What The Lion King 3-D Success Says About the Economy

If you’re keen on box-office statistics, you’re well aware that The Lion King 3-D has topped the charts for two weeks straight. (If you didn’t know -- congratulations! You’re all caught up!) It’s quite astonishing, really. The Lion King is 17 years old, about to be released on Blu-ray, and it’s grossed $61.5 million in theaters, outstripping the likes of Moneyball, Dolphin Tale, and Taylor Lautner, Action Hero. Box Office Mojo reports that between what it made in 1994 and its earnings in 2011, The Lion King is now on its way to becoming one of the top 10 earning films of all time with $358.6 million (and counting), or $600 million when that ’97 gross is adjusted for inflation.

Simba’s reign has a few 3-D advocates smugly using it as evidence that the overhyped and overused format is anything but dead. That’s not exactly true. If anything, the 3-D re-release probably proves the point so many critics and analysts have already made: people are only willing to spend the money on 3-D if it’s done well, and if it’s an experience they will truly enjoy. By all accounts, The Lion King 3-D fits along those Avatar or Toy Story 3 lines. The 3-D is well done, and adds something special to a beloved animated film.

But I think the leonine success is interesting and sobering for another economic reason. The success of the re-release once again proves Hollywood correct in its assumption that audiences will flock to the recognizable over the original. Brand name buzz still holds strong. While I’d like to believe this might usher in many re-releases of classic films, I suspect it will only result in more remakes, reboots, and sequels. Why invest in Aaron Sorkin or Nicolas Winding Refn if you can just dress up a familiar title in a new skin?

I think we’re also seeing the sad fact that if a family has money for a movie, Mom  and Dad are going to do the noble thing and take the kids instead of spending it on themselves. It may be they don’t even have an option. If there are no family members available to watch the kids for free, a babysitter and Moneyball tickets may cost more than 3-D tickets. Consider too that Disney reported 56 percent of ticket buyers were female, and 59 percent were under 25, which might indicate a lot of moms were taking the kids while dad stayed home. (You could also snark that women young and old clearly prefer animated cats to Brad Pitt, Taylor Lautner, and Ryan Gosling. I’m not sure you’d be wrong in making those jokes.)

Those age statistics also speak to a generational shift. Remember, it’s been 17 years since The Lion King was in theaters.  Many who saw it when young may now have kids of their own, and wanted to introduce them to the film for the first time in a major and memorable way.

Finally, the renewed enthusiasm for The Lion King might speak to something deeper and more depressing in our national mood. It isn’t just that families might not have the money for multiple films, or that moviegoers bank on tried-and-true ticket purchases over risky Refn-directed ones, but that we’re actively seeking to time travel with our moviegoing. 1997 was a fantastic financial year. Unusually so, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, because it featured a combination of low inflation and strong growth in gross domestic product, employment, and personal income. It was our version of the Roaring '20s before the all-but-in-name Depression/Recession of the 2010s. When we saw The Lion King, the world was flush with comfort, security, and fat wallets. Who is to say that many moviegoers weren’t transported back to those glorious times when the screen went dark, and they heard “The Circle of Life” again?

And if you were going to pick a movie to rekindle hope and faith in the universe, one couldn’t choose wiser than The Lion King because of the aforementioned “Circle of Life” theme, or its emphasis on Hakuna Matata. (A problem free philosophy seems very 1990s, doesn’t it?) Relax, says the inhabitants of the African savannah, we all have our moments of flush and famine.

I hope they’re right, if only because when 2027 rolls around, I don’t want to be watching The Lion King while fighting off bands of motorcycle gangs, and thinking how much better life was during the 3-D re-release. I hope we’re all feeling the love that night instead, and returning to an old classic not because it’s the only thing Hollywood is offering up (again), but because we’ve been too busy watching new and innovative stories.

Movie & TV Awards 2018