The Rerelease Roars Back

Disney Enterprises

As "Lion King" opens big, more hot titles return to theaters.

True box office surprises are rare. By late Friday afternoon, studios usually have a rough idea -- good or bad -- of how much their films will make during the weekend. That's why Hollywood was astounded when the 3D rerelease of The Lion King earned $30.2 million on the Sept. 16-18 weekend -- double what Disney insiders thought it would do. Even $15 million would have been a good number, considering the 3D rerelease of Toy Story/Toy Story 2 grossed less than $13 million on its first weekend in fall 2009. Better yet, 92 percent of the Lion King grosses came from 3D (the film was also offered in 2D).

The success of Lion King, now projected to earn north of $70 million in its 2011 domestic rerelease after costing less than $10 million to convert (plus a modest marketing spend), could prompt other studios to consider 3D makeovers. Paramount and Fox already are backing James Cameron's 3D conversion of Titanic, which hits theaters April 6, while Fox will release George Lucas' 3D version of Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace on Feb. 10.  

Rereleasing such beloved behemoths as Lion King, Titanic and Star Wars seems an easy call, but how many library titles should be mined? When Summit Entertainment rereleased The Hurt Locker following its Oscar best picture win, the film earned less than $4 million.

"You have to be judicious," says Dave Hollis, executive vp distribution at Disney. "There's a checklist to see if you have the right ingredients. Did a film do a lot of business its first time out? Has enough time gone by that a generation missed out?"

The 17-year lapse between Lion King releases certainly seemed to play to Disney's hand, plus the studio has kept the property alive through Lion King stage shows (seen by more than 60 million people) and DVD releases (1995 and 2004). Nearly 20 percent of the opening-weekend audience were couples, many lured by the nostalgia factor, while 9 percent were teenagers and the balance families. Lion King's theatrical rerelease is tied to the Oct. 4 debut of the Diamond Blu-ray edition of the film, and Disney is expecting brisk sales considering the toon is already the top-grossing home entertainment title of all time with $1.5 billion in consumer spending.

Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount, agrees that studios have to be careful. A private company is funding the 3D conversion of 1986's Top Gun and hopes Paramount will consider a theatrical return next year, but no decision has been made.

Notes Moore, "You need there to be filmgoers who are truly champions of a movie for a re-release to work."

MINING DISNEY'S VAULT: With Lion King's massive success, Disney is looking at other 3D conversions. Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, which spawned merchandising empires, are likely candidates.

Beauty and the Beast (Nov. 15, 1991)
World Box Office: $377 million
Why: The best picture nominee spawned a hugely successful stage musical.

The Little Mermaid  (Nov. 17, 1989)
World Box Office: $211.3 million
Why: Ariel, like Beauty's  Belle,remains popular with girls around the world.