It’s been a brutal year for Hollywood. Box office numbers are way down. Summer movies keep flopping. Green Book won Best Picture. It’s all just been terrible.
Except for Disney.
For Disney, this is the year it released four global blockbusters, with several more to come. This is the year Disney cleared one of the biggest acquisitions in Hollywood history. And this is the year Disney forced the rest of Hollywood to confront just how it will live under the towering shadow of Mickey Mouse.
As a filmmaker behind several megahit movies put it to BuzzFeed News, “The days of competition are over. This is not, like, the Yankees win some, and the Red Sox win some, and occasionally the Marlins will slip in there and grab one or whatever. It’s just, like, Disney. They’re going to be No. 1.”
Like the best epic tales of triumph and conquest, however, Disney’s historic ascent is still laced with risk and uncertainty, as the very qualities that have propelled the company’s astronomic success could also force it to plummet back down to Earth.
The company has certainly known hardship before. Just seven years ago, Disney was at the bottom of a five-year box office slump. Other than the reliable hits provided by Pixar and Disney’s twin animation studios, the company had struggled to find a feature film strategy that worked at all. Instead, it had released a misbegotten Main Street parade of high profile disappointments and outright bombs including Race to Witch Mountain, Surrogates, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Tron: Legacy, I Am Number Four, Mars Needs Moms, Fright Night, Real Steel, and John Carter.
Then on a clear Los Angeles day in April seven years ago, amid a blaze of flashbulbs and a small army of movie stars, The Avengers premiered.
The cinematic universe–establishing mega-blockbuster was the first Marvel Studios film released by Disney after the company bought Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion in 2009. That acquisition has so far netted Disney more than $18.2 billion in global box office grosses alone, a historic financial windfall that would buoy any studio out of the box office doldrums. But Marvel was only one facet of a larger strategy at Disney, spearheaded by CEO Robert Iger, to rescue its box office future by buying up a confederation of film divisions with the same degree of widespread brand recognition already enjoyed by the company at large.
In essence, where the rest of the film industry built a business model dependent on individual movie franchises, Disney has built its film business by making its franchises into individual ministudios.
First, Disney bought Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion (gross to date: $10.4 billion), then Marvel in 2009. Three years later, Disney bought Lucasfilm from Star Wars creator George Lucas for $4.05 billion, launching a brand new series of Star Wars movies starting in 2015 (gross to date: $4.84 billion), and the debut of two Star Wars–themed lands at Disneyland and Disney World.
After the success of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, Disney even discovered a winning strategy for its namesake live-action division: remaking the company’s library of classic animated features — The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin — as (putatively) live-action films. Since 2010, that effort has grossed $6.2 billion worldwide.
This all would have been enough — more than enough — for any studio to thrive. And since The Avengers’ rapturous premiere, Disney hasn’t just thrived, it’s dominated like no studio has since the heyday of MGM in the first half of the 20th century. Historically, the movie business has been reliably cyclical, with each of the six major studios — Disney, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, and Sony Pictures — rotating through boom-and-bust years as audience tastes shift and big risks pay off or flop hard. But since 2016, Disney has upended that cycle, topping the domestic box office every year with an ever-increasing share of the market.
Disney, however, was not satisfied with mere domination. At the end of 2017, it began negotiations to buy most of the movie and TV assets of one of its biggest and most successful rivals: 20th Century Fox.
Due to the complexity of one massive media conglomerate purchasing another massive media conglomerate, the deal didn’t close until March 2019, for $71.3 billion. The timing, nonetheless, ended up being eerily perfect, as Disney is poised this year to exert an unprecedented degree of box office supremacy. Due to the success of Captain Marvel, Aladdin, and Toy Story 4 alongside the phenomenon of Avengers: Endgame, Disney has grossed $2.03 billion in the US and Canada alone. The next highest studios this year, Warner Bros. and Universal, haven’t made even half that amount.
Disney actually found itself in a similarly rarefied position at the midyear point in 2018, thanks to the one-two-three punch of Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Incredibles 2. The difference this year is that the second half of 2019 promises at least as many massive sensations for Disney as the first half provided, including The Lion King in July, Frozen 2 in November, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in December.
Put it this way: By the end of 2018, Disney had earned $7.33 billion worldwide for the year, a record second only to Disney’s all-time record of $7.61 billion in 2016. By the end of June 2019, the five films — five — that Disney released globally this year have already made over $5.61 billion worldwide, and the studio shows no sign of slowing down.
