Disney isn’t just the first studio to have five pictures cross a billion dollars at the box office in a single year and it isn’t just the biggest film studio right now. It’s the biggest film studio in the history of Hollywood. While investors are likely very pleased with this fact, the company’s series of monster mergers has set off a chain effect with other studios doing their own monster mergers in an effort to keep up.
For fans of the properties owned by these enormous corporations, it can be exciting (the X-Men versus the Avengers! All of Star Trek under one roof!), but it should probably also leave you deeply concerned too. The entertainment business is contracting heavily as the biggest studios scramble to create streaming empires to rival Netflix and Amazon. While those two companies aren’t the result of giant corporate mergers, they’re huge rivals in the industry nonetheless, sparking the desire for rivals to form these megacorporations in the first place – and when entertainment gets consolidated a lot of really cool stories and a lot of absolutely vital voices get squashed in the process.
AT&T bought Warner Brothers and now has at least four streaming services in the US (AT&T, DirecTV, DC Universe, HBO Go) with more, like HBO Max, planned. Disney acquired Fox and is launching a massive bundle featuring Hulu, ESPN+, and Disney+ that’s priced identically to Netflix’s standard monthly streaming service. Just this week CBS and Viacom announced they would be reuniting, which means the film and TV versions of Star Trek are finally under one roof again, but also means the company could pull Viacom staples like MTV and Comedy Central from rival streaming services (like the Disney-owned Hulu) to run exclusively on CBS All Access or some future service.
The idea of cord-cutting was it would save you money, but as each major studio preps its own version of Netflix it’s becoming clear that cord-cutting is just a revisit of the classic channel bundling from your cable provider – complete with these titans teaming up with broadcasters to crack down on sharing those services to try and ameliorate costs. Only it’s also a very easy way for enormous entertainment groups to study what you watch, and how you watch it.
Netflix boasts big numbers for its original content, but rarely shares hard data.
Netflix has the way we binge TV down to a science and it uses that information to create new content; what gets a greenlight, how many seasons it lasts, and even the length of the season itself are all informed by the data Netflix has gathered on viewers. Data it also declines to release – we still don’t know how many people watched Stranger Things season three, but we do know Netflix and Nielsen have a 14.3 million gap in audience estimates.
AT&T, Disney, and CBS haven’t been as explicit in noting their desire for our viewing habits, but it’s absolutely one reason they’re pushing into the streaming space and trying to gobble up as much of the pie as they can. “Basically, sign up as many subscribers as possible and get them into the service, and give them a chance to enjoy the great intellectual property and product that will be part of that service,” Disney CEO Bob Iger told a group of analysts and reporters last week, per a CNBC report.
These streaming services can effectively be enormous marketing surveys that you and I pay the privilege of being a part of. If they follow Netflix’s course that means they’ll do their business by what the data tells them. The people who can afford and choose to subscribe first will help dictate what comes next. If that audience veers toward a certain demographic than that is where the services could drift too – leaving all the weird little shows and characters you like twisting in the wind.
Recent reports alleged that Disney executives bristled at the thought of what Taika Waititi’s Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit could do for the company’s image among fans.
But it’s not just about these companies mining us for data to better craft content to stream in front of our eyeballs. A big problem with mega-mergers is “the good stuff” – meaning the unique, the different – gets axed. Shortly after Warner Bros. and AT&T merged, cult-fave FilmStruck was struck from the internet. DC Universe has also apparently been eyed by the executioner. Swamp Thing was killed before its second episode even aired.
Disney, which recently finalised its own merger with Fox, has been similarly swift with the cancellation ax. Earlier this week Variety had a big story on how the former bosses of Fox were feeling pressure to match new owner Disney’s success. There were vague mentions of displeasure with the long-troubled New Mutants flick and a lot of talk on how badly Dark Phoenix’s failures hurt Fox’s bottom line, but toward the end of the story, Variety rattled off some of the most concerning news.
Gone are original films such as a slate of titles from British animator Locksmith. The company’s completed movie “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” about a fleet of robots designed to be every child’s best friend, will be released by Disney in November 2020 – but three slated projects, including a film about misbehaving fairies (pitched as naughty Tinkerbells) have been given back to their creators. A live-action version of the female-centered comic “Lumberjanes,” from animator Noelle Stevenson, has also been canceled
Disney cancelled a live-action version of the super queer Lumberjanes comic written by She-Ra and the Princesses of Power creator Noelle Stevenson, as well as a series of animated films from the British animation studio Locksmith, notably run by two women (director Sarah Smith and former Aardman exec Julie Lockhart).
According to the report, Disney is also allegedly worried about another film from new acquired Fox Searchlight. Jojo Rabbit is a satirical farce about a young German child and his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler confronting 1940s German nationalism after he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish child in their attic. The film, from Thor: Love and Thunder director Taika Waititi, reportedly tested the patience of at least one Disney exec. “Halfway through one recent viewing one executive grew audibly uncomfortable, worrying aloud that the material would alienate Disney fans,” Variety reported.
Giant superhero battles with thousands of digitised participants? That’s Disney’s brand these days.
Disney, as you already know, has an image to maintain. It might have worked with Harvey Weinstein for decades after acquiring Miramax, producing some of the most audacious and savage Oscar-bait available, but that business rested under the Miramax umbrella. It was distanced from the main brand. Now most things, from Marvel to Star Wars to the Simpsons, are under the roof of the Big Mouse House. A dopey but friendly imaginary Hitler is not on brand.
