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Disney upped the ante for the 25th anniversary of ‘The Lion King’: behind the campaign that made waves

When "The Lion King" turned 20 (in 2017), Disney Theatrical Group celebrated. The team shared more behind-the-scenes details than ever before, threw a block party in Times Square and went big on an anniversary performance and afterparty — Elton John-live-onstage big.

Jayden Theophile as Young Simba and L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa and the company of "The Lion King" on Broadway (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

When “The Lion King” turned 20 (in 2017), Disney Theatrical Group celebrated. The team shared more behind-the-scenes details than ever before, threw a block party in Times Square and went big on an anniversary performance and afterparty — Elton John-live-onstage big. And yet, as the 25th Broadway anniversary peeked over the horizon in November 2022, the campaign surrounding “The Lion King” took the marketing of the long-running musical to the next level.

“I can acknowledge it was definitely a much bigger push for 25,” said Angelo Desimini, vice president of marketing, publicity, sales and education for Disney Theatrical Group. “Twenty-five — for all its glory — it’s a big moment in time. People celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary … It just felt bigger to us.”

“Combine that with coming out of the pandemic, the state of Broadway, where everything stood,” he continued. “It felt very momentous — for ‘Lion King,’ for the Walt Disney Company, for, we hope, the state of Broadway — to try to have a really positive story out there about something that is beloved and has longevity.”

The Broadway production of “The Lion King” has been grossing over $1 million weekly since reopening post-shutdown on Sept. 19, 2021. In the 22 playing weeks since its anniversary on Nov. 13, 2022, the show reached an average attendance of 97.2 percent and grossed over $2 million for half of those weeks (never dipping below a weekly total of $1.5 million and breaking the $4 million mark over the end-of-year holiday).

Not only is “The Lion King” still running, it’s still a hit.

But tickets don’t sell themselves. It’s been a consistent effort on Disney’s part over the show’s quarter-century run to ensure sales. Compared to non-milestone years, Desimini said Disney “didn’t spend a ton more [this] anniversary year.”

“That being said, we were very purposeful with what we put out there,” he added.

The message

When “The Lion King” returned, the main message (highlighted in a commercial spot narrated by Heather Headley, who originated the role of Nala — and later won a Tony Award for Disney’s “Aida”) was, of course, to come to “The Lion King” — but primarily to come back to Broadway. The 25th anniversary called for a new message to spotlight the specific “Lion King” experience.

Desimini and the Disney team, including director of marketing Lauren Daghini and senior manager of integrated planning Greg Josken, brainstormed and began an informal survey of “Lion King” experiences. The story that continually popped up, Desimini recounted, was along the lines of: “‘I came as a child, my mother brought me, and now I’m bringing my niece, and it was such a special moment to share it.’”

“This idea of ‘share’ kept on coming up,” he said. “There is something about watching someone else watch it that is a completely different experience and yet almost more magical.”

That kernel of an idea became the centerpiece of the 25th-anniversary campaign: a three-minute movie-trailer-like commercial titled “The Lion King ‘Generations’” — which is now nominated for a Webby People’s Voice Award.

The idea to “share with someone you love” coupled with the length of a generation being 25 years — making “Lion King” “the show of a lifetime” — led to the story of two pairs of mothers and daughters (in 1997 and 2022) going to the Broadway production.

Disney hired directors Jamaal Parham and Bashan Aquart (a.k.a. Jams x Bash) — who have created ads for brands like Google and Broadway shows like “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — to helm the production of this special “Lion King” commercial.

“Immediately after talking to Angelo about the concept, we could very much see the spot,” said Aquart. “We wanted it to be a memory. We knew if we got it right, that while you were watching it, the whole thing would feel like you were remembering your first time either at ‘The Lion King’ or going to the theater in general.”

As fans themselves, Parham and Aquart prepared meticulously.

“The first really big decision we made to hit the emotion was we wanted to shoot this really big, so we used a large format camera, the Alexa 65, which is essentially an IMAX camera,” Parham explained. The big camera actually “gives you these close-ups that still have this beautiful depth. It’s almost like you can see into a person’s soul.”

These mechanical details — from camera type to lens, from shot selection to sound design — affected the commercial’s capacity for emotional impact.

The story

In the ad, we see a girl in 1997 chatting on AIM interspliced with a girl in 2023 FaceTiming a friend; in both scenarios, their mothers are dragging the young ones out of the house. Quick typing and a nearly throwaway piece of dialogue tell viewers the moms are taking their daughters “to see a Broadway show.” Clearly, in both eras, the teen is disinterested as she rides the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan. What’s not clear — intentionally — is what the commercial is advertising.

“I didn’t want everyone to know what this spot is about, which is why you don’t even know it’s ‘The Lion King’ for quite a period of time,” Desimini said. “If we can invest you in the story that we’re telling and surprise you with what the [product] is at the end, that was important to us.”

