For the sake of cinema, Disney needs to be broken up | Guy Lodge | Opinion


It’s the kind of commercial supremacy about which Walt Disney and his brother Roy probably fantasised when they founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923: just past the midway mark of 2019, the year’s four top-grossing films in US cinemas are all Disney releases. (The same would apply globally, but for the disruption of Chinese sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth.)

The four films in question – Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Aladdin and Toy Story 4 – have collectively grossed more than £4.3bn worldwide, with the studio’s noisily hyped remake of The Lion King set to join their ranks and substantially boost that number next week. More money-spinning sequels – Frozen 2, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil – lie in wait for autumn and winter.

The Walt Disney Company is sitting so pretty that the recent underperformance of its Tim Burton-directed Dumbo remake, which has “only” netted £275m, can be dismissed as immaterial. After all, it’s still twice the gross of fellow “big five” studio Paramount’s top release of the year, Rocketman.

On the one hand, this degree of bludgeoning industry dominance is awe-inspiring. At a time when other companies, threatened by the rise of Netflix and other fast-evolving home entertainment platforms, are fretting over how to lure audiences away from the sofa and into the cinema, Disney seems to have little trouble churning out one big-screen event after another. That has, admittedly, come at some cost to its longtime reputation as a house of imagination: you may have noticed that all nine aforementioned Disney titles are either franchise entries, sequels or remakes of the studio’s own back catalogue, following the recent industry maxim that original scripts are a risky sell. (In this year’s list of top 10 US grossers, Jordan Peele’s very adult horror invention Us stands as a lone alien object in a sea of established properties.)

Still from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker



‘More money-spinning sequels – Frozen 2, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (above) and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil – lie in wait for autumn and winter.’ Photograph: 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd

“I believe in being an innovator,” Walt Disney once said, though he reckoned without the challenges of today’s cinema market, in which giving the people what they want amounts to giving them characters and stories they already know. That may be the most effective way of keeping the big-screen experience alive in 2019 – but it feels a hollow victory. Disney, of course, is hardly alone in this philosophy: it just has it worked out more consistently than its hit-and-miss rival studios.

Yet as long as Disney maintains its box-office stranglehold – and you have to go back to 2014 for a year in which it didn’t top the annual chart – it will be regarded as the principal architect of an ever more uniform and homogeneous popular cinema. In March, Disney subsumed one of its most venerable rivals, completing its $71bn (£57bn) acquisition of 21st Century Fox, a deal that makes its 2009 purchase of Marvel Entertainment for £2.5bn look ever more of a bargain.

Save for the Spider-Man franchise – still owned by Sony – Disney and Marvel’s brands are now thoroughly and lucratively intermeshed, both commercially and aesthetically. Now, having shaken off the embarrassment of inherited duds such as Dark Phoenix, Disney will be aiming for similar synthesis with such upcoming Fox heavy-hitters as Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story and, of course, James Cameron’s looming trail of Avatar sequels.

This kind of Hollywood imperialism is not encouraging news if you fear that reduced competition begets reduced creativity, even as Disney’s substantial fanbase – umbilically bound by the childhood nostalgia in which the corporation trades – zealously cheers it on. What other acquisitions are on its wishlist? Are we seeing a return to the rigidly controlled Hollywood studio system of the 1940s and 1950s – only with one studio effectively as the system? If so, a movement not dissimilar to the demands to break up big tech currently rippling towards Silicon Valley might be in order.

Still from The Lion King



‘Disney’s noisily hyped remake of The Lion King is set to boost the coffers further.’ Photograph: AP

Yet Disney has rather cunningly advertised itself less as one monopolising entity than as a contrasting collective of minds and voices, as tellingly suggested by distribution president Cathleen Taff’s statement before unveiling its 2019-2022 release calendar: “We’re excited to put in place a robust and diverse slate that lays the foundation of our long-term strategy, bringing together a breadth of films from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Fox, Fox Searchlight and Blue Sky Studios to create an extraordinary collection of cinematic experiences for audiences around the world.”

So, one big happy family, then. Will Fox and Fox Searchlight – the Oscar-favoured independent force behind such distinctly un-Disneyish art films as The Favourite and Terrence Malick’s upcoming A Hidden Life – continue as before, simply adding a more refined, adult-skewing string to Disney’s bow? Perhaps, though this week brought the surprising announcement that one of Fox’s glossiest autumn prospects – The Woman in the Window, Joe Wright’s Amy Adams-starring adaptation of the Dan Mallory bestseller – has been pushed back to 2020 by Disney after it expressed concern over “confused” test screening audiences. It could well be that the film’s a mess and the planned reshoots are justified. Still, it’s hard not to speculate that Disney has its own firm ideas of what kind of storytelling its viewers want – and as long as it holds all the box-office receipts, it will be awfully hard to argue with.

Guy Lodge writes a weekly film column for the Observer New Review and is the chief UK film critic for Variety



Source link