"It's in the soil here," says Disney production chief Sean Bailey, who leads the charge in spinning classic properties into live-action tentpoles. "Some studios are really comfortable making R-rated comedies; that's not what we do. We work in this space."
Who's the fairest of them all?
Over the April 22-24 weekend, Universal's live-action fairy tale The Huntsman: Winter's War opened to an abysmal $19.4 million at the U.S. box office, down more than 65 percent from first film in the would-be franchise, 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman. The results were more grim than Grimm as elsewhere at the multiplex, Disney's The Jungle Book roared to $60.1 million in its second weekend.
Disney's live-action studio celebrated the weekend's victory by staking out five more release dates for its fairy tales and other classic stories like Jungle Book — bringing the total number of such movies it will release between now and the end of 2019 to 10, including four in 2018. While Disney executives would never admit it publicly, the April 25 dating announcement was designed to send a direct message to rival studios: Best stay out of the fairy-tale business!
"We obviously have a long legacy in telling such stories. It's in the soil here," Walt Disney Studios production president Sean Bailey tells THR. "Our people work in this space all the time. Some studios are really comfortable making R-rated comedies; that's not what we do. Picking a lane and becoming students has its value."
Back in 2010, many in Hollywood were dubious as to whether Disney's Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, would work. Quickly silencing the skeptics, the movie grossed $1.02 billion at the global office, ushering in a new era for Bailey and his team. Next came Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent and Cinderella, all of which clicked.
Jungle Book has also wildly overperformed after being embraced by critics and audiences alike, earning nearly $600 million to date in another defining moment for Bailey and his colleagues. Directed by Jon Favreau, the movie is playing to not just the coveted Disney female audience, but to all demos. Males have flocked to the film, attracted by the cutting-edge technology used for its visual effects, which include the creation of a virtual jungle and believable computer-created animals.
Disney has taken a different approach for each of its recent films. Cinderella was a traditional, but pictorially lavish, retelling of the beloved animated film, while Maleficent turned the antagonist of Sleeping Beauty into a sort of feminist protagonist. "You have to be true to the story, but you also have to make sure these stories matter creatively. There's a couple of big titles we haven't done yet because we haven't found that north star," Bailey says.
After Alice in Wonderland, other studios joined the fairy-tale race with tales that are in the public domain — only to find themselves tumbling down a rabbit hole. Snow White and the Huntsman and Paramount's Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters were darker and grittier than the comparable Disney titles, which have all been rated PG. And while both of those movies did solid business, neither came close to matching the levels of Maleficent, Oz, Alice or Cinderella, which were no doubt buoyed by the Disney brand and the studio's marketing machine.
The new Huntsman, skewered by critics, is sure to lose millions for Universal considering its $115 million net budget. Kristen Stewart starred as Snow White opposite Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron in the first film, but the studio decided to go in a different direction and make a prequel sans the famous princess. "Simply put, you don't make a Snow White sequel without Snow White. It's pretty simple really," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock. "I'm not saying that Kristen Stewart was the main draw. However, the character is compelling — there's a reason why the fairy tale has been around for so long. What Disney does is give you the goods, as promised, something it seems other studios lose sight of."
It's the second withering blow in recent months for Disney's competitors in this space, following the October release of Warner Bros.' big-budget origin story Pan, which similarly bombed, topping out at $35.1 million in the U.S. and $102.7 million worldwide. (Two years earlier, Warner Bros. also saw Jack the Giant Slayer flop.)
But Warners isn't giving up. Although it recently pushed the movie back a year, it plans to release a rival Jungle Book, with stop-motion performing ace Andy Serkis at the helm, set to open on Nov. 16, 2018. Before that, It will open The Legend of Tarzan this summer on July 1, and Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur, originally set for this summer, is now going out March 24, 2017.
In a potential high-stakes face-off, Favreau's Jungle Book 2 could feasibly open in the latter half of 2018, making for a direct showdown with Warners' Jungle Book. Even if the two avoid a head-to-head box-office clash, Warner Bros. faces a huge challenge. "I know competing projects have had success in the past. Volcano and Dante's Peak, and Armageddon versus Deep Impact were similar projects, but not directly adapted from the same source material," says Bock. Adds comScore's Paul Dergarabedian: "Warners' origins theme may give it enough of a difference to draw audiences, but it will depend on the release dates of the two films and their proximity to each other."
Warner Bros. insiders say there are no plans to relocate the film.
Bailey declined to say whether he is worried about the rival Jungle Book. "We've seen a lot of movies that touch on ours. Our philosophy is that we just put our heads down and do what we do," he says.
As Disney moves forward, it is currently readying Burton's Alice Through the Looking Glass for release on May 27, followed by Pete's Dragon on Aug. 12. And next March, Disney opens live-action musical Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon. After that, it's unclear exactly which of Disney's films will open on the prime release dates the studio has staked out: July 28, 2017; April 6, 2018; Aug. 3, 2018; Nov. 2, 2018, Dec. 25, 2018; Nov. 8, 2019; and Dec. 20, 2019.
The movies in Disney's pipeline? Jungle Book 2 and Maleficent 2, with Angelina Jolie in the title role, are a lock, while the other films expected to fill those dates include Cruella, starring Emma Stone as the Dalmatian-mad villain; A Wrinkle in Time, a fantasy about travel to mysterious planets directed by Ava DuVernay and based on the beloved novel by Madeleine L'Engle; Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson, based on the popular Disneyland attraction; director Tim Burton's Dumbo; a Mary Poppins sequel from helmer Rob Marshall that is set to star Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda; and a Tinker Bell film starring Reese Witherspoon. Director Lasse Hallstrom's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is another priority.
The Jungle Book, A Wrinkle in Time, Jungle Cruise and Mary Poppins aren't fairy tales, but fall in the same realm as the other films, all part of Disney's ambitious blueprint to reimagine classic stories.
"Some people might think of Disney movies as only being for kids and families," says Bailey. "We don't think about it that way. There's a Walt [Disney] quote that we use all the time: 'I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be 6 or 60.'"