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The Lion King has cemented itself as a Disney classic in the years since its 1994 release. The movie has a live show at Disney's Animal Kingdom and Disney is busy putting together a brand new Blu-ray and Digital release with new extras and more, not to mention a live action version of the original animated film. Still, it wasn't always super clear that The Lion King would be a hit. In fact, director Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn recently told me ahead of The Lion King's Blu-ray release that the film was a mess when the initial promotions were being released. But there was one moment when the creative team knew they had something special with The Lion King. According to Minkoff,
The [sic] moment for me, and I think for all of us was when we first put up 'Circle of Life.' When we showed that, it surprised people. And people were like, 'Oh wow, that might actually be good.' And then we did something that was also unusual. That completed scene got put into theaters six months ahead of the release. It was the trailer, the whole song. Very bold marketing move. And then it got to the end and boom, 'The Lion King.' And people were like, 'Whoa.'
There are a lot of people who likely remember this amazing and lengthy trailer, both because it gave us an intense and colorful look at a movie we knew little about, and because the "Circle of Life" in full runs more than four minutes in length, which makes for a very unusual trailer length. The explosion of color with the title card was enough to sell a lot of moviegoers on The Lion King. Regardless, at the time, the movie wasn't even close to finished, and Don Hahn went so far as to tell CinemaBlend The Lion King was a hot "mess" even by the time "Circle of Life" was completed.
We had to get special permission to run because it was a four-minute trailer and that wasn't allowed. But people came unglued. And the irony is, the rest of the movie was in shambles. And people would say, 'Is the whole movie like this?' And we'd go, 'Yeah.' It was not. It was a mess.
Prior to the film's release, Disney also began screening The Lion King for audiences around San Fernando Valley, in places like Pasadena. The studio screened the movie for "moms and kids." Disney screened The Lion King for 18-24 year-olds, and even a slew of people who had tattoos, which was important because the potential audience for the feature was a giant question mark before the previews were shown. Per Don Hahn, these were a real breakthrough for the creative team:
That was something. We learned a lot in that screening. Seeing a real audience seeing it, you just don't know. Is this a kid's movie? Are the kids going to go crying out of the theater when Mufasa dies? Are the grownup kids gonna want to see this? But the reactions were terrific and the laughs were there.
The Lion King was eventually released on June 24, 1994 to general critical acclaim, meaning that Rob Minkoff, Don Hahn and Co. were able to turn that "mess" into a polished gem. It would likely take pages and pages to describe how the movie made it from Point A to Point B, but the germ of the movie's success can trace back to that one bold marketing move, which you can view in full, below.
The Lion King is heading to Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on August 29 as part of Walt Disney's Signature Collection. New features include rare footage and a brand new sing-along version of the film. To find out more, head here.