SUNDAY TIMES - New look for old movies pays off for Disney
Sunday Times Business By unknown, 2017-03-19 00:00:00.0

New look for old movies pays off for Disney

NOT SO BEASTLY: Walt Disney has generated billions of dollars from live-action remakes of classic animated films such as Beauty and the Beast. And it has plenty more in the pipeline which it hopes will build on the success of the others.
Image: IMDB

Walt Disney's live-action studio is on a lucrative nostalgia trip.

Disney's latest reimagining, Beauty and the Beast, marks a big test of the company's strategy of using live actors to make beloved animated tales more relevant to new generations. Disney has a dozen more possible remakes in the pipeline, which it hopes will build on the success of recent films like Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Maleficent.

Despite a couple of misses, the strategy proved to be a better bet for the live-action studio than trying to create new legends. Disney has generated almost $2-billion (R25.5-billion) in net profit from six remakes since 2010, according to S&P Global Kagan research unit. That success, coupled with strong showings by other Disney film divisions, including Marvel and Lucasfilm, have made the company the box-office leader.

They were properties "everybody knows", said Doug Creutz, an analyst at Cowen & Co.

"It's probably a safer strategy than taking all that money and trying to create new intellectual property."

The recent backlash over a gay character in Beauty and the Beast isn't expected to hurt the film's potential, with online ticket seller Fandango saying the movie is generating the fastest advance sales of any family feature. The picture, which opened in more than 4000 US locations on Friday, is forecast to bring in $144-million in ticket sales this weekend and may generate $420-million during its US run, estimates. Some analysts expect it could double that overseas.

Disney, which said the film would open in most of the world on the same day, predicts $120-million in ticket sales from the US and Canada through Sunday.

The latest reincarnation of the French fairy-tale stars Emma Watson as Belle, a bookworm stuck in a French village who yearns for a bigger life until misadventure leads her to a reclusive beast.

Beauty and the Beast is getting positive reviews, with 68% positive at aggregator The film cost about $160-million to make, according to the studio. With marketing costs, the total climbs to about $300-million, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be identified as discussing private information. Disney struck gold with the 1991 animated feature - it became the first cartoon to be nominated for a best-picture Oscar.

Disney's live-action strategy isn't without risks. When the company strayed from revisiting its classics, disaster sometimes ensued. The Lone Ranger, Tomorrowland and Million Dollar Arm all failed to recover their costs at the box office, as did the Disney-backed live-action adaptation of the Roald Dahl book The BFG from Steven Spielberg.

Two stories that came right from Disney's playbook, the sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass and Pete's Dragon, were also duds.

The Burbank, California-based studio's current run of successful remakes began with Alice in Wonderland in 2010. Directed by Tim Burton, the film generated more than $1-billion in ticket sales. The success of that film, along with Universal Pictures' 2012 release Snow White and the Huntsman, led studio chairman Alan Horn to wonder: "Why aren't we doing that?"

Disney's live-action unit, led by Sean Bailey, built on the success in 2014 with Maleficent, a darker take on Sleeping Beauty, featuring Angelina Jolie. The $180-million production budget yielded $759-million in global sales. Cinderella, in 2015, went on to score critical and commercial success, and The Jungle Book won an Oscar in February for visual effects. A sequel is planned.

To Barton Crockett, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets & Co, these films are a necessary new hybrid for a younger generation that's grown accustomed to cutting-edge special effects.

"It is very hard for them to watch some of the older movies because the movie-making technology was so different than it is today," Crockett said. "You don't get the same reaction."

While Disney is still making original live-action films, like the Ava DuVernay-directed A Wrinkle in Time due for release in 2018, it's largely focused on remaking classics.

A live-action Mulan film is due out in November 2018. Mary Poppins Returns, with Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep and Lin-Manuel Miranda, is set for release the following month. Revivals of Dumbo, The Lion King, Cruella and Aladdin are also being developed. - Bloomberg