When Disney's megahit "The Lion King" returns to theaters just before Thanksgiving, movie audiences will get a first glimpse of what the studio hopes will be its next animated blockbuster, "Pocahontas."
More than four minutes of continuous footage from Disney's latest animated creation--featuring one of the movie's eight original songs--will debut with the "Lion King" re-release at theaters Nov. 18 on 1,500 screens. "Pocahontas," the studio's 33rd full-length animated feature and its first to be inspired by a real-life figure, will bow next June.
The "featurette" (as the studio calls the "Pocahontas" sequence) is one of the key elements of Disney's new $10-million-plus campaign to relaunch "The Lion King," which sold a whopping $267 million in tickets before it was intentionally yanked from theaters in late September with plans for re-release during the holiday season.
Disney's unprecedented move to pull the film when it was still grossing millions each weekend was timed to when its core audience of children would likely drop off with the start of school. Disney is hoping to re-attract families just as the holiday season gets under way, and the studio presumably wants to refreshen the movie for Oscar consideration.
In giving moviegoers their first exposure to "Pocahontas" so far in advance of its actual release, Disney is looking to generate an early buzz as it successfully did last fall when it previewed the four-minute opening sequence of "The Lion King" in front of its live-action movie "The Three Musketeers."
The "Pocahontas" sequence, which runs approximately four minutes and 20 seconds, features the film's heroine (voice of actress Irene Bedard) singing "Colors of the Wind," a musical lesson on the Native American philosophy toward life, to her new acquaintance Captain John Smith (voice by Mel Gibson). Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken and Broadway lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Pippin") wrote the score.
"This is not unlike what we did with 'The Lion King' last year in terms of giving the public a real sense of what the movie is about--the feeling, the emotion, the depth," says Disney's distribution president Richard Cook.
Trailers of "Pocahontas," showing various scenes from the movie, will begin showing in theaters in early spring. Disney animation president Peter Schneider expects the movie, which began production approximately three years ago, to be complete by April. A total of 450 artists, including 45 animators, are working on the production.
As part of the new "Lion King" campaign, a fresh trailer for the movie will debut this weekend on about 8,500 screens. The campaign also includes new posters and theater lobby displays with proclamations such as "The King Has Returned." New print ads and TV spots will begin appearing in early November.
Another promotional lure Disney is using to attract audiences the first weekend of the re-release is offering the first 100 moviegoers at each show a special commemorative poster of "Lion King" featuring a holiday greeting and new artwork of all the characters from the movie.
"It's as if we're launching a brand-new movie," says Cook. "There are families who will certainly want to share the emotion, fun and excitement of this movie again. We've found with movies that are evergreen, audiences just can't get enough of them." The relaunch also includes new promotional tie-ins from Disney's corporate sponsor partners, including Burger King, which will give away another 20 million figurines from the movie. The interactive "Lion King" video game is also due out during the holidays.
While most rivals hail Disney's strategy as a clever and savvy business strategy, industry skeptics see the company's motivation as greed and conceit. Some speculate the re-release was a calculated attempt to sabotage New Line Cinema's animated feature "The Swan Princess," which opens the same day. (Several former Disney animators worked on the movie.)
"I think they were smart to reissue their movie to get the holiday playing time, but I also believe that they don't want 'The Swan Princess' to be successful and would do anything to try and sabotage it," said Mitch Goldman, president of marketing and distribution at New Line Cinema. Goldman added that his movie was screened Saturday morning for exhibitors and the response was "overwhelmingly positive."
Cook dismisses speculation that competition with "Princess" figured into Disney's plan to reopen "Lion King" on the weekend prior to Thanksgiving. "It's not anything new for us," he said. With the exception of "Lion King," which originally opened in the summer, all of Disney's new animated movies--including last year's "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas," "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid"--traditionally open during the holiday season.
Schneider explains that the strategy to relaunch "Lion King" was "to maximize the film's potential both financially and artistically. And it helps set up the release in the foreign market." The movie, which has opened in some overseas markets, including England and Japan, will debut throughout Europe beginning next month.
Industry executives estimate that "Lion King's" re-release in the United States could yield as much as an additional $30 million at the box office.
"Personally, I hope we get to $300 million because that's an incredible benchmark," says Schneider, "and for the artists it's thrilling for them to find that kind of recognition of their work."
Cook declined to estimate how much more money he thinks "Lion King" can bring in. "This is a grand experiment. I honestly don't know what to expect--none of us do."