From IMAX to 3D: Disney’s History of Bringing “The Lion King” Back Into Theaters

When watching the teaser for Jon Fevreau’s upcoming Lion King remake, you might wonder why a live action photorealistic CGI remake of the 1994 classic is necessary.

Beyond obvious financial incentives for Disney, audiences around the world truly love going to the theater to see the story of the 1994 classic. We know that because they’ve done it four separate times now, to great success for Disney.

Rewind back to the summer of 1994. The Lion King became Disney’s biggest movie ever, with critics praising it and people paying to see it. Then, about two months into its initial run, Disney pulled the movie only to rerelease it back in November. It was assumed that the pull came because children would return to schools and that bringing the film back fresh for Thanksgiving would prime it for when families are home as well as give it an Oscar boost.

In an ad, Disney marketed the November rerelease as a “one more chance to experience the adventure and hear the roar of the most highly acclaimed film of the year.” Overall, by the end of February 1995 The Lion King had grossed over $300 million just domestically.

Fast forward to the beginning of the next century where we meet another rerelease. Fantasia 2000 was brought back into IMAX theaters for an exclusive engagement from January to April. Prior to that, IMAX was only used to exhibit documentaries and this special engagement of Fantasia 2000 finally broke past the barrier. IMAX was now a format of feature films.

Disney continued with their IMAX rerelease streak and brought back both Beauty and the Beast as well as The Lion King in 2002. Since The Lion King was digitally saved, filmmakers were able to blow up each image for IMAX resolution and thus present a clear image for IMAX 70mm prints.

“We wanted to re-release the movie because by this time, there was a whole new generation of kids who haven’t really seen it, particularly on the big screen. There’s just a visceral response to movies when you see them projected on a really big screen,” said Don Hahn, one of the producers of The Lion King.

Although the 2002 rerelease ran in only 66 theaters domestically, it was also presented in IMAX locations overseas. Over the scope of 22 weeks, the IMAX rerelease grossed over $15 million dollars. It represented a time, the early 2000s, in which exhibiting feature films in IMAX giant screens started to become more and more accepted. Today there are hundreds of IMAX locations around the world and few blockbusters don’t get a release in the format.

Fast forward again, this time to 2011. It was a time of fever and change among movie patrons. Just prior in 2009, Avatar stunned the world with what it could be. Other franchises coming out in 2010, from Harry Potter to Jackass, hesitantly tried to have their installments released in it. The world was officially in love with realD 3D and it would seem that moviegoing without 3D could soon become a thing of the past.

So much so that it wasn’t just new films that had to be converted to the format, it was also shelved ones.

Lucasfilm ended up rereleasing Star Wars: Episode I in 3D. James Cameron brought back Titanic in the format. And, well, of course Disney had their fun too. After all, why wouldn’t a 2D animated classic that has been sitting in the Disney vault for decades look great and make lots of money in 3D.

Not too long ago Disney locked many of their most popular films into their “vault”. That meant releasing them to the home video market once and then not re-printing them for years, causing consumers to spend hefty sums on second-hand DVDs. The idea behind this practice was to meddle with supply-and-demand laws to then force customers to buy a new copy of the film once it was out of the “vault”.

In October 2011, when 3D was still peaking, The Lion King did finally get printed again for the home video market. A stunning high definition remaster was made available on Blu-ray. But until that occurred, Disney first had its fun with Lion King fans at the global box office.

A 3D theatrical rerelease of the Lion King hit theaters a month prior, in September. It was an international spectacle. Over 35 countries were offered the pleasure to re-experience the iconic Disney film in the third dimension.

The argument was similar to that of the 2002 IMAX rerelease. Parents had the chance to give their children the experience they originally had. And children wouldn’t oppose. After all, who can possibly say no to free Simba 3D glasses?

Andrew Lapin from NPR described the 3D rerelease as “a product, every detail coldly calibrated for maximum profit, that nevertheless retains a wonderfully beating heart, soaring emotion and problem-free philosophy.”

A spokesperson from Disney said the rerelease was more of “a way to keep an “aging film fresh” while allowing a new generation of children to experience it in theaters.”

Either way, it made good money. Very, very good money.

Out of the many 3D rereleases Disney embarked on, from Toy Story 1 and 2, Beauty and the Beast as well as Finding Nemo, The Lion King made the most money.

As we continue to see the story of Simba back on the big screen, the circle of rereleases and remakes continues. But in this case, we’re not really opposed to it as we recognize it as a tale worth sharing and passing on.


Image: Rohit Varma mixed with money icon. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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