as a Dog” and 2009’s “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.” “These dogs and trainers were really smart. They rehearsed for five minutes and could do the most amazing things on short notice. The lead dog was very special — he had his own thoughts on how to interpret the part and I thought he made some interesting choices, so to speak.”

As for the TMZ footage, the filmmakers argue it is misleading, and Polone insists that the German shepherd was so excited about jumping into the water during rehearsals that he had to be held back. Dennis Quaid, who stars in the film, appeared on “Ellen” on Monday to say he didn’t think the video told “the whole story.” 

“This video, it was shot in 2015, when the movie was shot,” host and animal lover Ellen DeGeneres added. “I think it’s really interesting. If you care about a dog and if you see a dog that is being forced to do something or treated badly, the next day, that video should have been released.”

Still, Polone acknowledged that “mistakes were made” during the scene in question. He said he wishes he had found a better animal monitor than the American Humane Assn., which most studios employ as on-set watchdogs despite the fact that it has often come under fire for lax oversight.

That’s not enough for groups like PETA, which want to eradicate the use of live animals in film altogether.

“Unfortunately, for Hollywood, time is money,” said Lisa Lange, PETA senior vice president. “These dogs have to perform on cue, or the production will get off schedule. And in order to do that, they’re mistreated.”

But might that soften a societal affection for dogs? Hallstrom seems to think so, though Lange believes there’s already plenty of love and understanding out there for dogs.

“I’ve loved dogs since I got my first chow chow when I was 7, but after I made this film, I found myself even more fascinated by dogs,” said Hallstrom. “I keep looking at dogs in the street, wondering what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling in a different way.”

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