No one saw this particular lion-shaped cloud coming. On Sept. 16, Disney re-released The Lion King for a limited two-week theatrical run, in advance of its 3-D and Blu-Ray DVD release of the popular 1994 animated film. Predictions were that the film would do around $12-million (U.S.) at the box office. Instead, The Lion King: 3-D did almost $30-million, eating up the box office. The next weekend, it was the top grosser and is a front-runner this upcoming weekend.
At this point, this refreshed 17-year-old film – which cost Disney less than $10-million to convert to 3-D – has earned more than $80-million in worldwide box office and is the highest-grossing film of September. Of course, September is traditionally a soft month, and The Lion King has remained perennially popular. As well as its $860,000,000 at the box office, it has sold a record-holding 32-million VHS copies, was a hit again on DVD in 2003 and continues as a long-running Broadway play.
It's also clear that a lot of those people who lived with the video as children want to see it again. More than half the audience is under 25, and a sizable chunk appears to be young adults, people like Glee star Darren Criss, who recently declared his enthusiasm for seeing the new film. Dave Hollis, Disney's distribution head, has confirmed that the success isn't just weekend family audiences, but nostalgic adults turning up for evening shows, keeping The Lion King's midweek attendance strong.
The other important statistic is that 91 per cent of the audience opted to see the film in the more expensive 3-D format. That runs counter to recent trends for family films, where audiences typically range from 45-50 per cent for the 3-D choice. That's good news for a future wave of 3-D remakes, including James Cameron's Titanic in 3-D, co-produced by Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox, which is scheduled to be released next April on the centenary of the ship's sinking.
As Cameron told a 3-D Entertainment conference in Hollywood last week, referring to Lion King's success: "Whatever doubts there were amongst the two studios releasing Titanic … pretty much evaporated this past weekend. They see the potential. All it takes is a little healthy greed and doubts tend to go away." The retrofit for Titanic will cost $18-million, which amounts to about $100,000 a minute of the film's running time. But according to the Los Angeles Times, thanks to new developments in software, prices are coming down – closer to $25,000 a minute, which would make a 3-D conversion for an average length film about $2.5-million, opening up the entire Hollywood catalogue to potential conversion.
At the least, this means that 3-D isn't going away. Most of the 39 studio films being released in 3-D in the next year will be male-oriented genre films, but some of the biggest money makers will be reissues. Tony Scott's 3-D Top Gun comes out early next year. The 3-D version of George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace, arrives in theatres in February, with the subsequent five films coming out in 3-D at a rate of one a year until 2017.
The other effect of 3-D commercial successes will be more risk taking, a willingness by studios to allow experiments with more artistic projects. For example, Ang Lee's upcoming film version of Life of Pi, adapted from Canadian author Yann Martel's novel about a boy on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger, will be shot in 3-D, which means that Simba won't be only big cat coming at you in a cinematic third dimension.
OPENING NEXT WEEK
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