Late last year, there was a discussion about whether the high box office totals for films like Inception, The Social Network, True Grit, The King’s Speech and Black Swan was a sign that audiences were actually seeking out high-quality “original” films. This discussion actively ignored the fact that audiences do not at all behave that way. Instead, mainstream audiences always have and always will look for films that they think they will like. This usually involves getting a sense from trailers and marketing that they know what kind of story they’re getting and where it’s going. It’s very rare that audiences will look at a film like Inception and say “I have no idea what that thing is, but I really want to see it!” And even in the case of Inception, the simple premise of entering people’s dreams was probably enough to get people through the door. Audiences aren’t looking for movies that are “good” or “high-quality” or any of that. They are looking for movies that they think will entertain them.
Enter: The Lion King 3D
Disney decided to re-release The Lion King on the big screen—with a gimmicky 3D conversion—on September 16th, as a means to promote the upcoming Blu-ray release. Now, after two weeks at #1 at the domestic box office, Disney has decided to extend the re-release, possibly even past the date of the Blu-ray release. What the hell is happening here? In the last two weekends there have been seven wide release films other than The Lion King. One of those, Straw Dogs, was a remake. The rest are all original, or simply based on books. And The Lion King has beat them all. It’s crazy. It’s also a very bad sign for Hollywood and the theatre industry.
Granted, the month of September is usually a soft month for box office returns. Drive came out on the 16th, but that film is fairly art-house and so it’s no surprise that it wouldn’t do big numbers. But The Lion King is different. It’s not a new film. Most families have a copy of The Lion King in their library already. 3D has been a decent way for Hollywood to offset dropping attendance figures, but it certainly hasn’t been driving audiences, especially not for family films.
So then why has The Lion King 3D been doing so well? I think the answer relates right back to the issue of what audiences look for when they go to the theatre. They don’t care about originality, or even “quality” in the sense that critics might talk about. Nope, audiences are looking for something they are pretty sure will entertain them for about two hours. Looking at the slate of new releases, nothing looks like a sure bet. People look at The Lion King, and though they have seen it before, they know it’s a sure bet. It’s fun and entertaining and hilarious and dramatic and all the things people love to see at the movies.
“So what’s this, The Lion King is playing in theatres again? Maybe my kids are too young to have seen it. Maybe I’m itching to see it again, too. Fuck it, let’s go see The Lion King!”
It makes perfect sense, especially in the absence of strong competition. But what does that say about the state of the film industry as a whole? Well, let’s take a look at this past Summer. There were some big movies that made a lot of money, but for the most part, the films underperformed, and that’s even with half of them having 3D surcharges. Sure bets like superhero movies and sequels, films that should have been clear winners for audiences, simply did not connect. Meanwhile, this re-release of The Lion King has already made approximately $60 million.
People see The Lion King and see a sure bet for their entertainment dollar. And that dollar is extremely important. Ticket prices have gotten near-unreasonably expensive. Tack on $3-5 more for 3D and you’ve got a big barrier for theatre-goers. But for something like The Lion King, which everybody already knows without a doubt is awesome, that money spent is worth it. It’s a sure bet. The problem for Hollywood is not the films specifically, it’s the issue of risk over return. As ticket prices climb, the willingness of people to spend their hard-earned dollars on new films that have at best a 50/50 shot at being truly entertaining is going to drop.
People are already turning away from the big screen experience, and not just because the movies are bad. The movies have always been bad. Going all the way back to the beginning of movies, the majority of films have not been that good. But there have always been enough good films and the tickets have always been cheap enough to make that gamble a good one for mass audiences. That tide is turning, and when the biggest movie at the box office two weekends running is an old, traditionally animated Disney film, the entire film industry should be quaking in its boots. The ability to make money worldwide may be expanding, but the domestic box office, where Hollywood still makes a much higher percentage of gross, is clearly in trouble.
Theatrical-to-DVD windows are getting shorter and shorter, ticket prices are rising fast, and the value of going to the movies to see the latest mediocre superhero movie is dropping dramatically. Sure, some movies manage to surprise. Inception and Black Swan are great examples of that. Sometimes, when a movie just looks that good, and the word-of-mouth corroborates the initial reaction that well, a movie can really take off. And then you’ve got stalwarts like the recently passed Harry Potter saga, Twilight, Transformers, or any of those huge franchises. Those will almost always bring in the money. But other than that, the domestic box office is quickly becoming a wasteland in which only the films that look like 100% sure bets for the audience will make any serious bank.
The Lion King 3D is just the first clear example of this. I would not be surprised to see Disney and other companies looking to re-release their greatest box office successes of the last 20 years in 3D. Because if there is anything to take away from the success of The Lion King 3D, it’s that people will pay good money to see a film they know they already love that hasn’t been on the big screen for a long time. And I’m sure Hollywood will find a way to quickly milk that to destruction within eight months, just like they did with 3D after Avatar. Theatrical exhibition is a dying industry, folks, and this is just the next milestone along that path to doom.