The internet is abuzz today with snippets from Disney’s Bob Iger confirming Disney’s interest in expanding the presence of Star Wars at their theme parks leading up to the December 18, 2015 release of Episode VII. These statements come with Disney’s fiscal Q3 report released yesterday. My question while reading these reports was, just how important are theme parks to a company’s bottom line? While thinking about this, I also realized how vital theme parks are to studios in general and that while movie decisions from the studios are obviously important, creating a movie franchise that can translate into park ticket sales is arguably more important than a creating a box office hit. Below I’ll look at some movie decisions made in the last few years that were almost certainly made with theme park bottom lines in mind.
Disney’s purchase of Marvel in 2009 left many with their doubts. There were concerns that Marvel didn’t have a cast of characters strong enough to warrant a $4 Billion price tag. Keep in mind The Avengers behemoth hadn’t happened yet. Marvel Studios was still in it’s infancy and most people assumed the success of Ironman was luck. Oops. What a lot of people failed to realize at the time was that Marvel was the key to millions of boys aged 5-15, a demographic that Disney struggles to capture, particularly with it’s theme parks. Let’s face it, The Magic Kingdom (Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Mickey) is way less cool to a 14 year old boy than Universal’s Islands of Adventure (Jurassic Park, The Hulk, Spider-man). This purchase was the first step towards competing head to head with Universal for comic-focused ticket sales. Disney now holds the rights to make Marvel themed rides everywhere except Orlando (Where Universal has a comic book world). Cha-Ching.
Guardians of the Galaxy
is it a coincidence that Marvel’s first major non-Avengers release was Guardians of the Galaxy? It is a fun, sci-fi, wild, action-filled romp with hundreds of merchandising opportunities and almost limitless franchise potential. How about if I tell you that Disney is allowed to use Guardians in Orlando for rides, attractions and merchandising? Now the smash hit that may well be the biggest box office movie of summer 2014 becomes a whole lot more profitable and not just this year, but every year, for maybe the next 15-20 years when you have a futuristic ride in every Disney park and a gift-shop filled with ships, guns, costumes and stuffed raccoons. Now add that you can have an upgrade for each sequel (one has already been promised) and it is impossible to say that the decision to make this movie next wasn’t driven by the desire to cash in on Marvel’s incredible theme park potential.
What is Universal’s response? Let’s take a massive movie franchise that takes up a huge amount of real estate in one of our parks, is perfect for boys 5-15, has dinosaurs, and reboot it in a way that will allow us to totally revamp our rundown ride and sell more tickets. Say hello to Jurassic World. Ironically Chris Pratt also stars in the upcoming thriller where we revisit Jurassic Park almost 25 years since it destroyed the 1993 box office. In this new film the park is a fully functioning, bustling, slick and futuristic theme park, until something goes wrong of course. Sounds like the perfect recipe to get people to buy tickets to see the new and improved Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios. Don’t be surprised to see a massive expansion in the next year or two as Universal strives to compete with Disney’s Marvel-based success.
Star Wars is coming to Disney parks in a big way. While there are already some Star Wars rides, the full potential is far from realized. With Episode VII coming in 2015 and multiple spin-off movies coming in the next decade, don’t be surprised to see an entire Disney park devoted to Star Wars. There could have areas based on each planet, rides for each movie, meet and greets with all the characters. What Dad/Grandpa from 30-65 wouldn’t want to take their kids to this park and introduce them to the worlds they grew up with? Episodes VII-IX promise to introduce legions of young padawans to Star Wars and you can bet Disney cashes in on this in every way possible, including with their parks.