'Lion King:' Is moviegoing changing before our eyes?
It's tempting to see in the box-office win for "The Lion King 3-D" this weekend one more depressing sign about the lack of Hollywood originality, or our appetite for same.
After all, in topping the take for "Moneyball" with $22.1 million, the 17-year-old movie didn't just defeat a late-summer dump-off. It trumped -- in its second week of re-release -- a well-reviewed, heavily marketed crowd-pleaser with one of the world's most famous celebrities (albeit a film with lower 2-D ticket prices).
The "Lion King" numbers the last two weeks ($62 million and counting) are almost a message from the universe. You thought remakes were bad? Welcome to retreads.
But under all the pessimism might lie something else: a subtle realignment of the way we consume entertainment.
It's hardly a stretch to say that the culture of moviegoing has begun to splinter and drift to other distribution platforms in recent years. Theatrical windows for both the Internet and DVD are shrinking and video on demand is growing, while the storytelling role of cinema is being eaten at by television networks. (And that's not even getting into original Web content, which is poised in the not-too-distant future to take its own bite out of the film world.)
But unless theater owners are prepared to call for the wrecking ball, filmgoing isn't going away. And so a new order is emerging, one in which a mix of franchises, remakes and, yes, even retreads, could dominate.
Cinema can't compete with what television does narratively, not with so many shows and the possibility of so many programming hours. And it can't match the convenience of the television set or the computer laptop. So it distinguishes itself in another way -- by serving up a communal experience that no living room can offer. And that experience, almost inevitably, is best enjoyed by viewing something familiar.
Sequels, franchises and revivals offer the most compelling pitch. Take a flier with a bunch of strangers on something I've never heard of? Maybe. Share an experience with hundreds of like-minded fans? Now you’re talking.
And so series such as "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" top the box office, while 3-D conversions of musical favorites like "Lion King" outdraw original films.
Recognizing this, Hollywood will offer more. Soon we'll see the 3-D return of epics such as "Titanic" and "Star Wars," the revival of the popular '80s comedy "Ghostbusters" (a movie that can now, thanks to digital projection, be brought back to theaters across the country a lot more easily), and even the screening of concerts and live events, as opera simulcasts or the upcoming one-day showing of the concert-heavy doc "Pearl Jam Twenty" demonstrate.
Theatergoing in the next decade may increasingly need to concentrate not the frisson of the new but the comfort of the familiar. The more individuated thrill of discovery — which can be experienced at home as easily as in a movie theater — could be de-emphasized in favor of the communal uplift that can really only happen in a large public space.
In this sense, "The Lion King" doesn't represent a Hollywood out of ideas -- it's a movie industry responding with the best tools it has.
This adjustment may not be to everyone's taste, and of course it won't always be the case. Hollywood will still produce wholly original movies that will be consumed by the masses at a movie theater. But the economics and the technology suggest that this experience, dominant for nearly a century, could begin to make way for something else. The Lion King may only be the beginning.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "The Lion King." Credit: Walt Disney Co.