Disney's Cinderella Does $70 Million in First Weekend, Yet Leaves Money on the Table

By nearly every measure, Disney's new live action Cinderella is a success. It took in $70 million over its first weekend domestically, attained an admirable 83 percent Rotten Tomatoes score from critics, and grabbed an impressive "A" CinemaScore from moviegoers. Having seen it this weekend, I can give it high marks for both entertainment value and its efforts to preserve the ancient tale. But success is not only measured by riches and accolades obtained, but also by opportunities lost.

The marketing term "positioning" refers to the unique and important benefit that a product, brand and/or franchise delivers to a target audience. In a positioning sense, Cinderella might be said to be a rags to riches story of a neglected young girl forced into unjust servitude but who unexpectedly finds her prince... which inspires every girl to dream that she may find her prince, too. The missed opportunity in the above positioning statement, and in the current Disney film, is that it targets a primarily female audience. So it was not surprising that females reportedly accounted for a whopping 77 percent of the film's audience on Friday though it eased to roughly 66 percent on Saturday and Sunday. On average, then, I suspect that the female/male split will be roughly 71 percent/29 percent (for arguments sake). Sitting in the audience this weekend, I saw no young boys, though I did see several fathers which may have accounted for much of the male audience figures. I also saw an ocean of moms toting their beautiful little princesses, some of whom were adored with crowns and Cinderella dresses. So cute!

But in this day of classic story reinventions, where the Wicked Witch of the West is remade a hero (in the Broadway musical Wicked) and where Rumpelstiltskin is reinvented as both the Beast in Beauty and the Beast and the crocodile in Peter Pan (in ABC's Once Upon a Time), Disney had the opportunity to broaden Cinderella's appeal to a male audience, particularly to young boys, while retaining female interest. But the storytellers did not.

The reinvention would have begun with the film's title. The Cinderella title is so associated with a female protagonist finding her prince, that many boys would not consider Cinderella to be a must see film. In an earlier stroke of genius, Disney changed the name of its film Rapunzel to Tangled to entice a male audience, and it worked. Girls still knew it was the story of Rapunzel, but boys felt comfortable showing up, too, which resulted in a more favorable 61 percent female/39 percent male split according to reports. More than name alone, Tangled inserted an active male protagonist in an action-oriented storyline, far more so than Cinderella's more passive prince and action-less narrative. If Cinderella had been reinvented, not just retold, with a gender neutral title (keeping the character's name of Cinderella, of course), and with a more active prince placed in an action-oriented narrative, it would have had the potential to make more money and bring more enjoyment to a wider audience. Interestingly, the male villain in the current Cinderella film, the Grand Duke, was ripe for an action-oriented confrontational battle with the prince, but it never happened. As a result, there wasn't even an action-oriented scene in the current film that could appear in advertising to entice boys.

What does this equate to in dollars and cents? The average theater ticket price in the United States is roughly $8, which means the $70 million at the first domestic weekend box office represented roughly 8.75 million moviegoers. If Cinderella's female/male split is truly 71 percent/29 percent, this equates to roughly 6.21 million females and 2.54 million males. If Cinderella had been repositioned, created and marketed in a way to retain its female audience but attract slightly more males as Tangled did for a 61 percent/39 percent split, the total audience might have grown to 10.18 million people (6.21 million females it already had, plus a revised 3.97 million males). That 10.18 million person audience at $8 each would have resulted in a first domestic weekend box office of $81.4 million. Hence, Disney may have left roughly $11.4 million on the table over the first weekend compared to its $70 million dollar box office, which equates to a 16.3 percent increase. If the current film eventually makes $800 million at the worldwide box office over its entire run (assuming it's on a slightly better trajectory than Maleficent), that 16.3 percent increment suggests it could have made an added $130 million worldwide. If Disney's take is about half after deducting theater owners' fees, the amount Disney might eventually leave on the table is $65 million. And this doesn't take into account added boy-related markets that includes toy lines, role play items, video games, publishing, and apparel. These numbers are guesswork, but they demonstrate the dramatic implications of smartly positioning a film to obtain a slightly broader audience. Had I applied the audience split reportedly achieved by Disney's live action Alice in Wonderland (55 percent/45 percent female to male), the increased box office for Cinderella resulting from an even larger male audience would have been staggering.

As a marketer, strategist, story consultant, and sometimes novelist who specializes in entertainment, I can both cheer the accomplishment of Cinderella and be disappointed at the opportunity lost. No matter the success, Disney left money on the table.