A few weeks ago, Walt Disney Studios and Disney’s CEO Bob Iger announced during its Annual Shareholder meeting that the entertainment giant has decided to produce a live-action Moana (2016) film. The film’s announcement has now had Disney fans and stakeholders of the company wondering if the company can still create original stories. Throughout this piece, we will examine these questions as to why The Walt Disney Company had decided to implement this strategy and if the film studio is genuinely out of new ideas.
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Initially founded by Walt and Roy Disney in 1923 and officially celebrating its 100th anniversary, Walt Disney Studios has created some of history’s most popular animated and live-action movies. Despite its success over the last century, the previous decade for Disney has seen the company mainly establish a strategy of repurposing and recreating those classic animation hits for new audiences or making sequels to those films to help drive an established fan base back into the box office.
Outside of the remakes, adaptations of Disney’s famous animated classics, and sequels, the Mouse House has often created movies and new franchises based on their popular Disney Park attractions. One upcoming film highly anticipated among the Disney theme Park crowd is Justin Simien’s reboot of The Haunted Mansion (2023), inspired by the Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort attraction of the same name. It stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota and Jared Leto as the Hatbox Ghost.
The question at hand currently is if Walt Disney Studios and its animation arm have genuinely run out of new original content to produce. Is the 100-year-old film studio in trouble and unable to connect with this new generation of viewers? Or, does Disney and Bob Iger know precisely what they are doing by employing a less risky strategy that ultimately creates a better return on investment for Walt Disney Company shareholders?
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Disney Live-Action Remake Success Stories
Over the last ten years, The Walt Disney Company and its studio have been responsible for nearly all of the industry’s highest-grossing box office proceeds. Over that same period starting in 2014, Disney embarked on a strategy to make live-action remakes a strategic pillar of its portfolio of content.
In 2019, Disney was responsible for seven featured films that grossed over 1 billion dollars within movie theaters worldwide. However, not including Marvel Studio’s Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Captain Marvel (2019), and LucasFilm’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), the other four films included that year that hit the billion-dollar threshold were either live-action readaptations or sequels to popular franchises.
Despite the criticism from Disney fans and enthusiasts about the lack of originality, it is hard to argue that these films were not good financial decisions for Disney stockholders. Below is a list of some of the most successful live-action remakes which added different story elements that ended up surpassing over a billion dollars in box office proceeds:
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Johnny Depp’s turn as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland would inspire Halloween costumes for years. The live-action adaptation of both the Disney animated film from 1951 and Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865), grossed over $1 billion at the global box office with a whopping $200 million production budget and included Cast Members such as Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen), Anne Hathaway (White Queen), and Mia Wasikowska in the title role of Alice. Jonny Depp alone had a big payday from the film, making over $40 million to star in one of Disney’s earliest live-action readaptations of their classic animated films.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast became the highest-grossing live-action musical film of all time and the highest-grossing movie in Disney’s live-action portfolio at the time of release. Based on the history-making Beauty and the Beast (1991), the film starred Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast. Luke Evans and Josh Gad brought Gaston and LeFou to life, respectively, with Kevin Kline (Maurice), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) rounding out the central cast. The remake was undoubtedly well worth the investment, with Beauty and the Beast earning $1.26 billion in theater worldwide with only a production budget of $160 million.
The musical fantasy film Aladdin was directed by Guy Ritchie and starred Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzi, and Will Smith as Aladdin. Princess Jasmine, Jafar, and Genie, respectively. Based on Disney’s 1992 Aladdin, the story of a street urchin turned prince performed positively at the global box office, bringing in over $1 billion despite a production budget of $183 million.
The Lion King (2019)
The jewel in Disney’s live-action crown, at least financially, Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic African animals delivered stunningly lifelike visuals but failed to capture the wholesome heart of The Lion King (1994) animation. The Lion King follows Simba (Donald Glover) as he deals with the loss of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and takes on his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), for the Pride Lands, all the while dealing with the burgeoning love between himself and Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter). The film would bring in over $1.6 billion in box office proceeds that year globally but also had an eye-popping $260 million production budget. Despite the high cost of creating the film, this would become the highest-grossing live-action remake in history at The Walt Disney Company.
However, despite the success of these movies listed above, not every remake can be a success. For example, some of Disney’s films over the last decade have been box-office flops. Some of those include Mulan (2020) and Dumbo (2019).
Why The Remake Strategy?
The short answer is that it makes a boatload of money.
In a recent article published by Newsweek, many industry experts would go on to explain why the Walt Disney Company has adopted this strategy. According to the report, Jason Ruiz, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, told the news outlet when asked if Disney was out of new ideas: “Out of ideas? Not sure about that, but Disney has fallen into a rut of remaking their animated hits into live-action movies rather than aiming for originality. Tapping into nostalgia has proven more profitable than originality at the moment.”
Many other experts seem to agree. It isn’t that Disney is lazy or is out of new content ideas; it just works! Since its debut and release of Maleficent (2014) in theaters, 14 remakes or adaptations have been released in cinemas or on Disney+. For instance, the article also mentions that Nathan Miller, a crisis communications expert, would tell Newsweek that “Gigantic companies like Disney are naturally going to be risk averse in most creative decisions because failure is so costly. I thought Moana was fantastic, but I wonder whether we need a live-action version. The rise of streamers and online distribution has created unprecedented options for ‘long-tail’ storytelling that is more experimental and creative.”
Disney and CEO Bob Iger have seemed to adopt what is dubbed the “long-tail strategy.” Adopted by successful businesses like Amazon, the long-tail business strategy typically focuses on selling a lower variety of niche or specialized products. Instead, it puts its energy and attention into selling a higher volume of the same product and services. In Disney’s case, this is a lower-risk strategy, but it has paid off financially.
The other side is that original content has not performed well over the last few years. Some of this has been due to the pandemic but with films such as Strange World (2022) and Turning Red (2022), who can blame them for not being bold? Not every movie can be the next Encanto (2021) or Frozen (2013).
Upcoming Disney Live-Action Remakes
And despite the criticism, Disney doesn’t seem to be slowing down this strategy any time soon. Starting with Peter Pan & Wendy in April 2023 and The Little Mermaid in May 2023, there are currently 17 more remakes lined up to be released within the next two years. Here’s what we know about the latest slated films:
The Little Mermaid (2023)
Based on the beloved 1989 movie, Rob Marshall’s’ The Little Mermaid will see Halle Bailey star as Ariel, the eponymous Little Mermaid, in an A-list cast that includes Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, Javier Bardem as King Triton, Awkwafina as Scuttle, and Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric. Alan Menken is returning as a composer.
The movie has garnered backlash since it was announced that Bailey, a Black woman, would be starring as Ariel — a part that that originated in the Disney canon by Jodi Benson.
Peter Pan & Wendy (2023)
The upcoming Disney+ adaptation of Disney’s’ Peter Pan (1953) will star Alexander Molony as Peter Pan, Ever Anderson as Wendy Darling, Yara Shahidi as Tinker Bell, and Jude Law as Captain Hook. The film is set to release on the Disney streamer sometime in 2023. David Lowery directs it.
Snow White (2024)
Rachel Zegler and Gal Gadot lead this relatively unknown cast as Snow White and the Evil Queen, respectively. Based on Disney’s’ first-ever animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), this live-action adaptation is slated to be released on March 22, 2024.
As you see, the long tail strategy is intentional in nature. It’s not that The Walt Disney Company is out of new ideas; it’s just a business decision.
Would you like to see Disney create more original story content in the future?