Tag Archives: Film economics

Throw Back Champs: A Lion King and Devil Rays!

Do you remember when Frank Sinatra, in his senior years, returned to the pop music charts in May 1980 with the Big Apple anthem New York, New York? Or when tennis legend Jimmy Connors, one year away from retirement at the 1991 United States Open, blasted his way into the semi finals against an entire younger generation of opponents?

They were both “throw back” champions of an earlier age, sporting strategies and styles that had not been utilized in years. Sinatra exemplified a bar room style of singing that had long ago yielded to the bouncier formats of rock, disco, and rap music. And Connors embraced a “charge the net” finesse-based approach that had similarly given way to a world of power serves and metallic racquets.

It’s rare to watch a single throw back champion emerge from the pack at any given moment in time; of course, it’s even rarer for two such champions to seize the public’s imagination at the same time. And yet, last week, that’s exactly what occurred across the nation.

Introducing … The Lion King!

Sixteen years have passed since Pixar began to nudge the animated film industry from hand drawn cells to computer generated scenes with the release of Toy Story, its first full length movie. And five years have passed since Disney itself, the venerable pioneer that launched the world’s original full length hand drawn movie in 1938 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfspurchased Pixar for $7.4 billion.

But Disney has always been willing to pursue “throw back” strategies in order to grab the attention of the American consumer. In the 1990s, for instance, it purchased and renovated New York City’s New Amsterdam, a 1903 theatre in what was then a seedy Times Square district; its successful reintroduction helped launch the revitalization of the Big Apple’s theater center. And just two years ago, it released The Princess and the Frog, an old fashioned, full length film set in Jazz Age New Orleans.

Last month, it dusted off its 1994 animated classic The Lion King and re-released it in movie theaters across the nation. To the surprise of industry veterans around the country, it soared past the new Brad Pitt film Moneyball and became the most popular film in mass release in the United States.

The Miracle at Tropicana Field

Meanwhile, last week, baseball fans were marveling at the manner in which a throwback team in a throwback sport completed a historic comeback in a throwback stadium.

The team was the Tampa Bay Rays, named after the devil rays that swim along the western Florida coastline. The Rays are a low budget baseball team in a relatively small American city, playing in a decrepit ballpark that is named after an orange juice company. And the sport of baseball itself, of course, is a Civil War era game that (by certain measures) has fallen behind football in mass popularity.

But last week, the Rays astonished the sports world by rallying from a seven run deficit on its home field to defeat the heavily favored New York Yankees during the final game of the regular season, which propelled it past the wealthy Boston Red Sox in the standings and into the playoffs. Some sports reporters referred to it as the most exciting night in the history of the National Pastime, an event that reminded fans of the ancient charm of a team game that does not embrace electronic clocks or sophisticated equipment.

There Is A Market …

Why have these throw-back events grabbed the attention of American industry? Clearly, they demonstrate that there a market for entertainment pastimes that, at first glance, might be dismissed as relics of earlier eras. Like Charlie Chaplin movies that are featured at contemporary film festivals, and vintage baseball games that are played under nineteenth century rules and regulations, the enduring popularity of these events reminds us of the significant revenue that can be earned from such endeavors.

And when considered in tandem with the low costs of such productions, the net profits generated from such events can be immensely lucrative. After all, the cost of constructing Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field in the late 1980s was $130 million, a tiny fraction of the $1.5 billion price tag of the New Yankee Stadium. And the additional cost of producing The Lion King for distribution last month was literally zero, the film having earned back its production costs during its initial run in the 1990s.

Simba the Lion and Evan Longoria (the third baseman who slammed two critical home runs to propel the Rays to victory), of course, are incredibly talented performers with qualities that cannot be easily discovered or duplicated within other characters or players. Nevertheless, as long as throw back champions continue to attract the attention — and the purchasing power — of American consumers, organizations will doubtlessly continue to try to replicate their magic.

