Today Disney releases the latest remake of the classic fairytale, Cinderella. The story dates back to the 1st century in Egypt, but Disney took its cues from the 1697 French version by Charles Perrault that introduced a fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage and those stylin’ but not so comfortable glass slippers. Cinderella is only the latest in a string of live-action fairytale adaptations on the slate at Disney and other studios. But, do these films make it to a happy ending or turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight? SSN is here to find out.
ONCE UPON A TIME….
The character of Cinderella has appeared in over 20 films and according to Cinderella producer Simon Kinberg, the reason behind its lasting presence is because simplest stories are the ones that tend to stick with us. “There’s just something fundamental about them,” he says. “No matter how many times they are repeated or reinterpreted, stories like ‘Cinderella’ last for hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years.”
Like superhero films, films based on fairytales have high brand awareness. While superhero films are based on mountains of never-ending stories beginning in the last century, fairytales stem from stories that are centuries (plural) old. But the downside is that the original authors didn’t have franchises in mind when they penned the tales. They instead wrote one-off stories imbued with morals.
Analyzing the last 10 years reveals that fairytale films are alive but only somewhat well. The only recent films to return positive revenue to the distributor from box office alone after factoring in marketing costs and their share of grosses, per BaselineIntel.com, were Alice in Wonderland ($193 million), Maleficent ($697 million) and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters ($33 million). Oz: the Great and the Powerful and Snow White and the Huntsman both gleaned around $250 million in revenue but, only after ancillary returns did the studios see a happy ending.
Even with a barely positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes (51 percent), Alice in Wonderland scored a phenomenal $1 billion at the box office, thanks to brand awareness from Disney’s animated version and Tim Burton and Johnny Depp being at the top of their game prior to Depp’s missteps with The Tourist, Lone Ranger and Transcendence.
Maleficent was also a huge success, grossing $758 million in worldwide box office. It’s a tough line to walk between paying homage to what’s come before and delivering something new to audiences. Sequels walk this line all the time with varying results. Maleficent’s darker angle, though, ended up syncing perfectly with its star Angelina Jolie, still well-known for her wild-child days.
Hansel & Gretel and Snow White and the Huntsman both fared well. Both films had audiences with a lot of gender cross-over. Hansel & Gretel wasn’t afraid to go full R and beef up the blood, gore and action and grossed a handsome $170 million internationally. The filmmakers behind Snow White meanwhile, injected the story with epic battle scenes that weren’t in the original story to draw in the male audience, which worked. The lesson? Have a clear vision of the tone of the story and the marketing thereafter.
That lesson didn’t take at Warner Bros. with their release of Jack the Giant Slayer. Its marketing couldn’t find its tone between family friendly adventure and battle-packed action. The story wasn’t nearly as popular as the other princess tales and its lack of romance was of no help to the marketing department.
The Russell Crowe starrer Robin Hood and the vibrant Mirror Mirror from Relativity also didn’t spell magic for the studios; demonstrating fairytales are a bigger gamble than other genres due to their high cost and difficulty in finding the right tone.
AT THE STROKE OF MIDNIGHT….
Which brings us to Disney’s latest, Cinderella. The tone of the film couldn’t be more bright and romantic in stark difference to Maleficent. That’s okay, as long as they can pick up the slack through the younger set. The film has an estimated budget of $95 million according to Studio System, in comparison to Maleficent’s hefty price-tag of $180 million. Disney is marketing the film on the awareness of the story and its lavish production…and the accompanying Frozen Fever short.
The reviews are strong for Cinderella – it’s at 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and it has more fans on Facebook (but less on Twitter) than Maleficent, suggesting that parents are excited about the film. Meanwhile, per TheWrap, advance sales for Cinderella are outpacing Maleficent, Oz: The Great and the Powerful and Snow White and the Huntsman on Fandango and MovieTickets.com with tracking at $60 million domestically this weekend. All of that is adding up to a positive ROI for the house of mouse which only solidifies their upcoming films.
AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER?
Speaking of upcoming fairytale films, Disney isn’t the only studio that thinks magic still abounds in the genre. Even though the source material wasn’t originally framed for sequels, studios aren’t keen to drop a proven money-maker, so Hansel & Gretel 2 is currently in active development and The Huntsman is set to release in April 2016. Universal’s drop of Snow White in the title of The Huntsman shows that they are marketing the film to the male audience even more so than before. Hansel & Gretel 2 meanwhile should drum equal profits for Paramount as long as it keeps costs down.
On the princess side, Disney is developing a live-action, you guessed it, re-imagining, of Beauty and the Beast, with Bill Condon on board to direct and Emma Watson and Luke Evans lined up to star which should gross similarly to Cinderella. Over at Universal, Sofia Coppola is signed on to direct The Little Mermaid being produced by Working Title Films (Theory of Everything) although it’s still in its early stages.
Warner Bros. is giving Disney a run for their money in the fairytale game, albeit with male heroes. First up, they’re releasing an origin story on Peter Pan simply entitled Pan on July 24, 2015 that will bank heavily on its star, Hugh Jackman. The following year they’re releasing Tarzan starring Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie and Samuel L. Jackson with David Yates directing on July 1, 2016. Just weeks later on July 22, 2016, the studio will release Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Charlie Hunnam with plans (if all goes well) to retell the Arthur legend through a franchise that spans six films. After that it’s Jungle Book: Origins, directed by Andy Serkis best known for playing Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Caesar in The Planet of the Apes.
Another male hero, Robin Hood, is being leveraged across a trio of films in development with Disney’s Nottingham & Hood announced as a revisionist version of the classic Robin Hood story and Robin Hood: Origins at Appian Way and Hood at Columbia with Michael De Luca producing. It should be noted, though, that none of those projects have a cast or a director yet, so we’ll see who hits the bullseye first.
There’s also a film in the works that eschews princesses and heroes in favor of one twee animal. Disney just announced a live-action Dumbo to be spearheaded by Tim Burton, but considering his latest films and the lack of a human at the center of the story, it will target a much younger audience and Disney should watch the bottom line on that film.
Will all these future films have a happy ending for their distributor? Past data says no, although the spell of coveted brand awareness is hard to fight and will enchant filmmakers for decades to come.