The business of The Lion King
INTERNATIONAL - Come for the harmonic pairing of Beyoncé and Donald Glover as they sing the Elton John classics, stay for the comedic fireworks of Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner in Walt Disney’s live-action The Lion King.
That’s the standard take from the reviews of one of Disney’s crown jewels this year, which hits theaters nationwide Friday. But critics have given this version of the beloved tale a frosty reception—only 60% are recommending it, according to aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. With an estimated $175 million-plus opening weekend, it’s still likely to record the second-biggest opening of the year so far, behind only Avengers: Endgame.
“I don’t think critics’ reviews are going to matter as much with this film,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Mojo. Robbins predicts it will generate more than $1.3 billion globally, which would overtake Beauty and the Beast as the biggest of the live action re-imaginings the studio has been plugging away at since the success of Alice in Wonderland in 2010.
The strategy has helped introduce the studio’s most popular characters, from Belle to Aladdin, to a new generation of consumers. It is also contributing to a year in which Disney is exerting a dominance over Hollywood the likes of which Tinseltown has never seen. Since it closed a $71 billion offer for a swath of 21st Century Fox assets in March, the studio’s domestic market share has risen to nearly 35%, more than double its closest rivals, Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures.
One of the key indicators that helps explain why audiences will turn out to Lion King, whatever the critics say, is the dominance of Disney’s so-called “event films.” The top-five grossing films so far this year—four of which are Disney movies—account for 36% of the box office ticket sales. In 2018, that sort of box office concentration was less than 23%.
Doug Creutz, analyst at Cowen & Co., has been studying this evolution. He expects that by the end of summer, the top-four-grossing movies from Hollywood’s most lucrative season will account for more than half of all ticket sales. This level of consolidation has happened last year, too, and in 2015. But it was pretty rare before then: From 2001 to 2014, there was only one year in which the top four films exceeded even 40% of the total.
2019 has the potential to be “highly concentrated,” Creutz says. With upcoming sequels of Star Wars and Frozen still on the way, he says it’s possible that the year will set a record for the fewest number of movies that account for the biggest share of the box office. “Nobody wants to put their movie next to Disney’s big movies,” he says.
Compounding the issue is that there is a record number of wide releases this summer—34 of them, compared to the 18-year average of just 24. This makes the odds of success lower for anything that isn’t a huge event at theaters, and the fallout will be born by smaller studios trying to compete with Disney, according to Creutz. Producers and distributors have a tougher choice to make about whether a movie has the ability to survive in a theatrical release, or if streaming is a better fit.
Even this year’s Aladdin, which was widely panned, managed to swing a sizable profit, raising $964 million globally. (Dumbo, which flopped in March, appears to be the rare exception.) The Lion King has already opened in China, the second-biggest movie market, and has bested the results of The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.
Fans of Beyoncé are doing their part to ensure The Lion King’s success, using the singer’s lion character Nala as their profile pictures on social media as a way to raise the profile of the movie. But for some critics, the fierceness of the singer’s stage persona doesn’t translate. Nala’s “Lions, are you with me?” rallying cry is no “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation.”
Catalina Combs, of the review site Black Girl Nerds, notes that the best song of the movie isn’t Beyoncé’s but the comedians’ “Hakuna Matata.” “The voice work, combined with the hyperreal CGI during the more emotional scenes, comes off as bad dubbing,” she wrote. “At times, it sounds incredibly cheesy.”
At the screening I attended last week, it was hard to know if what you were seeing was real or digital. Visually, the film is stunning, mixing technology from the gaming world, virtual reality, and real sounds and views of Africa. That seems to have come at the cost of facial expressions that might allow you to connect with a character.
Others were disappointed that the film is a play-by-play of the original 1994 animation. To David Ehrlich of Indiewire, the movie is “a creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail.”
It isn’t the most powerful Hollywood property when factoring merchandise and other revenue streams—that title might go to Pokémon—but Lion King ranks high and has had remarkable staying power, in large part because of some $9 billion in ticket sales to its stage show, which has run through more than 9,000 performances.
And unlike such Disney properties as Marvel, which are driven by toy sales, the movie merchandise tie-ins include a cosmetic collection by Luminess and Sir John, Beyoncé’s makeup artist, along with $75 crown rings, courtesy of jeweler Pandora. There’s a hat line from milliner Gigi Burris, and Bloomingdales will have its own in-store “Style Kingdom.”
But the fact that even Beyoncé can’t make the movie a resounding success on all measures is perhaps a warning for the studio’s many remakes in store. A live-action version of Lady and the Tramp for Disney’s new streaming service is scheduled for later this year. Mulan is set for a March 2020 release, and Cruella, a reboot of 101 Dalmatians starring Emma Stone, is cued up for 2020. For a remake of The Little Mermaid, Disney is trying to keep the franchise current by casting black actress and singer Halle Bailey as Ariel. The studio has live-action versions of its animated hits scheduled through 2023.