Nala and Simba in "The Lion King" (Disney )
A 3-D version of "The Lion King," which first bowed two dimensionally in theaters 17 years ago, took the box-office crown this weekend.
Audiences were apparently nostalgic for the animated movie, which collected a surprisingly strong $29.3 million domestically, according to an estimate from Walt Disney Pictures. The reformatted version is slated to play a limited, two-week engagement in theaters.
The updated rendering of the 1994 picture sold far more tickets than any of the other new films that debuted Friday. "Drive," a violent crime drama starring Ryan Gosling, revved up a decent $11 million. But a remake of 1971's "Straw Dogs" flopped with only $5 million, as did the Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy "I Don't Know How She Does It," which grossed a paltry $4.5 million.
Meanwhile, "Contagion," the pandemic thriller that debuted last weekend at No. 1, had another solid weekend in theaters. The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, saw its ticket sales fall only 35% to $14.5 million, bringing its total to $44.2 million.
Heading into the weekend, audience surveys had indicated "The Lion King" would debut with about $15 million. But moviegoers were clearly much more interested in seeing the film in 3-D than even Disney had anticipated. Of those who saw the movie this weekend, an overwhelming 92% opted to purchase a pricier 3-D ticket — an especially high percentage for a family film. This year, for example, the animated film "Rio" had about 58% of its business come from 3-D, while the format accounted for roughly 45% of the receipts for "Kung Fu Panda."
"To take a page out of the movie, I think it boils down to the circle of life," Dave Hollis, the studio's executive vice president of distribution, said of the picture's opening. "Those who saw the film as a child now have the chance to share what was meaningful and special to them with their own children. To have something that meaningful has provided a great opportunity for our exhibition partners during a softer time of year when they need to satisfy the need for a family film."
The original version of "The Lion King" opened to $40.9 million during its first weekend in wide release and went on to gross a staggering $788.2 million worldwide. The film has not been available for purchase on DVD or VHS since 2004.
The reformatted film is already faring far better than 3-D versions of Pixar Animation's first two "Toy Story" films did when they were re-released as a double feature in 2009. Those two movies debuted with $12.5 million and ultimately collected $32.3 million worldwide.
Disney had been planning to release a 3-D version of "Beauty and the Beast" nationwide this fall, but instead only opened the film at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood this month. The movie played there for an exclusive two-week run, which was intended to promote the new version's DVD/Blu-ray launch in October.
Hollis said the success of "The Lion King" might cause Disney executives to reconsider that decision.
"I think we'll finish the run of this movie, see what people liked and didn't like and see what movies we can apply those learnings to. I think you need a pretty special set of circumstances to make it work out this way, so we'll be judicious about releasing 'Beauty' and the other animated films we have in our library," he said, adding that it cost only about $5 million to convert "The Lion King" to 3-D.
"Drive," in which Gosling plays a getaway driver, is one of the best-reviewed films of the year. But moviegoers who saw the film this weekend — mostly young males — did not seem to get what they were expecting, giving the movie a dismal average grade of C-, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
Still, bad word-of-mouth doesn't seem to be hurting the film, as the movie's ticket sales jumped 11% from Friday to Saturday. The film played nationwide this weekend but sold by far the most tickets in Los Angeles, where the movie is set. Nearly 12% of the film's overall business came from L.A., compared with 9% of receipts from New York.
"Even the outlying theaters in Los Angeles — like in Ontario — did amazing business," said Bob Berney, president of theatrical distribution for FilmDistrict, which released the movie. "This can be a polarizing film. It's so extreme and violent that some people are going to be turned off. But it's also so cool, it's like discovering an early Tarantino film."
The action flick was financed by Bold Films and Odd Lot Entertainment for about $15 million; FilmDistrict later purchased U.S. distribution rights.