Julie Bikhman of Manhattan might buy the tickets, but when it comes to deciding what movie to see, her three young children are the ones calling the shots.
“If it’s a Marvel movie, we know it’s going to be epic,” Annie’s twin sister Nina adds. “We know it will have a good story line and lots of action and adventure. Also, the villains are sick and there are a lot of plot twists.”
Annie and Nina weren’t born when audiences were first introduced to Disney’s “The Lion King” in 1994, but the two cajoled their mom and 14-year-old brother Nathaniel to AMC Lincoln Square on Wednesday to be among the first to see Simba’s grand return to the big screen. They loved the original cartoon and just couldn’t wait to see a dazzling, photo-realistic update of the classic Disney tale.
The sisters aren’t alone in their enthusiasm for the Disney empire. At a time when studios and movie theater owners are struggling to fill multiplexes, there’s at least one company incentivizing audiences to get off their couches and head into theaters. Collectively, 3.5 out of every 10 tickets sold this year was for a Disney movie, and that number will climb even higher after “The Lion King” debuts this weekend. In the first sixth months of 2019, the studio has scored with the four biggest movies at the domestic box office: “Avengers: Endgame” ($852 million), “Captain Marvel” ($426 million), “Toy Story 4” ($354 million), and “Aladdin” ($334 million). The only film that’s come within striking distance so far is Sony’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” ($288 million), produced by the Disney-owned Marvel Studios.
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“When you think of the evolution of Disney, it’s been about building up these mega-franchises,” said Eric Handler, an analysts with MKM Partners. “They are great at identifying strong brands. Think about the acquisition of Pixar, then Marvel, and then Lucasfilm.”
Indeed, a number of strategic decisions have made Disney owner of everything from Thor to the Skywalkers to Princesses Anna and Elsa. That acquisition binge left the other Hollywood studios playing a desperate game of catch up. Audiences see the Disney brand as a guarantee of a good time in an era when movie tickets run a family of four more than $50. And that doesn’t include the cost of popcorn and soda.
The first half of the year has been light on competition, but industry prognosticators are optimistic that the back half of 2019 will be favorable for other studios. Universal’s “Fast & Furious” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw” looks promising to round out summer, while “It Chapter Two” and “Joker” are expected to boost fall revenues for Warner Bros. Over the holidays, Paramount has “Terminator: Dark Fate,” and Sony is unveiling another “Jumanji” sequel.
Still, there’s a reason why Disney seems to be far ahead of its rival studios this year. Starting with its first theatrical release in 1937 of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the studio created by Walt Disney has staked its reputation on family fun and squeaky-clean escapism. Some analysts say that Disney releases — particularly, the reboots of classic animated films — are resonating now because audiences are looking for a break from dreary headlines and the bitter political animosity that has fissured the nation under the Trump administration.
Even the lyrics of “The Lion King’s” signature songs: “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” seem to harken back to simpler times, when you could shrug away all your worries and bask in pure happiness. It’s a happy-go-lucky sentiment that is almost impossible to achieve when we’re just a CNN chyron away from the next Beltway scandal or standoff.
“With those movies you want the communal experience because you like feeling the excitement around you,” Handler said. “Just think about when you hear ‘Hakuna Matata,’ you know everyone is going to be giddy. When I’ve seen ‘Star Wars’ films, there’s nothing that gets audiences as excited as the John Williams theme.”
The other reason that Disney movies are standing out is that the studio has managed to do what “peak TV” has: to make them appointment viewing. Other major studio releases this year such as “Men in Black: International,” “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2” never became water-cooler events like “Avengers: Endgame” and “Captain Marvel.” Christopher Torres, a 22-year-old New Yorker, called it a “cultural obligation” to see “Toy Story 4.”
“I have to see how the story ends,” says Torres, who frequents movies with his friend, the 20-year old Camille Hermida-Fuentes. The pair said when they are deciding what movie to see in theaters, they factor in the studio that produced it, the directors that made it, and the hype around the trailer.
And theaters are going all in, often rolling out all the stops to reinforce the notion that Disney releases are “events.” For the opening weekend of “The Lion King,” B&B Theatres, a family-owned chain, unveiled a specialized menu with culinary nods to the film (Grubs and Dirt Brownie Sundae, Hakuna Matata Breeze slushee and Pride Rock Burger to name a few) and partnered with the Kansas City Zoo in bringing lions, warthogs, lemurs, baboons and other animals that can be seen in the savanna.
“We can’t do it for them all, but we handpick 12 to 15 movies we’re going to do something extra for,” said Brock Bagby, executive VP of B&B Theatres. “Obviously from the box office you can see it’s turning to more event-type films. What we’re trying to do is create event-type venues.”
Bagby recalls going to see the original “Lion King” with his parents 25 years ago. Now that he has children of his own, he wants to take them with their grandparents to see the revamped cartoon.
“The biggest thing Disney does is make every movie a four-quadrant movie, trying to get every generation with every film,” Bagby said. “That’s why you see such massive grosses. You get someone from age 3 to 93 to see a movie. That’s the biggest thing they do differently.”
“For the most part, people want something they are familiar with,” Bagby added. “It’s easier to sell that. You can see at this year’s box office that’s what audiences are so receptive to.”
To be sure, not all Disney callbacks are foolproof. Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” brought back underwhelming box office receipts in March. The high-flying elephant was popularized by an 80-year-old cartoon, and, in retrospect, the character may have felt dated. And last year’s “Christopher Robin” ended its theatrical run with $197 million, a lackluster result given expensive production and marketing fees.
And Disney may not be able to maintain this momentum forever. The studio’s banner year at the box office also coincides with the culmination of some of its biggest brands. Marvel will continue rolling out superhero tentpoles, but some of its mightiest heroes hung up their shields after the epic finale that was “Avengers: Endgame.” The studio will also likely return to a galaxy far, far away even after “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” but “Solo: A Star Wars Story” proved that not all of George Lucas’ characters have the Midas touch.
Still, given the studio’s track record, it’s foolish to bet against Disney.
“Every time there’s a Disney movie, I’ll try to see it because they’re always good,” said Hermida-Fuentes. “Part of it is the reputation and how big their name is. They are well-made, feel-good movies.”