For Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn, Snow White and the Huntsman was like a bite out of a poison apple. It was the kind of story Walt Disney built his company around, but the 2012 film was released by rival Universal Studios, and the characters were played by live actors. “Why aren’t we doing that?” Horn recalls asking.
March 13 will bring the release of Cinderella, a live-action version of the 1950 Disney animated classic. It will be followed next year by a similar Disney redo of The Jungle Book. Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo remakes are in the works. (The studio hasn’t announced who will play Dumbo.)
Hollywood makes lots of films for kids, but the Disney reboots may be one of the few safe bets. They revive classic characters for a new generation of kids, and their already smitten parents may be especially willing to shell out for related merchandise. (Think glass slippers.) With DVD sales declining and digital downloads on the rise, studios can’t just reissue old films in new packaging, says Robert Levin, a former Disney marketing executive and president of market research company Screen Engine. “There used to be a rerelease of a classic film every seven years,” he says. “Now reimagining them is what’s hot.”
Walt Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger says he likes the remake strategy, but the movies have to reflect the heritage of the Disney company, and they have to be innovative. Cinderella fits that bill. The film, directed by Kenneth Branagh, retells the familiar story of blended families gone wrong with a combination of Victorian elegance and cutting-edge special effects. Computer-generated lizards wiggle and transform into real-life footmen. Digitized mice giggle and gallantly leap to Cinderella’s aid. The real-life costumes, designed by three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, include Cinderella’s iconic blue dress, overflowing with silk and Swarovski crystals.
Heavy on British actors, the cast features two recruits from the British television hit Downton Abbey, including Lily “Lady Rose” James in the title role. Richard Madden, the actor known for playing Robb Stark on HBO’s Game of Thrones, plays Cinderella’s prince. Disney’s Horn says his model is Life of Pi, the 20th Century Fox film that won an Oscar for visual effects in 2013. Most of the tiger scenes in the movie were computer generated, an example of what Disney could bring to The Jungle Book.
The lack of strategic diversity among the major studios could well lead to an increasing number of box office bombs”
Studios have to make such spectaculars to compete with high-quality TV shows created by networks such as HBO, says Vincent Bruzzese, a film consultant. “You have to make an experience, something that deserves going to the theater for,” he says. Doug Creutz, an analyst at Cowen Group, says too many moviemakers are churning out the same kinds of pictures, leaning on superheroes and familiar characters that come with built-in audiences, do well abroad, and have product potential. “The lack of strategic diversity among the major studios could well lead to an increasing number of box office bombs, as well as accelerating declines in domestic box office,” Creutz wrote in a March 2 report. Disney had its own such bomb two years ago with a live-action version of The Lone Ranger.
Because many fairy tales and old favorites are in the public domain, anyone can play the game. Time Warner’s Warner Bros. is planning Jungle Book: Origins, its version of Rudyard Kipling’s work, for an October 2017 release, more than a year after Disney’s own Jungle hits theaters. The Huntsman, a prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, will be released by Universal in April 2016.
Disney’s film unit generated a record profit of $1.55 billion last year, largely because of the animated hit Frozen. It’s running a new animated short, Frozen Fever, before Cinderella to draw blue-dress lovers everywhere. Cinderella, with a $95 million budget, is forecast to produce opening weekend ticket sales of $68 million in the U.S. and Canada, says Phil Contrino, chief analyst for the research site BoxOffice.com. He says it could even be bigger than Maleficent, Disney’s edgy retelling of Sleeping Beauty that took in $758 million worldwide last year. “Disney is on a roll with princess movies,” he says.