“Disney has lined up this row of killers between the final Avengers and the final Star Wars and sequels to their two biggest animated franchises in Frozen and Toy Story, and they’re still in the golden age of remakes with Aladdin and Lion King,” a top executive at a rival studio told BuzzFeed News. “What they’ve engineered within their own company that makes them kind of the name brand — we sometimes kid that we just call them ‘entertainment.’”
It’s a good joke, but it’s also an ominous one. The film industry is facing the biggest change to its fundamental business in decades, as audiences inexorably migrate away from movie theaters and toward digital streaming at home. The core reason Disney bought Fox was not to make it more competitive in the theatrical film business, but to draw from Fox’s vast library of film and TV titles for the upcoming Disney+ streaming service. And with 20th Century Fox no longer a separate studio, and Disney locked into its rigid franchise business model well into the 2020s, the company’s gargantuan size and success are already shaping Hollywood’s future for a generation.
“If you are so big that your marketing muscle, your market penetration, your ability to saturate screens and theaters, is so massive, how does a rival get a foot in the door, when you have a company that big?” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “It’s really a conundrum.”
BuzzFeed News spoke with rival movie executives and veteran filmmakers (all of whom requested anonymity in order to speak candidly) about how the rest of the industry is adapting to living in Disney’s Hollywood, what it means for the kinds of stories that can be told, and how the studio’s winning strategy might also lead to its undoing.
What will non-Disney movies look like?
Even before Disney’s acquisition of Fox, the rest of Hollywood had grown accustomed to Mickey Mouse throwing his weight around in ways not immediately visible to general audiences, like snapping up the limited number of windows to exhibit films in IMAX theaters, which often command a premium ticket price. “They do start to monopolize the opportunities,” said the top executive at a rival studio.
After Disney’s purchase of Fox was finalized, the newly embiggened company made a much splashier display of its newfound power. On May 7, Disney announced release dates for a whopping 63 feature film titles that incorporated Fox’s pre-acquisition feature slate largely through 2020, and stretched all the way through to 2027. In doing so, Disney planted flags in virtually all the most highly coveted — and lucrative — release windows for the next four years, including Valentine’s Day week, Memorial Day weekend, Thanksgiving weekend, and especially the weekend before Christmas.
“They can just put down their big feet down on these dates, where everyone else is not just fighting for what’s available, but also fighting to get out of their way,” said a former 20th Century Fox executive. “They suck all the air out of the release schedule.”
The film industry long abandoned the concept of the “summer movie season” as summery franchise movies like The Hunger Games, Furious 7, and Black Panther have enjoyed blockbuster openings in nonsummer months. Still, the most immediate result of Disney’s aggressive release schedule will be studios choosing to release more so-called event movies during the few months left in the calendar that haven’t traditionally been venues for franchise movies of considerable size.
“I think you’ll see a lot more things congregate in January and September and October,” said the top exec. (It’s already started: Last year, Sony Pictures opened its superhero movie Venom in October, and made a tidy $855 million worldwide.)
But what if audiences stop racing out to see event franchise movies that aren’t made by Disney? They certainly haven’t been this year. Since Endgame demolished box office records in April, a string of big, expensive franchise films — including Warner Bros.’ Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Universal’s The Secret Life of Pets 2, and Sony Pictures’ Men in Black International — have drastically underperformed. Dark Phoenix, the final film in 20th Century Fox’s 19-year-old X-Men franchise, was an outright flop.
“It feels like audiences are making appointments to go to these super event movies [from Disney], and everything else in between is suffering,” the top exec said. “The handoff kind of went from Endgame to Aladdin, and is probably going to go from Aladdin to Toy Story 4, and from Toy Story 4 to The Lion King.”
Part of the issue is simply that Disney’s franchise movies are, on balance, just better — the average Rotten Tomatoes score for the company’s releases in 2019 are a full 15 points higher than the next-better studio.
“For the most part, with very rare exceptions, [Disney’s] movies are quite good,” said the filmmaker with experience making movies for Disney and Fox. “It doesn’t feel like they’re just being manufactured, and it’s a crappy product.”
Audiences simply expect a Marvel Studios or Pixar movie to be superlative experiences worth the time and money to leave their homes and go to the theater, leaving other studios and filmmakers contemplating just how to build franchises that can compete with Disney’s blue-ribbon brand recognition.
