One of Walt Disney Co.'s most storied princess properties is meeting the company's two newest royals at the multiplex. And the pairing could bring a happy ending at the box office for the Burbank entertainment giant.
The new live-action version of "Cinderella," which launches Friday, will be preceded by a short film featuring princesses Anna and Elsa from Walt Disney Animation Studios' 2013 blockbuster "Frozen," the highest-grossing animated film ever.
The seven-minute computer-animated short, called "Frozen Fever," could boost box-office returns for "Cinderella," which is launching in more than 3,700 theaters and is projected by analysts to have a big opening.
"Cinderella" could take in more than $65 million in the U.S. and Canada over its debut weekend, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. The Kenneth Branagh-directed film, which stars Lily James of "Downton Abbey" in the titular role, cost an estimated $95 million to produce.
Analyst Bruce Nash said the pent-up demand for "Frozen" could boost the box-office haul for "Cinderella" by as much as 10% over its kickoff weekend.
While audiences looking for a "Frozen" fix have binged on a bestselling soundtrack, a musical show at Disney's California Adventure park and the hundreds of consumer products for sale, they've had to wait until now for a new big-screen offering featuring the characters from the film.
"It will be a unique confluence of events to get people into theaters," said Nash, president of film industry research firm Nash Information Services.
Walt Disney Studios, the parent of the animation company that produced "Frozen Fever" and the live-action company behind "Cinderella," decided last fall to pair the films. Ricky Strauss, president of marketing for the studio, said it was an obvious move.
"Thematically, it makes a lot of sense because Cinderella and Anna and Elsa are beloved female protagonists," he said. "Both films obviously feature princesses, but they are really modern-day characters with purpose and passion."
Although Disney has long coupled its animated pictures with short films, only in recent years has it done so with live-action movies. The company's two recent live-action "Muppets" pictures, released in 2011 and 2014, both were preceded by animated shorts. Otherwise, the company has not paired films in this manner.
There is little precedent for short films pumping up the box-office performance of full-length movies to which they are attached. But there are a few examples of other types of pre-feature content having a positive effect.
Nash said that the 1998 debut of the trailer for "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" — then the first new "Star Wars" movie in more than 15 years — boosted the box-office take of the handful of movies with which it was screened.
"In some theaters, they'd watch the trailer, go into the lobby and geek out," he said. "In that case, there was actually a distinct bump in box office of about 10% that day."
In 2011, Warner Bros. showed a six-minute prologue to "The Dark Knight Rises" in front of some Imax screenings of Paramount Pictures' "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," a move that generated additional interest in those showings, Nash said.
"A lot of people went out to see that footage on the first weekend in particular," he said.
Besides Disney and its animation rival DreamWorks Animation, few companies pair short films with features. Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at entertainment data firm Rentrak, said that if the "Frozen Fever"-"Cinderella" combo is deemed a success, it could lead other movie studios to consider the practice.
As video-on-demand services gain in popularity and technology makes the home viewing experience increasingly immersive, Dergarabedian said, studios should consider "value-added" content such as short films to entice audiences into theaters.
"I think it's a great strategy for a lot of studios to give something a little extra as an inducement," he said. "Whether or not it is going to make the difference between a movie being a hit or not, I don't know if it has that power."
But few cinematic brands can match the power of "Frozen," which grossed more than $1.2 billion worldwide.
The franchise has become a money-spinner for Disney, boosting the company's most recent quarterly earnings, during which the consumer products division's record operating profit of $626 million was partly attributed to the sales of "Frozen"-related items.
Beyond the short film, which is expected to eventually be released on home entertainment platforms, it's not clear when or if another "Frozen" movie will be made. Even as Disney readies a Broadway musical based on "Frozen" and builds an Epcot attraction, the company has not said whether it plans to release a feature-length sequel.
"Frozen" may be a juggernaut, but "Cinderella" is no slouch either. Disney's original animated adaptation of the story by French writer Charles Perrault was released in 1950 and is considered one of the company's classic hand-drawn films. In 2008, the American Film Institute named it the No. 9 animated film of all time.
Consumer products consultant Lutz Muller said that "Cinderella" accounts for the second-most-popular toy brand, behind "Frozen," in the Disney Princess media franchise, which also includes characters from films such as "Aladdin," "The Little Mermaid" and "Tangled."
"'Cinderella' continues to be pretty strong," said Muller, chief executive of Klosters Trading Corp. "In 2015, it will be a toss-up between 'Frozen' and 'Cinderella.' I think 'Cinderella' will have longer legs."
Releasing a new version of "Cinderella" is part of Disney's strategy of mining its classic animated films for live-action remakes. Disney has tapped a rich vein so far: Last year's "Maleficent," a take on the "Sleeping Beauty" story, grossed more than $750 million worldwide; and 2010's "Alice in Wonderland" topped $1 billion.
The company is making other live-action films based on decades-old animated movies, including "The Jungle Book," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Dumbo."
Given the past success of this approach and the popularity of the "Cinderella" brand, the pairing of the new picture with "Frozen Fever" is not seen as a case of Disney trying to goose its box-office haul.
"'Cinderella' as a feature film certainly stands on its own," Strauss said.