'Beauty and the Beast's' Secret to Success: Female Power and Comfort

The movie’s record-breaking opening comes at a time when Hollywood is under fire to do more to promote women behind and in front of the camera.

Move over Marvel fanboys and make room for all the female moviegoers who just powered Beauty and the Beast to the seventh-biggest domestic opening weekend of all time. 

Heading into the weekend, all of Hollywood knew Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was going to be huge at the box office. But Sunday morning estimates exceeded even the most optimistic projections, as the live-action adaptation of the classic 1991 animated musical ended up opening to a record-breaking $170 million at the North American box office and $350 million worldwide (and those numbers could climb higher once final grosses are tallied).

That was the biggest start of all time for a movie rated PG, but, even more impressively, Beauty climbed into the seventh spot among all-time domestic openers, beating the likes of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which debuted to $166 million last month, as well as 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises and 2008’s The Dark Knight, which rank 10th and 11th. It ended up securing a spot just below four Marvel movies, 2012’s The Avengers, 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and 2013’s Iron Man 3.

That Beauty, a musical romance, was able to hold its own among those fanboy-driven superhero movies did not go unnoticed, for the movie — starring Emma Watson as the bookish, small-town girl named Belle who tames and then falls in love with the Beast, played by Dan Stevens opens at a time when Hollywood is under fire for not promoting more women both behind and in front of the camera.

While Beauty‘s opening underscores the buying power of women when offered a film that drives them to the theater, it follows in the wake of, and builds on, other female fantasy films like The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games that moved the needle in proving that a female protagonist can translate into huge box-office grosses. The final Hunger Games movie, the series that rocketed Jennifer Lawrence to major commercial stardom, opened to $158.4 million in November 2014, while The Twilight Saga: New Moon debuted to a then-record $143 million in November 2009.

Neither of those two movie franchises was released by any of the six major Hollywood studios. Lionsgate handled Hunger Games, while Twilight began its life at Summit before Summit was bought by Lionsgate. In the case of Beauty, the movie benefited from Disney’s marketing muscle and a carefully calibrated campaign. (In fact, thanks to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, four Marvel movies and now Beast, Disney boasts all but one of the top seven domestic openers — Universal’s Jurassic World in the second spot being the one exception.)

Beast had several factors working in its favor, beginning with familiarity. It is, of course, based on one of the studio’s modern-day animated classics, and the first animated movie ever nominated for the best picture Oscar, before spawning a long-running Broadway musical. Like the Twilight series, it trades in the fantasy of a young woman whose love domesticates a brooding man. And while Belle isn’t a woman warrior like Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen, she’s presented as an independent girl who is a lot spunkier than old-fashioned Disney princesses.

On Friday, females of all ages made up more than 70 percent of Beauty‘s audience, in line with Twilight and Hunger Games, according to comScore’s PostTrak, the industry leader.

Disney reports the audience began to even out Saturday and Sunday. The studio says for the weekend as a whole, females made up 60 percent of all ticket buyers, while males increased to 40 percent, proving that the opposite sex isn’t afraid of being pigeonholed — much as superhero movies get their fair share of women and teenage girls as well. Still, Disney was careful to hold back many of the movie’s musical elements from the first trailers in order not to alienate the sometimes skittish young-male audience.

Hoberman suggests the zeitgeist might also have contributed to the movie’s success, adding, “In such a time of uncertainty in this country, and all over the world, I think this movie gives people a sense of joy and comfort.”

Paul Dergarabedian of comScore predicts Beauty and the Beast is fated to earn north of $1 billion at the worldwide box office. “The movie is already a modern classic that in its original animated form was a touchstone movie for older audiences and became a beloved mainstay on home video for younger fans who could not wait to see Emma Watson personify the role of Belle in live-action form,” he says.