“If you are an A+ [franchise], you’re great,” said a producer who has made both blockbuster and Oscar-nominated films. “If you’re an A, you’re pretty solid. If you’re an A– and a B+, all of a sudden, you’re starting to get a little dodgy. You know, Godzilla — is that an A franchise? Is that a B franchise? It’s clearly not impervious.”
The trick, the producer added, is to not try to “out-Disney Disney.”
“There’s a huge opportunity that has opened up for a studio,” he said. “It requires a very forward-thinking and confident studio chief to really carve out a place, like: Let’s be the home for filmmakers with original ideas.”
That is so much easier said than done. To mitigate the perceived risk of making enormously expensive movies on a blockbuster scale, Hollywood’s major studios have spent the last 20 years abandoning original ideas in favor of a franchise economy governed by established — and seemingly market tested — intellectual property. Since 2000, only one original movie has topped the box office for the year: Avatar.
“To get a studio to commit to $100 million-plus budget with no preexisting fanbase, or any sense of marketing wherewithal … unless like you’ve got James Cameron attached to either direct or produce a piece of original [intellectual property], you’re not gonna be able to sell it,” the filmmaker said.
The situation isn’t quite that dire — Christopher Nolan’s last two films, Dunkirk and Interstellar, were both original, reportedly cost over $100 million, and grossed several orders of magnitude more than their budgets globally. But while lamenting the fate of the original film, the filmmaker also stumbled into what may be the best way forward for Hollywood to withstand the Disney machine.
“Work will be largely dominated by franchise-able sequels, preexisting IP, you know, ‘Let’s do The Matrix again,’ ‘Let’s reboot Speed.’ I’m just, for some reason, only mentioning Keanu Reeves movies,” the filmmaker said with a chuckle. “But while we’re on the subject of Keanu Reeves, who would’ve known that John Wick would be a successful franchise? And certainly, who would have known that Fast and Furious would be a massive, multibillion-dollar franchise? My son is 12. He’s more excited to go see Hobbs & Shaw than he is any other franchise film this summer. And I’m like, ‘Really? OK!’”
That’s the thing about branding: It can cut both ways. If everyone knows what a Disney company movie is, they also know what it isn’t, and can’t ever be.
“It is not a big surprise that the two breakout successes of this year that weren’t Disney have been John Wick 3 and Us,” said the top executive. “Those are two movies that Disney can’t do.” Some other recent examples: Last year, Warner Bros. debuted two cultural landmarks in A Star Is Born and Crazy Rich Asians, and Paramount launched a new horror franchise with A Quiet Place; in 2017, Universal had the R-rated surprise sensations Get Out and Girls Trip; in 2016, Lionsgate had the bittersweet original musical La La Land and Sony Pictures had the raunchy adult animated comedy Sausage Party.
“There will be room for water between the rocks, especially as we move forward, that we can all find our way through,” the top executive said. “Disney is almost consistently making all audience movies, which leaves the rest of us to make movies for an audience that can sometimes cross over into being big events.”
One studio that had been arguably better at that than anyone else was 20th Century Fox.
What will 20th Century Fox look like?
When news first broke that Disney was aiming to buy up much of 20th Century Fox, it sent shockwaves through the industry — and then sadness.
“The glass half empty reaction was that’s one less studio to do business with,” the filmmaker said. “The world has gotten just a little bit smaller. The other part of it was a sense of resignation. This is the way the business has been trending for a while, and it’s a waste of time to be depressed about it.”
There were, of course, the jobs that were lost in the purchase — analysts projected as many as 4,000 layoffs since Disney took control of Fox in March. There was also the sense that Hollywood’s relentless franchise economy had cut down one of the fundamental ways the movie industry had become the leading form of entertainment in the world.
“They were actually doing what studios traditionally did [at Fox], which are big, movie star–driven movies with some deal of scope, but fundamentally are not experiences that audiences know that they wanted until they see that trailer for the first time,” the producer said.
In just the last five years, those kinds of films have included Bohemian Rhapsody, Widows, Murder on the Orient Express, The Greatest Showman, The Martian, Spy, and Gone Girl. Fox could just keep doing that for Disney, but, at the moment, the studio’s future remains frustratingly uncertain.
