Box Office Guy: Lion King

Patrick Reardon

Three years ago as I was watching director Jon Favreau's "The Jungle Book" ($103.3m opening, $364m domestic total) a couple of thoughts struck me. First, the live-action remake put the original 1967 animated version to shame. I'm sorry, defenders of the original, but it's true. It was fine by 1967 standards but it's a pretty lazy movie that hasn't aged particularly well. My other thought was that if Disney applied this same photo-realistic treatment to "The Lion King", they could start printing money.

Flash-forward to today and Favreau's remake of "The Lion King" is about to hit theaters. When I saw the first footage from this film last November I had no doubt Disney had another monster hit on its hands. At the beginning of this summer, I thought it had the potential to be the biggest non-"Avengers" film of the year with a $200m+ opening in play. But after a week of mixed word of mouth, I'm hedging a bit.

Don't get me wrong, I still think Disney is going to make a fortune. But maybe not as gargantuan of a fortune as I originally anticipated. I just can't shake the overall feeling that we don't really NEED this movie.

The original "The Lion King" dominated the summer of 1994 with a $40.9m opening and a massive domestic haul of $312.9m. Adjust for inflation and those numbers bloom to $88m and $672m respectively. If not for the long run of "Forrest Gump" (which got a boost from the Academy Awards nine months later,) it would have been the highest grossing release of 1994. "The Lion King" also padded its career stats with a 2002 IMAX release ($15.7m) and a 2011 3-D conversion ($94.2m). It was also the peak of Disney's hand drawn animation renaissance after films like "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" planted the seeds in the proceeding years. No hand drawn animated film since has even come close to matching the success and cultural impact of "The Lion King." In other words, this new live action version has quite the legacy to live up to. It also appears to be up to the task.

This new iteration "The Lion King" checks off every box imaginable. Many of the fans that grew up with the original now have kids of their own to share it with. And the buzz is that Disney didn't tinker with the story at all (almost to a fault). It's the exact same formula that propelled the live action "Beauty and the Beast" to a $504m domestic total in 2017 and has pushed the kitchen sink version of the (still in theaters) live action "Aladdin" to $333m (and counting). With an ultra wide 4,500+ theater-count and no new films daring to challenge it, "The Lion King" is poised for a huge weekend. But how huge?

My guess is that "The Lion King" will have a similar opening to the live-action "Beauty and the Beast" ($174.8m). Word of mouth has been very mixed thus far (currently at a middling 59% on rotten tomatoes) which won't turn off the core audience, but it could limit the casual crossover audience needed to hit the $200m neighborhood. With success virtually assured, the FML pricing gods have wisely split "The Lion King" into daily pricing.

"The Lion King" should skew fairly young so I think the Saturday option (FB$399) will provide the best value. Using a 2x Saturday anchor strategy won't leave you with a lot of extra Fantasy Bux but there are some viable options. With "The Lion King" poised for such a big reaping I want as many fellow Disney flicks as I can get in my lineup (i.e. "Aladdin" and "The Avengers"). "The Lion King" should be in a lot of drive-in theaters this weekend and one (or both) of these Disney flicks could be able to draft off of Simba & Co.

Which brings me back to the issue of "need." Even though Disney is going to continue to slay the competition did we really need a live-action, photorealistic remake of an animated movie that doesn't have a single human character? Whereas "The Jungle Book" left plenty of room for improvement, the original "Lion King" is damn near perfect as is. Based on every piece of buzz I've consumed, "The Lion King" appears to be a visually stunning cover tune that lacks the heart/soul/originality that made the first film a beloved classic. Disney will be laughing all the way to the bank once again but they're running out of properties to remake. Granted "Mulan" and "The Little Mermaid" are on the way and should perform adequately. But I don't think there is much clamoring out there for live action remakes of "The Hunchback on Notre Dame," "Hercules," or "The Emperor's New Groove." Plus the lackluster performance of the pricey "Dumbo" remake ($114.6m) earlier this year showed that their vault of classics is drying up. Beyond "Bambi" and "Pinocchio" I don't think there are any more classic titles that would justify the cost of an expensive live-action remake.

So come on Disney! Give us a few more original titles a year. Not a full slate, but just a couple titles that don't come from pre-existing intellectual property. It's risky but Walt Disney built that company by taking an insane amount of risks. Take some before it's too late, because you're probably going to lose me once you announce a slate of live-action Pixar remakes.

Weekend Picks

My picks for this weekend's top 5 in total box office (this week's cost in FML Bux in parentheses):

  1. The Lion King - Friday (FB$481)
  2. The Lion King - Saturday (FB$399)
  3. The Lion King - Sunday (FB$)
  4. Spider-Man: Far From Home (FB$177)
  5. Toy Story 4 (FB$126)

Bonus Pick of the Week: "Avengers: Endgame" (FB$11) Even though they captured the bonus last week I think the "Avengers" will be in the bonus hunt yet again. Disney is oh so close to passing "Avatar" as the worldwide highest grossing film of all time. They'll keep re-releasing "Endgame" with new footage or other "special" features until they officially get there. Whether it's drafting off of "The Lion King" at drive-in theaters or other shady accounting tricks I can't help but think Disney wants to break this record sooner rather than later. With a bargain basement price of FB$11 it's a low risk, high reward play. What have you got to lose?

Coming Attractions

At the beginning of the year if you had told me I could only see one movie in a theater this year (which if you know me is beyond cruel) I would have picked "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." From now until next Thursday night I'm going to quietly chant "please be good, please be good" over and over again.

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