Why The Lion King’s Success is a Sign that Hollywood is in Big Trouble

September 26, 2011 — 12 Comments

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.

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12 responses to Why The Lion King’s Success is a Sign that Hollywood is in Big Trouble

  1. 

    Good piece, but there is one thing I think you are discounting unfairly in this situation:

    Disney, prior to 1990, always re-released their animated features into theatres just prior to their inevitable release on VHS. They almost always cleaned up at the box office, with very few exceptions. Even a film that was a failure like The Fox and the Hound did better on re-release than it did on its initial release.

    It is kind of disheartening that none of the original films at the box office are doing all that well, but Disney re-releasing their older films to trumpet their arrival on the home market isn’t anything particularly new. But you are right when you say that it’s all about knowing what makes a safe bet.

    • 

      Thanks!

      I didn’t know whether to get into it in the piece proper, but I might as well so so here. Prior to 1990, Disney re-released its films about every 7 years. That’s where the Disney Vault concept came from. They would release a movie, then take it out of theatrical distribution completely, then re-release 7 years later in order to capitalized on an increased demand. A few Disney movies we now consider classics actually only made their money back through that re-release system.

      But the difference period is important to note. There is a reason Disney stopped doing those re-releases (other than the IMAX ones they did for Beauty and Lion King a number of years back). Quite simply, home video, beginning with the adoption of VHS, put a stop to it. In fact, home video basically completely obliterated the idea of theatrical re-releases and protracted initial runs. The idea of a movie staying in theatres for more than a year, running around the country, eventually dying out and then re-released a few years later has almost completely died out. There have been a couple notable exceptions (ET, Star Wars Special Editions, Alien), but in each case, as with The Lion King, they were partly sold on the basic of offering something new in the way of new cuts.

      What’s notable in the case of The Lion King is not that simply that the film has done well in its re-release. The Disney re-releases of Nightmare Before Christmas and Toy Story 1&2, both in 3D, did quite well. But I’d argue that those re-releases were also treated a bit more like special events. In one case you have an annual, very short re-release, just to cater to that Tim Burton crowd. In the other case you’ve got cherished films, but released as a double feature. That’s three hours to sit at the theatre, and I’d say that part of why it did well was because parents and Gen Y kids knew Toy Story 3 was coming and wanted to get prepped.

      The Lion King has no such reason to do so well. The last DVD release was on of the highest selling Disney DVD releases ever. Even though it’s in the vault, it has still be reasonably easy to find. The new Blu-ray release is coming out October 4th, and it’s been promoted quite well, so it’s not like parents think going to the theatres is the only way to watch the movie with their kids. In fact, going to the theatres is a lot more expensive, and it can be quite exhausting with the young ones.

      But I think that when you realize there hasn’t been a big kids movie since Cars 2, and there certainly hasn’t been one out in the last few weeks, parents see that The Lion King is being re-released and they figure, “heck, why not? The Lion King is one of the best kids movies ever made. If nothing else, my kids are sure to love it, and I will too.”

      Re-releases of movies for more a very short period is quite rare these days, but Disney seems to have realized that even in the age of DVD and Blu-ray, people will still pay good money to see a movie they’ve already seen a million times before simply for the fact that its the only thing playing that is a sure bet. You can be optimistic and think it will spur a resurgence in re-releases, and it may, but I am more concerned about what this says about the state of theatrical exhibition. It’s not looking good, I can tell you that much.

  2. 

    “Theatrical exhibition is a dying industry, folks, and this is just the next milestone along that path to doom.”

    😦

    However… I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that people want to see favorite movies on a big screen even if they’ve already seen them and they’re available on DVD/Blueray. A real theatre is quite a different experience as you know and if they’re ready to pay for it – the better I’d say.

    On Thursday my film club is showing 12 monkeys, which I think I’ve seen twice before. I wouldn’t rule out completely that I’ve got it burned down on some record somewhere after having recorded it from television at some point. And yet – I hope I can go and watch it because it’s awesome to watch it on a big screen and good movies, like 12 monkeys, are a pleasure to revisit.