This fall, Fox will debut a few adult-driven dramas — the bestseller adaptation The Woman in the Window and the period docudrama Ford v. Ferrari — during the traditional “awards season” months of October and November. But one of Fox’s biggest movies of the year, the prestige sci-fi thriller Ad Astra with Brad Pitt, was pushed by Disney from a May debut to September, one of the hardest months of the year for an expensive, adult-skewing movie to gain a wide audience.
“[It] is a very strange place for [Ad Astra] to go,” said the top exec of the film’s release date. “I think they don’t have another place in their calendar to put it.”
Indeed, one of the most striking things about Disney’s mega-release calendar is how poorly situated many of Fox’s films are relative to the ones produced by Disney’s other divisions. The animated feature Spies in Disguise was pushed to Christmas Day, five days after the debut of the box office steamroller that will be Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The sci-fi thriller Underwater with Kristen Stewart was banished to the hinterlands in January 2020, and the animated feature Ron’s Gone Wrong will open on the same day in November 2020 as an untitled Marvel Studios feature.
The only Fox franchise that has prime release dates is the pre-Christmas debuts for four planned sequels to Avatar — which just happens to have its own theme park section in Disney World.
“There’s a Disney kind of arrogance and attitude that if it’s not ours, it’s not worth it,” said the former Fox executive. “You can feel that. I know from Fox people, they’ve said the same.”
In a quarterly earnings call in May, Iger said he guessed there will be five or six films a year from Fox, “but we’re not locking ourselves into that” — not exactly a full-throated endorsement of 20th Century Fox’s value, especially considering the studio had 12 wide releases in 2018.
A great deal of that reduction came from Disney’s surprise decision to shut down Fox 2000, the 25-year-old division devoted to the kind of movies that had become increasingly rare in the film industry: dramatic, mass market features that don’t cost a small fortune like event films, but aren’t the kind of rarefied, inexpensive indies released by its sister division Fox Searchlight. Fox 2000 has been responsible for some of the most acclaimed — and successful — films of the last quarter century, like Fight Club, Walk the Line, The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me, Life of Pi, The Fault in Our Stars, Hidden Figures, The Hate U Give, and Love, Simon.
“I could see how on paper, some Wall Street analysts can overlook it,” said the former Fox executive. “But you can’t overlook the fact that that division was run by and mostly staffed by women. The breadth of the movies they made probably weren’t going to be made by other studios. … To make them, like, really viable entertainment to get people into theaters is not easy.”
Many industry observers expected Disney would at the very least use Fox 2000 to make original films for Disney+, to directly compete with the similarly scaled original films currently popular on Netflix like To All the Boys I Loved Before, Bird Box, and Murder Mystery. Instead, Disney+’s initial “original” offerings will be TV series spinoffs of its Star Wars and Marvel Studios franchises.
“The quality of [Fox 2000] movies is so much better than what I’m seeing on the originals that Netflix is producing right now,” the former Fox executive said. “It takes experience and knowledge to do it.”
The exec sighed. “I worry what message it sends creatively, if you’re willing to shut that down.”
What will Disney movies look like?
The most immediate question about Disney’s future will likely be answered later in July at San Diego Comic-Con, when Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige is expected to unveil what the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will look like. (Among the anticipated titles: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, sequels to Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Doctor Strange, a Black Widow movie, and The Eternals with Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani.)
We also know Pixar will release two movies in 2020, neither of them sequels: the fantasy adventure Onward in March and the mysteriously conceptual Soul in June. That same year, the company’s live-action division will debut its new version of Mulan in March, its adaptation of the Disneyland attraction Jungle Cruise — with, who else, Dwayne Johnson — in July, and the 101 Dalmatians prequel Cruella with Emma Stone in December.
And by all appearances, the company plans to keep chugging along that path for years to come. In 2021, Disney has scheduled two untitled animated features (one from Pixar, one from Disney), three untitled Marvel Studios movies, and four untitled live-action features; that pattern will repeat in 2022, with one additional film from Pixar.
That will also be the year that Lucasfilm relaunches the Star Wars franchise after a three-year hiatus — and that’s where the unstoppable Disney juggernaut suddenly begins to look unsteady. In 2018, Solo: A Star Wars Story made plain that audiences do not have a bottomless appetite for Star Wars movies in the same way they do for Marvel Studios releases, so much so that Disney reportedly lost $50 million on the film, and canceled Star Wars spinoff feature films for the foreseeable future.
So expectations for The Rise of Skywalker’s performance are, er, sky high.
