In a move unprecedented in modern movie history, Disney will begin selling tickets to its animated feature "The Lion King" this Sunday--more than two months before the film's exclusive June 15 openings at Hollywood's El Capitan Theater and New York's Radio City Music Hall.
In addition, in a further effort to get a jump on the fiercely competitive summer moviegoing season, Disney has already begun screening the movie for film buyers in major markets around the country to try to ensure bookings in the best theaters. In hyping "The Lion King" this early, Disney is looking to ride the wave of enthusiasm that 30 minutes of clips from the movie generated at last month's ShoWest exhibitors' convention in Las Vegas.
Industry watchers are predicting that Disney's 32nd full-length animated feature could be the biggest movie of the summer and that it could easily gross $200 million or more eventually in domestic markets alone.
"The Lion King" features cutting-edge animation from Disney, five new songs by Elton John and Oscar-winning lyricist Tim Rice ("Aladdin") and the voices of Jeremy Irons, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Robert Guillaume. It's an allegorical tale of a young lion cub on a heroic journey to claim his destined role as king of the jungle.
"It will be gigantic," predicts Barry Reardon, president of distribution at Warner Bros., one of Disney's biggest competitors. Warner's will open one of its own most anticipated summer movies, "Wyatt Earp," starring Kevin Costner, on June 24--the day "Lion King" will expand its run to about 2,000 theaters nationwide.
Reardon, who next week will begin showing exhibitors Warner's other big summer Western--"Maverick," starring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster, which opens May 20--says the long lead time for pre-selling tickets and screening "Lion King" is "unusual" but that he can understand it "because they obviously believe they have a great movie."
Disney's distribution chief, Richard Cook, says that getting an early jump on ticket sales "enables us to set the movie up as a real special, unique summer event." He added that "Lion King" is "a movie that doesn't come along very often."
Ticket prices for the El Capitan and Radio City debut runs--$10 for adults, $6 for children and senior citizens--include a 20-minute live stage show before each screening that will feature music performed by Disney "characters" from movies such as "Snow White," "Cinderella," "Pinocchio," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin." The El Capitan show will run through July 14. The live show at Radio City, which will be performed by the Rockettes, will run through June 23.
In another break from convention, tickets for the El Capitan shows will be mailed to people who call an 800 phone number set up for the advance sales. Normally, tickets ordered through such services must be picked up at the theater on the day of the show.
Although it has become more common now for tickets for "event-like" movies to be available weeks in advance, it is unheard of for sales to begin more than two months early.
"It is rare but entirely appropriate for a picture of this scope that is getting such wide acceptance," says John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box-office performance.
"It's definitely unusual," says Warner's Reardon, who notes, "it reminds me of the old roadshows."
In the mid- to late 1920s, advance ticket sales became very popular for what were called roadshow pictures--big-event movies that were exhibited at select prestigious theaters usually on a reserved-seat basis and at premium admission prices. Roadshow productions in the '20s included King Vidor's 1925 "The Big Parade" and Fred Niblo's 1926 "Ben-Hur."
Roadshow movies averaged 10 performances a week, usually two shows a day, and tickets for them were often sold weeks, even months in advance.
Advance tickets were sold for "Gone With the Wind" in 1939, but these were for designated performances, much as with "The Lion King," rather than for designated seats.
Then in 1956, recalled Krier, who once worked as an exhibitor in the Midwest, the assigned-seat tickets came back into vogue with Cecil B. DeMille's sound version of "The Ten Commandments" and continued through the late '50s and '60s with such pictures as "Around the World in 80 Days," "South Pacific," "Spartacus," "Can-Can," "El Cid," "The Guns of Navarone," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Oliver!" "The Longest Day" and "The Sound of Music."