Which normally isn’t a problem, right? So Disney just wants to churn out Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Star Wars movies, and occasionally throw a bone to people who aren’t white men with fare like Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Black Panther, or Captain Marvel. It’s content to tarnish the Golden Age image of its legendary animation department with weird and ugly live adaptations and reliance on studios like Pixar to pick up the critically acclaimed film slack. That is Disney’s business!
Only Disney has crafted a monster cultural hegemony, acquiring so many of our most popular modern myths and fables corporate-controlled umbrella. It has nearly 40 per cent of the U.S. box office right now, according to Box Office Mojo. When I spoke with Karina Longworth, a Hollywood historian, about Disney+, she noted that she couldn’t think of a single studio in the Golden Age that was as large. Warner is ranked third with 12.5 per cent of the domestic box office thus far in 2019, and Paramount, part of the new CBS/Viacom merger, is ranked sixth with five percent of the box office. Putting it another way, Paramount’s total gross in 2019 thus far is equal to the total grosses from studios 11 through 20 combined.
To understand the very big potential problem with studios being bigger than they’ve ever been, and driven by data more than they’ve ever been (while also controlling more of distribution than they ever have), we need to look back to the ‘30s. At the time, the studios were king in Hollywood. MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and RKO Pictures were known as “the Big Five” and they had the bulk of the audiences in the U.S.
The cover page to a paper copy of the Motion Picture Production Code, circa 1930-1955. Image: Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)
These studios not only determined which movies were made, but they had exclusive contracts with most of the actors – MGM effectively owned nearly 40 percent of the big star contracts, according to Longworth. Through vertical integration it also owned many of the cinemas, making sure that only its own films were being screened. The studio essentially owned the entire production chain. That’s not a bad thing from a business perspective, but these studios were also facing pressure from conservative and religious groups who felt Hollywood was getting too salacious with its entertainment.
The Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, was created in 1930, and designed to limit what could and should be shown on film. In 1934, the very conservative and deeply religious Joseph Breen was appointed head of the Production Code Administration – the MPAA’s precursor. The studios empowered Breen to actually enforce the code, which he did with extreme prejudice. If a woman was villainous at any point in a film she had to die as punishment for her sins. Miscegenation and homosexuality were strictly forbidden. Clothing was monitored with actresses’ nipples under review for being too visible.
Some directors, like screwball comedy master Preston Sturges, found clever ways to get around Breen, but the majority of filmmakers and studios allowed him to heavily censor their work, ostensibly making it more family-friendly and less morally complex. In practice, his work shoved anyone who wasn’t a handsome straight white man into the shadows. Women’s roles diminished with popular pre-Code actresses like Kay Francis, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, seeing job offers dry up. Anyone on the queer spectrum was firmly shoved back into the closet. People of color, who were already losing roles to white people in face paint, found that they couldn’t even be the lead in a film – especially a romance – unless the entire cast shared their skin tone.
American film censor Joseph Breen, actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and director Alberto Cavalcanti discuss the script for a film version of the Charles Dickens novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby at Ealing Studios, London, July 1946. The film was ultimately made with an altered ending for the American market, since the Hays Code required that a character to be shown as insane if they are to commit suicide. Photo: George Konig/Stringer (Getty Images)
And there weren’t really any independent studios or filmmakers to challenge Breen’s authority because the studios themselves all obliged him and controlled the cinemas where films were distributed. It was a bland, white, saccharine cinematic landscape for the most part.
In the ‘40s, the U.S. government began mulling anti-trust lawsuits to break up the studios, so most divested of their cinemas so they could keep making big money on big movies. The break up of this studio system immediately led to a rise in independent film. “There was, for all intents and purposes, no such thing as independent film that got any kind of distribution until the 1950s,” Karina Longworth told me.
Things improved even further when Breen finally retired in 1954. And over the last 60 years a combination of independent studios, new modes of distribution, and a wider range of voices making films have dramatically reduced the impact of the PCA’s successor, the MPAA (though the MPAA still engages in gross censorship – with many examples cited in the Independent Film Channel’s documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated).
Disney CEO Bob Iger and George Lucas – the man who gave Disney what is now one of its most important moneymakers – sitting in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run ride at the heart of Disneyland’s Star Wars-themed park, Galaxy’s Edge. Photo: Handout (Getty Images)
Now imagine what’s happening right this moment. The House of Mouse may already be self-censoring because it has a brand image to uphold. That self-censorship will now be applied to nearly 40 percent all the movies you watch, and between ABC and Hulu and Disney+ it will own a hell of a lot of the TV you consume too. AT&T is cutting costs and killing favourites to try and build a popular and inoffensive rival to the other big streamers (and Disney’s looming giant). CBS and Viacom have only just begun their own plans for streaming domination, but already people are noting, and/or hoping, for reboots and continuations of their favourites.
And it could happen. Really electric entertainment can still be popular, but as these big companies wage their streaming war the simplest and least offensive stuff will rise to the top. Studios like Disney will continue to create what they know they can already sell, i.e., the things that have already sold – Marvel, Star Wars, and remakes, sequels, and reboots. Only there may not be a whole wave of eager producers and studios to manufacture a streaming Golden Age the way HBO ushered in the television one. Bidding wars over Friends, The Office, and The Big Bang Theory have already dominated the headlines. (If you’re not being reminded of the ‘90s, when the broadcast networks put the blandest content on the airwaves to compete for dominance, than you likely will be soon.) The race to the bottom of the interesting story barrel could very well be swift.
And the characters you love will be casualties.