Disney used to keep things simple: a hit cartoon, followed by an ice show, or possibly a musical, perhaps some cheap and cheerful straight-to-DVD sequels.
Then, if it was worth it, a carefully-managed re-release would follow a decade or so later, when original fans had moved on to other things and a new generation of children had emerged to take their place.
Now however, with the drive for franchises, monetisation and cross-platform revenue, the company has embarked on a new strategy: reviving and remaking its classic animated films as live-action fantasies, in the mould of Harry Potter or The Hobbit.
In the last few months, Disney has announced new remakes of five of its best loved cartoons: Pinocchio, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Winnie the Pooh, as well as a sequel to Alice in Wonderland, one of its most profitable recent films, and the movie that established Disney’s strategy when it was released in 2010.
Alice, which delivered $1.02bn worldwide box office takings (including $334.2m in the US), has been followed into cinemas by Maleficent (a reworking of Sleeping Beauty) which managed global earnings of $758.4m, and, most recently, Cinderella, which is already up to $400.8m worldwide after some three weeks on release.
This tweak on Disney’s film-making formula looks likely to add copious value to a studio already successful on a number of other fronts – including the record-breaking figures for “traditional” cartoon Frozen, its string of Marvel Universe blockbusters such as The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, and the reinvigoration of the Star Wars series (which Disney purchased from George Lucas in 2012) with the still-in-production The Force Awakens and its associated sequels and spin-offs.
“The key concept is risk aversion,” says Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Hollywood trade magazine Variety. “Hollywood is desperate to find things that are essentially presold. They like films they can test-market and know there’s an awareness, an appetite, and fanbase.”
“I suspect they have taken their cue from the spate of fairy tale movies from the last five years or so – titles like Snow White and the Huntsman, which did very well, and Jack the Giant Slayer and Red Riding Hood, which did less well – and thought: we can do that, and we have our own fairy-tale legacy to draw on.”
Aside from the advantages of exploiting Disney’s own back catalogue, fairy tales also have the advantage of narratives that cut across cultural specifics, making them viable for audiences from Australia to Argentina.
Snow White, which starred Twilight’s Kristen Stewart and Thor’s Chris Hemsworth, was a major hit, with global takings of $396.59m for its studio, Disney rival Universal. Warner Bros fared less well with Jack the Giant Slayer ($197.68) and Red Riding Hood ($89.16m), but the potential was clear to see.
“Fairy tales are perfect for Hollywood as there is no rights-holder to deal with. There’s no copyright,” says Gaydos.
It also works with Disney’s corporate strategy of only making movies they can turn into theme-park rides, sell products for, and cross-promote in its giant media empire. Its a strategy that is paying off: 2014 saw the company report a profit of $7.5bn – though, as has become a fact of life in Hollywood, earnings from films ($1.55bn) are overshadowed by those from theme parks and resorts ($15bn), and merchandising ($3.98bn).
The movies are expensive to make, though costs are coming down since the $150-200m spent on the Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland, with all its fantastical design and copious visual effects, and the reported $180m on Maleficent, which required extensive reshoots, after concerns arose over the film’s opening scenes. Cinderella was delivered for $95m; and there’s no reason to suggest that executives will relax their grip for the Emma Watson starring Beauty and the Beast – though the costly Burton has been rehired to direct the Dumbo remake.
But, as Gaydos suggests, “‘magic’ is an ephemeral concept in Hollywood – ‘magic’, from the point of view of a corporate accountant, is profit margin”. Having made a success of Alice, Maleficent and Cinderella (though rather less so with the 2010 Sorcerer’s Apprentice, starring Nicolas Cage), and with a new Jungle Book due in cinemas in 2016, this is a movie-making trend that shows no signs of letting up.
But it is also evidence that in its drive to improve the bottom line, originality has been comprehensively outmoded. Says Gaydos: “Hollywood used the dream factory; now it’s the franchise factory.”
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