Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
On November 27th, 2002, the Walt Disney Company released its 43rd animated feature film Treasure Planet. Sandwiched between Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and burdened by middling reviews, the film infamously became the most humiliating box office bomb in the history of its feature animation department. This only a year after Atlantis: The Lost Empire landed with a thud; both of these (deserved, let’s be honest) failures were borne out of an obsession then-CEO Michael Eisner had with courting the elusive teenage male demographic, despite being the one major consumer base that had consistently shown zero interest in a Disney movie, and despite the fact this exact same attempt in the 1980’s under Ron W. Miller’s leadership drove the company’s film division into near-oblivion. What happened with Treasure Planet set the stage for Eisner’s eventual ousting in 2005, being replaced by a new CEO with a similar goal but a very different way of pursuing it.
The Walt Disney Company’s desire to extend their reach as a cultural force beyond the markets they’d already cornered decades ago – namely, families with young children – had been going on for forty years, now. Their standard operating procedure since their inception ninety-five years ago, all the way up to the mid-2000’s, was “in-house.” Walt himself was a man ahead of his time when it came to aggressively maintained brand recognition and unification. In particular, the value of consolidating successful intellectual properties under a singular corporate banner that would not only be widely recognized but beloved by successive generations of consumers. And it worked, especially when it came to characters and stories in the public domain. Don’t believe me? Close your eyes and say the word “Cinderella.” What is the first image that pops into your head?
See? That was the genius of Walt Disney and the company he founded, and they were more or less content with that formula.
Until Star Wars was released in the summer of 1977, and the company (along with every other studio in America, to be fair) wanted to reverse-engineer it. They didn’t just want to make fairy tales for children anymore, they now wanted teens. Specifically young men. So they tried. And they tried. And they tried. And they tried again, until the losses were so great they finally had to face the truth that the Disney brand would never lure that coveted 13-18 year-old male demographic from the competition that had long since mastered the art of (for lack of a better term) “boy stuff.” They were never going to produce a sci-fi franchise that could compete with Star Wars or a Disney-branded superhero that teens would be more excited by than Spider-Man.
So when Bob Iger was promoted to the position of CEO in 2005, he brought onboard with him a new philosophy: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Buy ‘Em.
Which is exactly what they’ve been doing for a little over a decade. Instead of trying to compete in the superhero business, they buy the most successful superhero studio. Having never created an answer to Star Wars that was able to make money, they decided to own the Star Wars brand outright. Problem solved. But why stop at teens? Why not own the most successful puppet brand and the two most recognizable sci-fi movie monsters as well? Today, if there is a sector of the entertainment market they aren’t #1 in, they don’t try to compete with it, anymore — they make an offer.
And so last Friday, shareholders of both the Disney and 21st Century Fox companies approved a gigantic $71.3 billion “merger,” wherein Disney acquires several entertainment and television assets, including the 20th Century Fox movie studio and its subsidiaries, in exchange for Fox shareholders receiving significant stock option upgrades and continued control of their news and sports broadcasting divisions.
This deal is extremely worrying. There are troubling implications of this deal on multiple political, financial, and labor levels. But even if only the movie business were to be impacted, it still has stark and troubling consequences.
Let’s first acknowledge the obvious part of this deal that has been accepted by everyone with even a cursory knowledge of business practices — less competition is bad for consumers, always, always, always. With another major film studio coming under the umbrella of a larger one, that’s one less studio trying to up their game, innovate, take risks, and compete with the Goliath that is the Walt Disney Company. Look at how telecommunications has devolved into a select few megacorporations devising new ways to brazenly screw their customers over, and tell me if you want that from Hollywood.
Then there’s the matter of quantity. This deal guarantees that there will be anywhere between twenty to thirty fewer films theatrically released in a given year by the mid-2020’s compared to today. With 20th Century Fox no longer competing with Disney, there’s no incentive for them to “cut into” each other’s revenue by putting their release dates close together. The larger Disney becomes, the more advantageous it will be for them to parse out their tentpole blockbusters by the various studios they own in longer intervals, out of each other’s ways, for maximum profit. There is also no reason for 20th Century Fox to try their hand at something another Disney-owned studio is already doing in order to compete with them. Why would their new owners greenlight, say, a new swashbuckling adventure when Disney’s already got another Pirates of the Caribbean movie in development?
