In the battle between the two “Jungle Book” movies, Disney appears to have the upper hand.
The studio just enjoyed a massive $103.6 million opening weekend for its live-action update of its 1967 animated classic and is already hard at work on a sequel that would bring back director Jon Favreau and focus on more of Mowgli’s adventures. Warner Bros. won’t counter with its own version of the Rudyard Kipling tales until 2018, 30 months after the Disney version took multiplexes by storm.
“Warner Bros. has to be really concerned,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “It could spell disaster.”
The history of competing studio projects with similar story lines is nearly as old as the movie business itself. Think of how 1938’s “Jezebel” and 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” pitted two scheming Southern belles (Bette Davis and Vivian Leigh) against each other, or when 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove” and the same year’s “Fail Safe” dramatized accidental nuclear war, albeit one in comic form and the other as a straight drama.
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The litany of competing projects shows no signs of slowing — sometimes with catastrophic results. Three years ago, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was attacked not once but twice in the span of three months. The first of these president in peril movies, “Olympus Has Fallen,” was first out of the gate and the most financially successful, racking up $161 million, against a budget of $70 million. The second, “White House Down,” made more globally, grossing $205.4 million, but lost money because it cost $150 million to produce and millions more to market. Other projects that suffered from over-familiarity include “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached,” two romantic comedies about casual sex; “Jobs” and “Steve Jobs,” different looks at the Apple founder; and “Tombstone” and “Wyatt Earp,” biopics about the legendary lawman. Both Jobs movies flopped, while “Friends with Benefits” and “Wyatt Earp” were money losers.
“There’s always a perception issue where if audiences feel like two movies are very similar, it can be problematic,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.
When it comes to “White House Down” versus “Olympus Has Fallen,” there was a clear case of winners and losers. But the history of dueling projects is more complicated. Instead of having one film that delivers a knockout punch to the other, many times these standoffs end in a draw. Sometimes both pictures get carried out of the ring in victory. Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” landed in theaters two and a half months after another asteroid-on-collision-course-with-earth thriller, “Deep Impact.” Instead of cannibalizing each other, both films connected with audiences, with “Armageddon” becoming the highest-grossing film of 1998 globally and “Deep Impact” ranking among the year’s biggest hits.
Though it’s rare to have two films based on the same source material released within a short period, it has happened in the past. In 2012, “Mirror, Mirror” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” both took on the Grimms fairy tale, earning $183 million and $396.6 million, respectively. “Snow White and the Huntsman” performed well enough to justify a sequel, albeit one without Snow White. That follow-up, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” hits theaters next Friday.
Warner Bros. has just started production on its version of the Kipling stories, but analysts say that the studio will be certain that its take is sufficiently different from what Disney and Favreau achieved with their telling of the man cub fable. It has tapped Andy Serkis, the motion-capture master behind “The Lord of the Rings'” Gollum, to direct and has assembled a top-shelf cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Benedict Cumberbatch. Though Favreau was hailed by critics for making his version of “The Jungle Book” more realistic and less carbonated than the animated rendition, Warner Bros. could get darker still as a way of setting itself apart. That might mean reaching for older audiences by upping the action and getting a PG-13 rating.
“It’s all about the message,” said Dergarabedian. “Within the marketing they have to show there’s sufficient differentiation.”
Originally, the film was supposed to come out in October of 2017, but earlier this month Warner Bros. pushed the release date back by a year. The added time could help “Jungle Book” at the box office, giving it breathing room from the Disney version.
Over the longterm, however, Disney’s success with fairy tales may start scaring off other studios. Along with “The Jungle Book,” the company has revitalized familiar stories such as “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” “Cinderella,” “Maleficent” and “Alice in Wonderland” to an average box office return of $700 million globally. With new versions of “Dumbo” and “Beauty and the Beast” on the horizon, as well as a return to Wonderland with this summer’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” the studio may have a monopoly on stories that end in happily ever after.
“We’re seeing story extensions and many of these movies are delving deeper into these worlds,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “There’s just something in the Disney DNA that allows us to have this kind of a success ratio.”
Now the pressure’s on for Warner Bros.’ “Jungle Book” to make like Watson and Crick and discover its own double helix structure.