The Secret Formula Behind Disney's 'Cinderella'

Cinderella Still 5 - H 2015
Jonathan Olley

Cinderella Still 5 - H 2015

The movie tests the studio's unique skill in modernizing animated hits as live action.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In March 2010, many doubted whether Tim Burton's reimagined fairy tale Alice in Wonderland would find a happy ending at the box office. They were quickly silenced. The Disney movie grossed a staggering $1.02 billion and marked a defining moment for the studio: Why not make other live-action films based on stories synonymous with the Disney legacy? "We are taking advantage of animated classics and using modern technologies and fantastic filmmakers to bring these live-action stories to global audiences," says Disney marketing chief Ricky Strauss. "It's a new approach."

On March 13, Disney will once again test that approach with Cinderella, a traditional fairy tale that might not seem as obviously relevant to a generation of girls raised on the anti-princesses of Frozen and Maleficent. While director Kenneth Branagh's reboot puts Cinderella and the prince on more equal footing, it lacks the sort of twist that made Frozen a feminist favorite. Prerelease tracking suggests a $60 million-plus debut in North America, but it could do more, considering that Maleficent bowed to $69.4 million last summer on its way to $758.4 million worldwide (that darker film had the advantage of starring Angelina Jolie). Cinderella stars Downton Abbey's Lily James opposite Cate Blanchett as the evil stepmother. "The superhero genre is inexhaustible, so why not get into the same business with fairy tales?" says Rentrak analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "The trick will be to make this side of the business as dynamic and exciting as superheroes."

So far, Disney studio chief Alan Horn is succeeding. Into the Woods, a fairy-tale mashup based on Stephen Sondheim's musical, has grossed $172.6 million globally since Dec. 25, while Oz the Great and Powerful earned $493.3 million in 2013. Neither was an obvious choice for families, but they showed up. "There's no other brand that has more mainstream trust than Disney when it comes to these stories," says box-office analyst Phil Contrino. Indeed, other studios haven't matched Disney. Universal's Snow White and the Huntsman took in a decent $396.6 million worldwide, but big-budget busts include Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters ($226.3 million) and Jack the Giant Slayer ($197.7 million). Those tried to appeal to both boys and girls. "If you try to shoehorn these fairy tales into another category, the audience will smell it a mile away," says Dergarabedian.

Cinderella, aimed at girls and their moms, could portend a wave of Disney princesses; Beauty and the Beast is in the works, while Mulan is in development. Disney's 2016 slate includes sequel Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass (May 27) and Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book (April 15). Warner Bros. has a competing film,The Jungle Book: Origins, but it doesn't open until Oct. 6, 2017. Contrino says he "wouldn't want to go up against Disney in this arena."