And that’s a “big” mainstream-type film falling by the wayside. Have you considered how Disney is going to treat Fox Searchlight? I wouldn’t be too optimistic about that answer, considering how they’ve treated smaller studios in the past. Hollywood Pictures no longer exists. ImageMovers was gutted and tossed over to Universal. Touchstone barely releases anything these days (their average annual output over the last ten years has been 0.5 movies). If you’re a filmmaker trying to get a mid-budget drama produced, you’re going to lose one more option to pitch your idea to and you’re going to lose a lot of leverage over the remaining studios you can negotiate with. You can hope Focus Features, A24, and Sony Pictures Classics pick up some of the slack, but not all of it. More likely, they’ll move on one or two projects that normally would have gone to Fox Searchlight, and almost certainly will primarily, if not exclusively, be projects made by famous “arthouse darlings” guaranteed to turn a profit. Sorry, new up-and-coming filmmakers, you get the shaft.
That’s the thing about corporate consolidation and financial belt-tightening in the movie industry. When I mentioned earlier that we’ll be seeing fewer theatrical movies heading into the new decade, I wasn’t talking about reboots, remakes, sequels, and franchise installments we’re already inundated with. We’re getting those no matter what. What we’ll be seeing less of are movies with some risk attached to them, like The Fountain and Moulin Rouge! in favor of Boba Fett spinoffs and Avatar sequels (oh, yeah, Disney owns those now, too). And it goes without saying that this is true at the people level as well. The “fat cat” executives remain rich and happy, but the employees lower on the corporate ladder? Mergers like these almost always result in layoffs.
Not that established filmmakers are safe, either. Remember James Gunn? He was hastily fired from directing Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 (because Marvel isn’t even hiding their intention to undo everything that happened in Infinity War, apparently) after a campaign led by a cowardly Nazi-sympathizer named Mike Cernovich uncovered some old tweets where Gunn made some admittedly tasteless jokes about rape and pedophilia from his days as a grindhouse Troma filmmaker. Most of them are over a decade old and Gunn apologized for them years before this, but Disney caved to what was obviously a bad-faith push by activists and terminated his employment with them. Why would they so unceremoniously cut loose a director who had made two box office smash hits for them?
It’s because if, during negotiations, Disney was suddenly hit with an escalating social media firestorm against one of their filmmakers that could generate unfavorable press headlines, it might have introduced a threat to the merger. And if at the center of it was a filmmaker who is also an outspoken critic of the most petty, childish, and vindictive U.S. President of our lifetimes? Yeah, it’s all getting clearer now, isn’t it? Preserving the merger was the real reason Gunn was fired so quickly and why he probably won’t be hired back anytime soon, no matter how many signatures that #RehireJamesGunn petition gets. Now imagine a less privileged filmmaker in a similar position at the company. This company that now has even more control over the entire film industry.
Yet despite all of these consequences (barring some unforeseen catastrophe before the deal is finalized in early 2019), the dominant feeling I’ve witnessed from people is excitement. Most people really love what just happened last week because now the X-Men are in the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Maybe we’ll finally get a good Fantastic Four movie! Hooray! And that’s really the kicker, isn’t it? Disney makes stuff we enjoy, so we’re fine with ceding so much of our culture’s cinematic footprint to them. We may theoretically be opposed to what Disney does as a company, but we’re still going to see Captain Marvel, aren’t we? We’re still going to buy that ticket to Star Wars Episode IX. Heck, it’s why we don’t even pretend to care about their rampant labor abuses, anymore. But if that’s all we really care about, keep in mind that the Disney that is producing Marvel and Star Wars and Muppets movies you love now won’t last forever. The CEO I mentioned at the top of the article who nearly killed traditional animation from the company forever, Michael Eisner, was the man who set them on the path to the Disney Renaissance in the 90’s. They’re riding a high, but when things go sour – as they did in the late ’40s, from Walt Disney’s death in 1966 all the way to the mid-’80s, and in the early 2000’s – it won’t just be Disney that gets stuck in a creative rut this time. It will be all the myriad intellectual properties they now own, too.
I don’t have a solution or an upbeat ending to this. This deal is all but sealed and done, and consumers are for the most part embracing it because hey, Wolverine might be in a movie with Iron Man soon, and that’s awesome, right? This is the new reality of the film industry.
Anyway, here’s a funny internet video to cheer you all up:
Author: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert Hamer is CC2K’s resident opinion columnist. In addition to being a self-centered 30 year-old white man living in northeastern suburbia who obsesses over movies and nerd culture ephemera, he also works to ensure Donald Trump does not succeed in permanently destroying the United States.