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‘Cinderella’ Shows Disney’s Live-Action Fantasy Strategy Is Working

Walt Disney Studios has been in the happily-ever-after business since 1937’s “Snow White” ushered in a golden age of feature film animation.

Over the past decade, the Magic Kingdom has been particularly adroit at taking the cartoon fantasies that provided the foundation of its pop culture empire and giving them a fresh live-action spin. This weekend, “Cinderella” was the latest classic Disney film to be revisited, joining the likes of “Maleficent” and “Alice in Wonderland” by dominating the global box office with a massive $132 million haul.

In each case, familiarity has bred contentment, enabling the films to arrive with a built-in awareness and a level of love for the stories of dreams fulfilled that few productions can match.

“People love the characters,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “These movies are still very much in rotation and alive. Generations of women grew up with these characters, and they show them to their daughters and their granddaughters.”

Unsurprisingly, Disney shows no signs of closing the vault doors. The studio is already planning live-action versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Dumbo” and “The Jungle Book.” It’s also broadened beyond straight remakes, revisiting L. Frank Baum’s Oz books with “Oz the Great and Powerful” and repositioning the Broadway musical version of the Brothers Grimms’ greatest hits, “Into the Woods,” as a sort of “Avengers” of fairy tales.

“It’s all part of a bigger, broader strategy to bring these stories to life in unique and extraordinary ways,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “There are two paths we’ve been taking lately. It’s either, ‘How do you tell a story you love in brand new ways,’ as we did with ‘Maleficent’ or ‘Oz,’ or ‘How do we make the quintessential live-action version as we did with ‘Cinderella’?”

Disney has staked its future on developing a few key brands. It makes “Star Wars” sequels and spinoffs through Lucasfilm; animated fare via Pixar and Disney Animation; and superhero adventures under its Marvel division. It appears that live-action fairy tales have become another pillar of its kingdom.

Just as comicbook films attract predominantly male audiences, “Cinderella,” with its 68% female audience, plays like a tentpole production for women and girls.

“It will keep working for the foreseeable future,” said Contrino. “It’s almost as bulletproof as superhero franchises.”

The success Disney has had with these films helped convince Imax to show “Cinderella” even though the tale of a lowly woman who captures a prince’s heart seems pretty far removed from the special effects adventures that are the format’s calling card.

“We were on the sidelines because we’d made a decision before that Imax was only for fanboy movies,” said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment. “But last year we missed out on ‘Frozen’ and ‘The Lego Movie,’ and we had to rethink our programming flexibility.”

Because “Cinderella” was such a quality production — a film that attracted top-shelf talent like Cate Blanchett and director Kenneth Branagh — Foster was convinced that it would work for his audience. Going forward, he hopes Imax can continue showing Disney’s live-action fantasy films.

“This is a momentum business, and when you get on a streak, it’s like a snowball and it keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” said Foster. “Disney is definitely on a streak right now.”

There’s another reason that Disney is unlikely to see its enthusiasm for revisiting the world of damsels in distress, handsome princes and quirky fairy godmothers diminish. These productions allow them to launch toy lines, TV shows and theme park inspired by the movie across its myriad divisions, much in the way that “Iron Man” and “Star Wars” inspire consumer products frenzies. That’s critical given that Disney’s consumer products division rivals revenues from its studio, while cable properties and theme parks exceed film earnings.

“The Disney company is in a position unlike any other company to take and create value across so many different touch points,” said Hollis. “From a brand perspective it reinforces our promise to our customers that Disney is all about high quality and heart.”

Going forward, Disney plans to release one or two live-action fairy tales a year, running the gamut from Grimms to Kipling. It’s easy to see why they’re tempted to keep raiding the archive of myths, legends and bedtime stories.

“Audiences know the brand, and they’re stories they want to see updated,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “When you wrap the whole thing up in a PG-package, it’s irresistible for families.”

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