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How Disney Is Primed To Homogenize The Motion Picture Marketplace


Disney’s much anticipated remake of the “The Lion King” finally premiered this month. Long assumed to arrive as a hit, it set a record for films opening in the month of July.

This year is expected to be huge for Disney on multiple fronts. The company is assured the box office title, and its buyout of 20th Century Fox is complete. It will be rolling out Disney Plus this fall, which is intended to create direct competition with Netflix in the streaming market. Along with other acquisitions and established divisions, it is expected that Disney will be doubling its revenue within five years. For a company of its size, that is beyond significant.

There has been all manner of speculation about what the Fox takeover would represent. The Disney Plus debut has been deeply analyzed. Its combined libraries of films is significant enough, but there is just as much television content to consider, as Fox produces numerous broadcast shows.

This is expected to severely cut into content availability for Netflix, but there are also questions about the future of Hulu. That service had initially been a joint enterprise of numerous studios, but some have since backed out, and the Disney/Fox partnership gives the company controlling interest. Meanwhile, the consistent dominance of Disney in movie theaters is about to turn almost totalitarian. 

The $800 Million Gorilla

“The Lion King” remake is part of a newer trend with Disney to convert older properties into newer products for theaters. These live-action remakes have become a reliably profitable venture. With its dominance in theaters this weekend, Disney had four titles in the Top 10 box office returns. “Toy Story 4” is only a few weeks old, while another live remake, “Aladdin,” remains a longterm hit. (The fourth is the Fox holdover comedy “Stuber,” in its second week of release.)

This weekend haul is representative of the year thus far for Disney. At only the halfway point, Disney is assured of being the winning studio for the calendar year, marking its fourth consecutive victory. “The Lion King” will go on to become the fifth title for the studio to earn at least $350 million.

Still ahead on the release schedule is the second “Maleficent” title, then the next edition of “Frozen,” and Christmas will see the release of the next “Star Wars” film. So far, Disney has taken in $2.4 billion in gross box office returns, a total that matches the combined totals of the next three studios, and those three behemoths are still arriving.

This market dominance will only continue, as Disney has not only broadened its reach but cemented its formula. In recent years, the company has achieved this top status with fewer titles released than the competition, relying on established properties with assured results.

This is leading to something of a homogenized marketplace. While people have long bemoaned Hollywood’s overreliance on sequels, this summer it became a discernible issue.

By year’s end, Disney is likely to have eight of the top-grossing films of the year—and every one of those will be based upon an established property. Disney is hardly to the only studio to blame, as this is a measurable industry practice now. Among the top-15-grossing films as of this weekend, the number featuring an original storyline was exactly one: Jordan Peele’s “Us” stands as the only title that is not a sequel, reboot, or spinoff of some sort. 

From April 26, when “Avengers: Endgame” was released, to August 2, when “Hobbs and Shaw” is released, the amount of recycled intellectual property in theaters is stark. Looking at films with a major release platform of 2,500 screens, those with reconstituted content counted for more than half of the films. Sixteen of the 30 titles were established properties. In the 14 weeks since “Endgame’s” release, only three went without a remake being released. In June, three consecutive weekends featured multiple sequels arriving at once.

This reliance on familiarity was only made more blatant with the saturation releases. Of the seven widest releases of all-time, six were from this summer, with “Lion King” playing on 4,725 screens. This makes it all the more unlikely for an original product to distinguish itself.

Dispatching The Creative

At the recent San Diego Comic Con, there was a distinct feeling of Hollywood avoidance. While numerous television shows and other media had huge halls booked and popular panels staged, the movie studios were in less frequent attendance. That’s except for Disney/Marvel—studio titan Kevi Fiege was on hand to promote the next iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

April’s release of “Endgame” was the culmination of the third phase in the MCU, and Fiege was laying out the schedule for the company’s Phase Four. Ten titles of various comic characters are to be released over the next two years, with a total of seven coming to market in 2021, between theaters and the Disney Plus service. Market saturation seems to be the key.

But there’s an indication that originality is not so much a priority for the studio. As is frequent with major corporate mergers, there are times divisions and departments get phased out while the lesser company is being absorbed. Sometimes it involves trimming costs to compensate for the merger costs, or simple redundancy, but in either case Elizabeth Gabler found herself out of a job.

Gabler was president of production at the Fox 2000 film division, a specialty label that mostly involved adapting book properties into film scripts. Book-based fare like “The Life of Pi,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Marley and Me” were derived from Fox 2000. Disney concluded that it was not as necessary since the Fox Searchlight division also exists (and specializes in independent films). 

Disney did not see value in maintaining a segment of its acquired studio dedicated to developing original works for the screen. The soon to be released “The Art of Racing in the Rain” (August 9) is one of Gabler’s projects, and the Amy Adams film, “The Woman In The Window,” which has been delayed until 2020, will be the very last Fox 2000 release. Gabler is setting up a new partnership at Sony, since Disney has decided against the value of original work.

Going forward, this should only lead to more homogenization. Many critics are hailing the current age of high-quality television. The fracturing of the TV marketplace has led to fierce competition, and the streaming services have been in a battle with high-quality shows and content. This is more encouraged, as the movie studios insist on relying upon their established and recycled properties—and there is little to encourage Disney to broaden its artistic vision.

This past weekend “Avengers: Endgame” achieved a new historic benchmark. The worldwide total earned to this point is $2,790,000,000, and climbing. That means it passed “Avatar” for the all-time record in global box office earnings. As long as the incentives continue, Disney has little motivation to explore new avenues.