    Lion king is also a good movie. So if people want to revisit in i cinema, it’s pretty great, heh? (Although I’d not need the silly 3d thing as an excuse tbh)

    • 

      I love that people have been going to see The Lion King on the big screen, partly because I think it’s an amazing film, but also because I love the idea of theatrical re-releases. There is certainly nothing intrinsically bad about the idea of people going to see great catalog movies on the big screen again, but it irks me to see such a re-release beating out every new release for two weeks (maybe three weeks, considering nothing that big is coming out next weekend). It’s a sign that the model is no longer working quite right.

      I suspect the biggest problem is ticket prices. People will pay good money when they know they are getting something good (The Lion King, for example), but they won’t keep spending money on ticket prices that are getting stupidly high when chances are they won’t even really like the movie. I’d say that Hollywood should try and make better movies, but the reality is, that’s easier said than done. Fixing ticket prices is a much more practical solution.

  3. 

    I sort of agree, but I feel like The Lion King is a special case. We loved it when we were kids, and now we have the rare opportunity to take a new batch of youngin’s to it. It’s arguably the best Disney movie, and the nostalgia factor is through the roof. Plus, Moneyball didn’t perform too shabbily this week.

    Plus, it’s based on freakin’ Shakespeare, so audiences are actually proving how erudite and literary they are. They love them some Hamlet.

    If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t see it haha.

    • 

      Actually, you totally should go see it. I managed to find a 2D showing. It was wonderful. I got goosebumps at the start. I cried like three or four times. I laughed. People really aren’t wrong to see it. It’s easily the best thing playing in theatres right now.

  4. 

    I’ll echo some other comments and say that the Lion King may be an exception. I was a teenager at that time, and I remember it even being a big thing among people my age at the time. It’s also gotten huge on video with kids (I’ve heard tales of kids re-watching it over and over).

    However, I think your overall point may be correct in a lot of ways. A lot of movies that you’d expect to well are tanking. A good example is the Sarah Jessica Parker movie that just came out. Yes, it looks terrible, but that hasn’t stopped many films from gaining big audiences. The high prices for tickets, concessions, and the 3D make people choose event movies instead of original ideas. I generally criticize this type of thinking, but I went and saw Harry Potter and haven’t seen Meek’s Cutoff or Drive yet. So I’m not above it all either.

    Great post. There are a ton of interesting themes in here that aren’t going away any time soon.

    • 

      Thanks, man.

      I think I’m willing to agree that the is something special about The Lion King that gives it an edge. For example, it might be that the epic nature of the film feels more suited to the big screen, so the chance to see it like that again makes it more appealing than another film, say Aladdin, might be.

      I think the issue of audiences avoiding films that challenge them is a problem, but I think it’s always been a problem. The difference these days, I think, is that the bigger blockbusters are very made for the lowest common denominator, which includes kids. It’s one thing to set out to make a smart kids film, but it’s an entirely different thing to make every huge budget blockbuster dumbed down for kids as well. Hollywood films didn’t used to be that way. Movies were for adults. Now the biggest quadrant is 18-25 and skews even younger.

      That’s why films like Inception stands out. It’s not for kids. I mean, sure a kids could watch it. There isn’t really anything too objectionable in it. But it’s a film made for thinking adults. If Hollywood could find a way to make that sort of film consistently marketable again it would help. But adults are also busy people with a lot of stress, and ticket prices don’t help lure them to the movies.

      I’d contend that if ticket prices were significantly lower, more adults would be going to the theatres and Hollywood would be making movies to meet that demand. Think more films like True Grit, less films like Thor.

  5. 

    I very much concur with your thoughts on the 3D surcharge. AVATAR’s inflated totals were almost directly due to it and it’s created a disparity between that movie’s success and the otherwise sweeping under-performance.

    Great work here, Cory.

    • 

      It’s like I’ve heard Spielberg say, as well as the guys on MAMO: through all of the history of cinema technological advancements like colour and widescreen have not been subject to a surcharge, why should 3D be any different?

      Now, I suppose there is the slight difference that with 3D you would also want to offer 2D as an option which means two screens for the same movie when you might not need it. But if 3D is unnecessary enough to allow for the option of 2D, and it’s only profitable with a surcharge, then why do 3D at all?

  6. 

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say great blog!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Hollywood Continues to Dig Its Own Grave « justAtad - September 28, 2011

    […] Comments « Why The Lion King’s Success is a Sign that Hollywood is in Big Trouble […]

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