Disney's re-released '101 Dalmatians' a surprise hit at the box office

August 06, 1991|By Richard W. Stevenson | Richard W. Stevenson,New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- She may not match the form-changing cyborg of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" for pure evil, but Cruella, the villain of Disney's 30-year-old "101 Dalmatians," is proving to be an astonishingly strong box-office draw this summer.

"101 Dalmatians" is, in fact, the biggest surprise hit of the season for Hollywood. Executives at the Walt Disney Co. had expected it to do well in this, its fourth re-release since its original run in 1961. But no one in the industry expected it to gross $41.8 million at the box office in its first 24 days, through last weekend.

At that pace it stands to take in at least $50 million and perhaps as much as $60 million by the end of the summer, a level that only a handful of first-run, live-action films will reach during that period.

If the film does more than $54 million, it will surpass Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to become the biggest animated hit ever, based on cumulative box-office grosses over the years, adjusted for inflation.

"It's enormously pleasing to all of us who have worked in animation to see that quality still has that kind of popularity and value 30 years down the road," said Roy E. Disney, the nephew of the company's founder and still one of the guiding spirits of Disney's animation division.

Industry executives and analysts attributed the film's popularity in part to the endearing story of the two Dalmatians, Pongo and Perdita, who brave fearsome odds to save their puppies from being made into fur coats by the wicked Cruella.

But the film is also benefiting from what many parents, now deep into the summer vacation, would undoubtedly consider a dearth of family entertainment.

"It's the only thing out there that's really for the family audience," said Philip Garfinkle of Entertainment Data Inc., which tracks box-office results. "'Problem Child 2' or 'Terminator' or 'Robin Hood' are not the same as a G-rated picture."

The success of "101 Dalmatians" is also the latest evidence of the immense profitability in Disney's library of animated classics, profitability that is especially noticeable when huge production budgets have made it difficult for studios, including Disney, to make money on their current movies.

The production costs of "101 Dalmatians" have long since been recouped. With the exception of advertising costs and the costs of making more than 1,800 new prints -- a total that analysts said was probably at least $5 million -- virtually all of Disney's income -- on the movie this summer is profit.

Studios typically keep about half the box-office gross, with the rest going to theater owners. At $50 million in box-office gross, Disney could cover its costs and still have a $20 million profit. In contrast, the studio's live-action summer release, "The Rocketeer," cost at least $35 million to make and probably at least $10 million more to market and distribute.

To break even, "The Rocketeer" would have to do $90 million at the domestic box office, a level it is highly unlikely to attain (through this weekend it had done $42.3 million). "The Rocketeer" is likely to be profitable in the long run for Disney after counting foreign box-office and home-video sales.

Disney can also look forward to the home-video release of "101 Dalmatians." Studio executives said no date had been set, but Disney typically releases its classics on video within a year after their re-release in theaters. And the company is also benefiting from a surge in demand for Pongo and Perdita stuffed animals, T-shirts, lunch boxes and other merchandise linked to the film.

"All of us knew it is one of the all-time favorite animated movies, and we all expected it to perform very well," said Richard Cook, the president of Disney's movie distribution operation. "But I don't think any of us expected it to do this kind of business."

Cook said that with each release, classic animated films appeal not just to a new generation of children but also to their parents and in this case to some grandparents lured back by the memory of having seen the film themselves as children and parents. "Dalmatians," he said, is also drawing people who come without children, what he called "the dating crowd."

If nothing else, the movie's strong showing will cement the belief throughout Hollywood that animation's time has come again. Disney and other studios have been expanding their animation production in recent years, both for television and movies.

Warner Bros. has released "Rover Dangerfield," in which Rodney Dangerfield will supply the voice for the animated canine hero. Disney plans to release a new animated musical version of "Beauty and the Beast" at Thanksgiving.

After its original run in 1961, "101 Dalmatians" was released in 1969, 1979 and 1985. Going into this summer, its cumulative box-office total, adjusted for inflation, was $89.7 million, Disney said.

That put it in sixth place on the list of all-time animated hits, behind "Snow White" ($143.6 million), "The Jungle Book" ($130 million), "Bambi" ($109.9 million), "Cinderella" ($95.5 million) and "Lady and the Tramp" ($93 million). This weekend, "101 Dalmatians" passed "Jungle Book" to go into second place.

The largest single release of an animated movie was "The Little Mermaid," from Disney, which grossed $84 million in its original run two years ago.

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