Fairytale rise: Disney climbs to new high of Hollywood dominance

The US box office may be faltering so far this year – nearly 10% down on its record-setting results in 2018 – but one success story stands out: films released by the Walt Disney Studio, through its cinema release arm Buena Vista, have earned more than $2bn (£1.6bn) in 2019, a 35% market share. In effect, more than a third of all cinema tickets bought in North America are for a Disney movie.

This level of dominance is unprecedented. It is nearly nine points ahead of last year, when Disney recorded the previous highest market share, having achieved a similar figure of 26% in 2016. The last time a non-Disney studio “won” the US box office year was in 2015, when Universal managed 22%.

The nature of the five films released by Disney so far this year tell a large part of the story. The two most successful – Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel – are products of Disney’s purchase of Marvel Studios for $4bn in 2009. Two others, Aladdin and Dumbo, are remakes of fondly remembered classics. The fifth, Toy Story 4, is the result of another purchase: the animation studio Pixar was bought by Disney for $7.4bn in 2006. The pipeline for the rest of the year looks strong, too: among the scheduled releases are The Lion King (another remake), Frozen 2 (a sequel to Walt Disney Animation Studios’ biggest hit) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (the result of yet another huge Disney acquisition, Lucasfilm, for which it paid $4bn in 2012).

According to Jeremy Kay, Americas editor for Screen International, this string of purchases has afforded the studio “an unmatched stable of brands that have given them a steady flow of hits”. Disney’s main strategy over the last 15 years has been to pay big money for top-of-the-range franchises and exploit them ruthlessly. “There are always going to be ups and downs, and studios prefer to bet on tried-and-tested properties with huge fanbases,” says Kay. “Disney has more of them than any other studio, and they are sparing no expense in marketing and distributing them globally.”

Disney’s clout has just taken a further giant leap: in March they swallowed one of their biggest rivals, Fox, a fellow member of the elite “big six” Hollywood studios. After a $71bn deal that dwarfed its previous acquisitions, Disney now owns another clutch of giant franchises (Avatar, X-Men, Deadpool) as well as such TV series as The Simpsons. No Fox projects have yet shown up on Disney’s release slate, but the threat of a decreasingly competitive studio system is preoccupying Hollywood. “Disney can take its pick of the Fox properties and develop them,” says Kay. “It’s clearly not great for competitors when one company dominates market share so aggressively, but the other studios have their hits, too – just not as frequently as Disney. It will force the other studios to adapt or die.”

Disney bought out Marvel Studios in 2009.

Acquisitive business model … Disney bought out Marvel Studios in 2009. Photograph: Allstar/Marvel Studios

While mass acquisitions may appear to be its new way of business, Disney’s franchise hunger has its roots in the company’s original ethos. Considered a relatively small, independent operator for much of its early existence as a producer of family-oriented animation, Disney was not considered to possess “major” studio status until the mid-80s, after Michael Eisner became CEO. Founder Walt Disney had embraced spinoffs and ancillary marketing much earlier, encapsulated in his famous hand-drawn “synergy map” of 1957, which illustrated his films’ place at the heart of cross-media product lines. Via a network of theme parks, TV channels and merchandising, Disney instinctively understood, perhaps even pioneered, what we now think of as the “movie universe”. In the early 80s, theme parks accounted for 70% of the Disney’s income; in 2018, the company reported that non-studio activities made up over 83% of its $59.4bn total revenue.

The current swath of live-action remakes also harks back to an early Disney strategy, its “vault” programme, where it would briefly re-release its most popular classic films every few years to attract a new generation of children as the previous one grew out of them. Having scored a massive commercial hit with the Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland in 2010, Disney embarked on a string of similar “reimaginings”: Maleficent (a Sleeping Beauty reboot), Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book. By this time next year we will have had The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp and Mulan – the latter, in particular, aimed at the increasingly lucrative Chinese box office.

But Disney’s rivals aren’t simply the other Hollywood studios: its main opposition is the streaming giant Netflix, which it is taking aim at with its own streaming service, Disney+. By producing large numbers of films and earning income through subscriptions rather than tickets, Netflix has launched a successful assault on standard film-industry practice and put Hollywood on the back foot. But the studios, led by Disney, are now responding by setting up their own rival services and keeping their products for themselves.

“Netflix has that first-mover advantage,” says Kay, “and it will be hard for anyone to overtake its huge subscriber base of around 150 million worldwide. But Netflix also has a huge debt load, and needs to make compelling original content or risk losing subscribers to these other platforms. Disney has the great brands and back catalogue to put in its service. It’s an arms race.”

Revamped classic … Beauty and the Beast.

Revamped classic … Beauty and the Beast. Photograph: Allstar/Walt Disney Pictures

What makes a Disney hit?

More than anything else, caped-and-Spandexed crusaders ballast the modern all-ages movie. Kids love them, adults admire them and films about them range from sugar-rush CGI action that flattens entire cities to the kind of encoded social messaging Disney loves. Star Wars now covers pretty much identical turf. It’ll be a long time before Hollywood gets tired of it all.

Over the decades the traditional Disney princess has come in for a lot of flak, and recently the company has taken steps to reconfigure its female characters into kickass, self-reliant heroes. Moana, Elsa, Merida, Elastigirl, even Judy Hopps (from Zootopia) are not people you want to mess with.

Friendship and family
In ditching its submissive female characters, Disney has also moved away from the boy-meets-girl, princess-meets-prince blueprint. Alice bonds with her mum in Through the Looking Glass, Meg searches for her dad in A Wrinkle in Time, Anna and Elsa explore sisterly connections in Frozen.

When all’s said and done, Disney likes to go back to the well it knows best: espousing traditional values while reminding paying parents of their own childhoods. Mary Poppins Returns harked back to prewar London as well as being a virtual replica of Disney’s 1964 hit. The Lion King evokes sonorous tribal pieties as it replays the hits from its 1994 source. The Emma Watson Beauty and the Beast is still the old-fashioned fairytale.

In the age of the effects-heavy franchise we are often told the movie star is dead. But that’s not quite the case: Marvel movies make a lot of famous actors even more famous (and a lot of money). Watson’s presence put Beauty and the Beast into the premier league. You couldn’t do Maleficent without Angelina Jolie. Human actors remain a key part of the package, even if they are not quite the main draw they used to be.


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