One element that hooked viewers is the very first image that appears. “I put the Disney [logo] right at the top of the spot,” he said. A last-minute addition, he confided. “And that was purposeful ’cause I wanted people to go, ‘Wait, is this a movie?’”

As viewers of the ad watched to figure out what Disney had up its sleeve, they connected to the characters in the commercial’s story — a parallel to the ad’s story in which the young girls gradually resonate with the characters and story of the musical.

And it’s not until the last seconds that the commercial hits with a second surprise: The little girl in 1997 is now the mom in 2023.

Making it work

The shoot itself took five days — the longest Desimini has been a part of in his more than 20-year career. The crew rented an actual New York City townhouse and decorated it first in 1997 and then 2022 styles. They shut down a subway for a full day to get authentic train cars for each period. They filmed on Brooklyn streets and shut down a section of Times Square overnight to capture what it’s like to approach the Minskoff Theatre.

The ad needed to capture the show as well as the experience of being there. As any theater devotee knows, it can feel impossible for film to capture the liveness and scale of what happens onstage. (Aquart called that task their white whale.)

The duo saw the opening number several times to assess how to film the new “Circle of Life” footage included in the spot. “What we wanted to do in this industry, ultimately, was make it look like what it costs,” said Arquat. Too many captures flatten the spectacle of theater. The key to harnessing the magic? Camera work. “It’s getting the right depth and vertical height so that the show feels as big as it feels from the audience.”

When viewers see these freshly filmed shots of Rafiki and the animal kingdom, when they watch the elephant lumbering down the aisle, it reads like it does in the Minskoff today.

On the other hand, the audio creates a feeling of nostalgia. The echoes of “Naaaaaaaants ingonyamaaaaaaa” and “Circle of Life” were recorded specifically for the commercial to sound more ethereal and manifest the concept of this as a memory.

That covered what “Lion King” is, but what about the feeling of watching it? All of the actors (and crew) for the ad attended a performance prior to filming to understand the visceral experience of the show firsthand, so they wouldn’t manufacture false reactions on shoot day. When the IMAX camera zooms in on faces, the reactions seem genuine because they are.

But no shot was more crucial than when you see “Circle of Life” reflected in the 1997 girl’s glasses. “It’s this touching moment when you’re seeing it through her eyes,” said Desimini. It’s a visual only achieved because of the specific equipment and skills used, and it’s able to evoke emotion because of the momentum of the script. “If we just threw that shot in there, it doesn’t work. It just looks pretty,” said Parham. “But we built up the story, and that’s the punch.”

Similarly, the breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the spot offer clues that the young girl in 1997 is the mother in 2022, “without feeling like we’re spoon-feeding it to you,” Arquat said. And then the side-by-side shots of the girl nudging her glasses — and a greeting of “grandma” — confirms it.

The commercial aimed to generate the same surprise and delight that is a staple of Disney and “The Lion King” on Broadway.

Getting it seen

Desimini curated where this centerpiece of the campaign would run.

The “‘Lion King’ Generations” spot did not air solely via broadcast — as would have been the strategy five years ago. “We used streaming in a way that we had never used before — frankly, no one on Broadway had ever used before,” Desimini said. They put it on Hulu’s ad players, a new technology that offers viewers the choice to watch a three-minute longform ad so the rest of their program will be ad-free.

Disney bought a preview slot in New York and Los Angeles cinemas to play the spot before showings of the film “Wakanda Forever.” They targeted it on social media. They even made a 60-second and 30-second version of “Generations” for flexibility.

To date, “Generations” is the most-watched piece of content ever produced for “Lion King,” with 91 million views. In the first 24 hours after the spot launched on social, it garnered over 1 million of those views. And, of course, it’s been nominated for a Webby in the category of Best Video: Branded Entertainment, Media & Entertainment — selected from more than 14,000 entries. (Winners will be announced on April 25; voting closes April 20.)

“At the end of the day, sure, it’s a commercial, but it doesn’t feel like we’re selling you anything,” Parham said. “It feels like we’re inviting you to be part of a legacy and a journey and something more.”

Completing the campaign

“Generations” spun out into a massive media push. Writeups on the 25th anniversary plastered news media and magazines. The show performed a number at the 2022 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an honor typically reserved for new Broadway shows. For the first time ever, the company performed on late-night television, taking over the Ed Sullivan Theater in an immersive rendition of “Circle of Life” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

“Very early on, I had this mantra of ‘dream big,’” Desimini said. “We have the opportunity in our jobs, especially at the Walt Disney Company, to do amazing things. So we put down on a piece of paper all the things we might want to do — including the Thanksgiving Day Parade, ‘The Late Show,’ this commercial — and, we kind of did it all.”