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Disney’s ‘Lion King’ will be (yet another) slam dunk for 2019’s box office giant

The Walt Disney Co. doesn’t have to wait to be king, unlike the little cub Simba. But the release of its latest remake, “The Lion King,” should further cement the company’s rule at the box office.

Disney’s high-tech re-imagining of its 1994 animated hit is expected to lord over the multiplex once it hits theaters Thursday night. The big-budget film will probably collect $150 million to $175 million in ticket sales through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys.

The movie, which uses innovative computer graphics to create a photo-realistic version of the animated musical, should become another hit for the Burbank entertainment firm, which has dominated the box office. So far this year, the company’s pictures have accounted for about 35% of domestic ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo, not counting the Fox films it has distributed.

Four of the top five movies at the global box office in 2019 have been released by Disney: “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel,” “Aladdin” and “Toy Story 4.” The exception, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (at No. 4), was released by Sony Pictures, but co-produced by Disney’s Marvel Studios.

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As Disney feasts at cinemas, rivals have been left to scavenge for box office leftovers. Domestic ticket sales this year have been sluggish compared to the record-breaking business of 2018. Theatrical receipts have totaled $6.2 billion through last weekend, down 8.6% from the same period last year, according to data firm Comscore.

Theater stocks have suffered as a result. Shares of AMC Entertainment, the world’s largest exhibitor, have fallen 41% in the last three months, according to data compiled by FactSet. Plano, Texas-based Cinemark, the third biggest circuit, has declined 8.4%, while big-screen company Imax Corp. has slid 17.9%.

“It’s not like the industry’s falling apart, but there’s definitely been a lack of depth,” said Eric Handler, an analyst at MKM Partners who focuses on the theatrical market.

Disney’s run of hits is the result of the company’s long-term strategy of acquiring popular brands and franchises, including Pixar Animation Studio, Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm. The company in March completed its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, in a major consolidation of entertainment industry power.

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Multiple attempts by other studios to extend franchises have fallen short. Sony Pictures’ “Men in Black: International” and Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” produced lackluster results, and Universal Pictures’ ”The Secret Life of Pets 2” did worse than expected.

Some movies have faltered simply because of their perceived low quality. “Dark Phoenix,” which Disney inherited as part of its Fox purchase, bombed with $65 million in domestic ticket sales. Last weekend, another poorly reviewed Fox holdover, the R-rated buddy comedy “Stuber,” opened with a weak $8.2 million.

Box office for the second quarter (the three months that ended with June) was down 3.7% from the prior year. The quarter was initially expected to increase 9%, according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. However, he dismissed the stock market reaction as overblown.

“Investors appear overly focused on a handful of disappointing titles in the quarter as an indication that people are losing interest in the theatrical experience,” Pachter wrote in a Tuesday research report.

Pressure for “The Lion King” to perform is high. The beloved original grossed $312.9 million in its first domestic theatrical run, marking a high point in the string of animated hits dubbed the “Disney Renaissance.”

“The Lion King” was nominated for four Oscars, winning two (for original score and original song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”). The stage production, which debuted in 1997, won multiple Tonys, including best musical, and remains the highest grossing Broadway play ever.

Lofty expectations for the remake, directed by Jon Favreau, may be tempered by mixed reviews, many of which have praised the movie’s visuals but have found the emotional impact lacking. The movie had an estimated budget of $`175 million.

Yet Disney has done everything in its power to make the picture a success. The cast features an impressive roster of voice actors, including Donald Glover as Simba, music superstar Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala, and Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen to Timon and Pumbaa, the comic relief meerkat and warthog. James Earl Jones returns as Mufasa.

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Disney has had a mostly successful track record reviving its animated hits for modern audiences. “Aladdin,” released in May, has amassed $961 million. In 2017, “Beauty and the Beast,” starring Emma Watson, scored $1.26 billion worldwide. The 2016 version of “The Jungle Book,” also directed by Favreau, grossed $966 million. However, Tim Burton’s dark retelling of “Dumbo” was a disappointment when it came out earlier this year.

“The Lion King” has already opened in China, the world’s second-largest box office market. It led the charts with a solid $53.8 million in ticket sales there, according to consulting firm Artisan Gateway.

Much will depend on whether audiences enjoy the film enough to see it multiple times, Handler said.

“This is a movie that everyone expected to be amazing,” Handler said. “It’s just so hard to live up to those expectations.”


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