“If I’m sitting over at Disney, I know [The Rise of Skywalker] better be great, or else people are going to start to not get excited when they see the Lucasfilm logo pop up at the beginning of the trailer,” the filmmaker said. “Right now, Star Wars is powered by an intense sense of nostalgia for the people who grew up on Star Wars, but, you know, 20 years from now it’ll be entirely relying on what millennials think of Star Wars. And they’re wavering.”
If 20 years seems like an unreasonably long horizon to worry about, consider that Disney reportedly spent $1 billion alone to build out the Star Wars section of Disneyland, the largest single expansion in the park’s history. The company has long relied on its feature film division to be the leading edge of its sprawling entertainment-industrial complex, feeding popular content into its immense merchandising and theme park divisions. But the key word there is popular. If millennial and Gen Z moviegoers stop feeling passionate about Star Wars, why would they spend hundreds of dollars to bring their kids to ride the Millennium Falcon?
Disney, however, has an even more pressing hurdle looming within its feature slate. All expectations point to another extravagant box office bonanza when The Lion King debuts July 19, and in spite of less-than-stellar reviews, Aladdin has surpassed $875 million worldwide. Earlier this year, however, Tim Burton’s live-action version of Dumbo with Colin Farrell and Michael Keaton hasn’t made even half Aladdin’s grosses.
“Is Cruella going to have the same kind of neutron bomb effect as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast?” the top exec at a rival studio said. “I would bet not.”
“They’ve kind of picked all of the low-hanging fruit,” echoed the producer. “Is a Fox and the Hound live-action movie going to be as successful as Lion King? I don’t know.”
To repeat, Disney has scheduled eight live-action films for 2021 and 2022. And the studio’s recent track record with live-action features that don’t draw from Disney’s past has been kind of terrible. (Let us never forget The Lone Ranger, though we may all want to try.)
Just as Disney’s firmly defined brands have allowed the company to hold an enviably steady purchase on the public’s imagination, they have also fixed the company onto an equally firm creative trajectory. And if audiences begin to pull away from what Disney’s offering, it could be punishingly difficult for the company to alter course.
“Especially with those super event movies, you’ve got consumer products and partner brands and promotions that are all lined up, and so you’re fairly locked in a year out or more, and there’s nothing you can do about that,” the top executive said.
It all underlines the truism in Hollywood that you’re only as good as your last movie — and it certainly helps that Disney’s deep resources afford them access to some of the best and most successful storytellers in the industry. Lucasfilm has hired Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to launch a new series of Star Wars movies; Marvel Studios has tapped acclaimed filmmaker Chloé Zhao for The Eternals and enticed Ryan Coogler to return for Black Panther 2. And the studio has also been at the forefront of the push for representation, centering women and people of color in massive franchises across the entire company.
But working within Disney’s lushly appointed cinematic kingdoms also means abiding with some meticulously maintained creative constraints.
“Can you do anything edgy?” the filmmaker said. “Is there a certain level of violence that Fox was able to do but Disney’s going to be like, ‘Nope!’ Now that Fox is gone, does that mean that John McClane, you know, can’t say, ‘Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker’ anymore?”
“If you want to work in the lane that Disney is working in, or you’re fortunate to be connected to the franchise, there’s no better place to do it,” the producer said. “If you want to do something where the Disney brand is going to be an impediment, I don’t know how you can get started.”
To break free of this reputation, everyone who spoke with BuzzFeed News for this story said the same thing: Disney needs to start investing again in original stories as thoughtfully and enthusiastically as it has its branded franchises.
“You want to have the next Star Wars,” the producer said. “You want to have the next thing that is relatively low risk and then can morph into one of these giant franchises.”
The biggest reason for Disney to shake up its astronomically successful movie business is simply because the movie business won’t be the future of entertainment — streaming will. And in the streaming space, Disney+ will be back to being just one of several giants, facing off against Netflix, Apple, Amazon, and WarnerMedia.
“If you want to do edgier stuff, I don’t think the business is constricted, because of television, because Netflix and Amazon and Apple and HBO, they’re all making content,” the filmmaker said. “The fact that there’s a five-part miniseries about Chernobyl that looks like they spent like $80 million … I go, like, wow, that’s cool that that exists. Should we all sit around complaining about how the movie business has contracted, or should we say, ‘Look at all this great content that is out there?’” ●