D23 Reveals Disney’s 3 Biggest Box Office Bets: More Remakes, Pixar and Ant-Man

·6-min read

Over the course of two days in Anaheim, Disney and its subsidiary studios rolled out everything in store for the company’s 100th anniversary — including plenty of big theatrical releases that cinemas will rely on as core pillars of the box office.

Prior to the pandemic, Disney was the unquestioned king of the box office, peaking with a record $13.1 billion global gross total in 2019. But since then, the riches have been spread around more evenly as the other major studios — particularly Paramount and Sony — have found their fair share of theatrical hits such as “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” respectively.

While Disney still has been a key player with several hits from Marvel, the studio has experimented more boldly with streaming releases. While CEO Bob Chapek boasted of the success of “Encanto” on Disney+ and asserted that his company could launch a beloved new franchise without a theatrical release, Pixar suffered a rare box office bomb with its summer release “Lightyear” — while its critically acclaimed “Turning Red” skipped theaters entirely for a streaming release, where it also drew big numbers from Disney+ subscribers.

Disney is expected to once again be the biggest player this holiday season with Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” coming in November and 20th Century’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” following in December, but the studio’s plans beyond 2022 were hazy until the D23 Expo — which offered some assurance to movie theaters that are still facing deep financial struggle.

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Pixar could be a big player again — if films don’t stream first instead

Along with the leaked announcement of a sequel to “Inside Out” — one that will be a likely candidate to reach $1 billion worldwide when it comes out in June 2024 — Pixar spent much of its presentation on two original projects: next summer’s “Elemental” and a freshly announced spring 2024 alien story called “Elio.”

While neither of these films are likely to make nearly as much money as “Incredibles 2” or “Finding Dory” did, they represent Pixar’s first attempt at a non-sequel/spinoff theatrical release since “Onward,” the fantasy film that opened just one weekend before COVID shut down theaters in March 2020.

To find an original Pixar film that had a full box office run, you’d have to go even further back to November 2017, when “Coco” grossed $210 million domestic and $807 million worldwide. “Elemental” or “Elio” could have just as strong a chance to win over audiences worldwide and post those kinds of box office numbers, but only if Disney doesn’t yank them from theaters to boost Disney+ subscriber numbers as it did for mid-pandemic Pixar features like “Luca” and “Turning Red.”

“Turning Red” could have been a big boost to theaters given that the later success of “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru” demonstrated interest in moviegoing among families, and the critical and audience acclaim for Domee Shi’s story about a shapeshifting Asian teen girl. “Turning Red” certainly got more attention from the public than “Lightyear,” which tried to capitalize on the popularity of “Toy Story” but was ignored by audiences for being too distant from Pixar’s flagship series. (The film grossed just $118 million domestically and $226 million worldwide.)

For now, Disney insiders insist that “Elemental” and “Elio” are heading for an exclusive theatrical release, but Chapek’s Disney has been extremely flexible when it comes to how it releases individual titles. While other animation studios like Illumination, DreamWorks and Sony Pictures Animation are contributing their own big titles over the next two years, the box office really needs another big moneymaker from Pixar to restore pre-pandemic ticket sales.

"The Little Mermaid" (Disney)
“The Little Mermaid” (Disney)

Nothing stops the remake train

There might not be another Hollywood exec who makes online film buffs grind their teeth more than Sean Bailey. During the D23 presentation, the head of Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action division touted several upcoming installments of the studio’s series of remakes of animated classics, many of which have been scathingly denounced on social media with phrases like “uninspired dumpster fire” and “vicious contempt of animation.”

But Disney isn’t stopping these remakes anytime soon, and live-action versions of “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” all made well over $1 billion worldwide. Though some of the remakes, like the recently released (and widely panned) “Pinocchio” and David Lowery’s “Peter Pan and Wendy,” will go straight to streaming, Rob Marshall’s remake of “The Little Mermaid” is angling to be another $1 billion-plus remake when it comes out on Memorial Day weekend 2023.

“The Little Mermaid,” led by a relative newcomer in Halle Bailey along with stars like Melissa McCarthy and Javier Bardem in key supporting roles, will have to contend with the second weekend of Universal’s “Fast X” when it hits theaters, Still, there’s little reason to believe that the genre won’t continue to produce successful tentpoles.

The studio’s marketing plays on a blend of nostalgia and youth appeal, with fresh Gen Z faces reviving familiar songs and imagery. Disney just released a teaser trailer with Bailey singing a snippet of “Part of Your World,” while D23 attendees got to see the entire number. When it comes time to market the remake of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” expect “West Side Story” star Rachel Zegler and DC veteran Gal Gadot to be at the center of the trailer as Snow White and the evil queen, respectively.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (Disney/Marvel)
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (Disney/Marvel)

The fate of the MCU lies in Ant-Man’s hands

When discussing “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” star Paul Rudd teased that the film would be unlike anything Marvel fans have seen Ant-Man face before. For the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film needs to sell tickets unlike any other “Ant-Man” film has as well.

Among the 29 Marvel Studios theatrical releases, “Ant-Man” ($519 million worldwide) and its 2018 sequel “Ant-Man and the Wasp” ($622 million globally) are two of the lowest-grossing films on the MCU list and are generally regarded as fun but inessential. But “Quantumania” aims to introduce Marvel’s next major villain, Kang the Conqueror, and kick off the MCU’s next multiyear arc that will culminate with two “Avengers” films in 2025.

Since Marvel had two films that grossed over $750 million worldwide this year, it’s premature to say that the studio peaked after the release of “Avengers: Endgame.” But there’s no denying that last fall’s “Eternals,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Thor: Love and Thunder” didn’t earn the effusive praise that Marvel films usually get from fans, and there’s some restlessness among the MCU faithful about exactly where this franchise is headed.

“Quantumania” may not have to hit $1 billion to be successful, but it needs to get fans excited for what’s to come with Kang and the Marvel multiverse, so another $600-$650 million box office run won’t cut it. It’s strange that the future of the biggest blockbuster series in history will be determined by one of its “smallest” stars, but that’s how Marvel Studios has designed it.

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