Johnny Depp, Disney, and Film Economics

How much is the Disney Corporation indebted to Johnny Depp for his portrayal of the pirate captain Jack Sparrow in its four part (and doubtlessly continuing) movie series Pirates of the Caribbean?

It’s impossible to know with precision, of course, how much of the films’ worldwide gross ticket revenues can be attributed to Mr. Depp’s acting talent and global popularity. Nevertheless, the films have collectively earned more than $3.7 billion as of today, with over two-thirds of the total received from audiences based outside of the United States. Mr. Depp’s personal popularity in Europe and other global markets undoubtedly contributed mightily to those earnings.

That didn’t stop Disney from halting production on Depp’s next project, though, a film to which the actor lent a significant amount of personal support. Because of Disney’s decision, the Lone Ranger will not be riding into our theaters any time soon.

An American Legend

The Lone Ranger dominated American pop culture for much of the 20th century. First appearing as a radio series in the Great Depression year of 1933, the character later gravitated to the movies in 1938 and then on to television in 1949.

The Lone Ranger himself has always been portrayed as a vigilante crime fighter who joins with his Native American (i.e. “Indian”) sidekick Tonto to dispense justice across lawless regions of the Old West. In one form or another, the plot has since been emulated numerous times, including in stories as diverse as Batman & Robin (i.e. the Dynamic Duo) and Agent J & Agent K (i.e. Tommy Lee Jones & Will Smith in Men In Black).

A film starring the versatile Mr. Depp as the Lone Ranger would seem to offer universal appeal to many different market segments; however, the project was marked by some questionable decisions from the start. For instance, Mr. Depp — in order to honor his own Native American heritage — insisted on playing Tonto in a scripted plot that would focus on the supporting character. And the $250 million film budget struck some as being absurdly extravagant, given the nature of the Western genre and its dearth of expensive special effects.

Last week, Disney shelved the project, attributing its decision primarily to the bloated production cost. It is possible, though, that the disappointing reception accorded to the recently released film Cowboys and Aliens, as well as lingering memories of the disastrous performance of 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger, also influenced Disney’s decision.

Hollywood Economics

It is tempting to jump to the hasty conclusion that a pair of screen characters who date to the Great Depression could not possibly become sufficiently popular with contemporary American audiences to justify a $250 million budget. Nevertheless, popularity aside, it is equally possible that modern Hollywood economics doomed the new Lone Ranger to failure well before Disney acquired the screen rights.

That is because most Hollywood action blockbusters today can only earn profitable returns on their production and distribution investments by appealing to a global audience, by cross-generating sales of toys and other merchandise, and by spinning off multi-film series of sequel movies. The Harry Potter series did so, for instance, through its British locales, its literary, theme park, and video game platforms, and its eight serial films.

Mr. Depp’s own Pirates series, likewise, met all of these business goals; for instance, characters of his films are still being added to the themed Pirate rides in the American, Tokyo, and Parisian Disney parks. Nevertheless, it must have been difficult for studio executives to envision foreign audiences cheering for a classic American hero like the Lone Ranger, or to imagine children in the United States nagging their parents to purchase cowboy themed toys.

An Alternative Approach

If the economics of the Hollywood blockbuster film industry are preventing Disney from producing the movie, Mr. Depp may choose to follow an alternative approach to “get it made,” one that has been employed by his fellow thespians on their own pet projects. Namely, he may opt to raise the funds to produce it himself.

Far fetched? Not at all; in fact, Mr. Depp may even be lauded by his peers for doing so. Kevin Costner, for instance, personally purchased the script and managed the process that resulted in Dances With Wolves, the 1990 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. Clint Eastwood won dual Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director on a pair of projects, 1992’s Unforgiven and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. And George Clooney was the executive producer of 2005’s Syriana, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film as well.

In other words, if Mr. Depp wishes to recast the tale of the Lone Ranger from Tonto’s perspective, he may need to take a bold leap and become the film’s producer. His alter-ego Captain Jack Sparrow, accustomed to such deeds of derring-do, would certainly approve of such a plan!