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‘The Little Mermaid’s’ box office will say a lot about Disney’s live-action remake strategy

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Halle Bailey stars as Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Disney

Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” hooked nearly $96 million over its first three days in North American theaters. That opening is on par with the $91 million “Aladdin” secured in 2019 on its way to more than $1 billion at the global box office.

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However, it doesn’t guarantee the company’s latest live-action remake will see the same success. The film will sink or swim on word of mouth.

Audience buzz has become an increasingly important factor in box office success in the wake of the pandemic. With so many entertainment options, even franchise films can have trouble luring in moviegoers. Those that skip out on seeing a film during its opening weekend can be enticed to cinemas by positive chatter, helping to bolster the film’s overall box office.

Disney has seen firsthand what happens when audiences don’t connect with titles. The studio, which is known for its animated content, saw two of its recent releases — “Lightyear” and “Strange World” — flounder at the box office. Neither film was too well-received by critics, and previous releases going straight to Disney+ confused consumers about where to see the films.

Meanwhile, Disney has carved out a solid theatrical business for live-action remakes of its litany of classic animated features, generating nearly $9 billion in global ticket sales from these films since 2010.

The company’s success has inspired other studios to recreate popular animated features as live-action flicks. Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Animation is currently developing a live-action version of its widely successful animated trilogy “How to Train Your Dragon.” The film is due in theaters March 14, 2025.

Although there were two live-action films based on “101 Dalmatians” in 1996 and 2000, Disney didn’t start producing these remakes in earnest until 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland.” That film was the first of the batch to generate more than $1 billion at the global box office, sparking the production of nearly a dozen other titles including: “Maleficent,” “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book” and “Dumbo.”

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And there are more on the way. Disney recently announced plans to bring “Moana” and “Lilo and Stitch” to the real world. With Disney already looking to tap into newer animated favorites, Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com thinks it’s only a matter of time before the company looks to tap into recent hits like “Frozen” or even “Encanto.”

These adaptations have had variable success over the last decade in a half, with some like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” generating more than $1 billion each at the global box office, and others like “Dumbo” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” each reaping under $350 million in receipts worldwide.

“The long game for Disney must include a plan beyond the formidable triumvirate of Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “Disney, having gone all-in on live action remakes of some of their most iconic titles featuring beloved characters to varying degrees of box office success.”

The initial box office showing for “The Little Mermaid” should give Disney a “boost of confidence,” he added, since it shows that its live-action strategy is a viable one.

Is it in theaters?

However, for many viewers, Disney’s release strategy has become muddled in the wake of the pandemic. While the live-action version of “Lady and the Tramp” was made available to subscribers when the Disney+ streaming service first launched in late 2019, most consumers had come to expect these new adaptations to arrive on the big screen.

When the pandemic shuttered theaters, Disney was forced to move 2020’s “Mulan” to Disney+ for a $30 rental fee and later release 2021’s “Cruella” in theaters and on streaming at the same time.

The company didn’t release another live-action remake until late 2022, when the Tom Hanks-starring “Pinocchio” arrived on Disney+. The film was widely panned by critics and audiences, according to Rotten Tomatoes.

“Peter Pan and Wendy,” which hit Disney+ in late April, also had middling reviews from critics (62% Fresh) and was overwhelmingly disliked by audiences, who gave it 11%.

With only a few exceptions, audiences have been receptive to Disney’s classic animation remakes, often scoring them higher than critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

“The degrees of success for Disney’s remakes can be seen pretty clearly in that it’s been the 1990s animation renaissance resonating the most again,” Robbins said. “That’s a result of those original stories being so beloved and the timely, generational hand-me-down tradition playing a role.”

On the horizon

Box office experts will be looking at “The Little Mermaid’s” second weekend in domestic theaters for an indication of the film’s longevity at the box office.

For most films, a 50% to 70% drop is the norm. Major tentpole features often see box-office ticket sales fall in this range after reaching sky-high opening weekend numbers. While those kinds of films can continue on toward billion-dollar theatrical runs, this metric can indicate whether word-of-mouth is bringing new audiences to theaters or whether interest is waning.

The live-action “Aladdin,” which also opened over Memorial Day Weekend, saw a 53% drop in ticket sales from its first week to its second. It continued to see ticket sales drops of 40% or less until August of that year.

Upcoming live-action Disney remakes

  • “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” — March 22, 2024
  • “Mufasa: The Lion King” — July 5, 2024
  • “Lilo & Stitch” — in development
  • “Moana” — in development
  • “Hercules” — in development
  • “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — in development
  • “Robin Hood” — in development
  • “The Aristocats” — in development
  • “The Sword In The Stone” — in development
  • “Bambi” — in development
  • “Cruella” sequel — in development
  • “The Jungle Book” sequel — in development

If “The Little Mermaid” can mimic those drops and remain in the cultural zeitgeist through the summer, box office analysts foresee a sold domestic, and ultimately global, box office haul for the feature.

That could be difficult, as the film is about to have some steep competition from Sony’s “Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse,” which hits theaters Friday, as well as a number of upcoming family-friendly features. Paramount’s “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” arrives June 9, Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” as well as Warner Bros.’ “The Flash” debut June 16, and Universal’s “Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken” opens June 30.

“Despite some of the backlash and lesser box office returns certain films have had, the Disney vault has shown how it continues to transcend and appeal to all ages,” said Robbins. “Some argue it has come at the expense of original movies, though. Ultimately, I think audiences want both. Fresh content and nostalgia-driven material both have their place.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Rotten Tomatoes.

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