Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Disney Domination

Box office watchers this year can talk about the surprise success of "Deadpool" or the worrying stumbles of "Batman v. Superman," but there's really only one story on everyone's minds: Disney's complete domination of the 2016 box office.  "Zootopia," "The Jungle Book," and "Captain America: Civil War" steamrollered over everything in sight, and it looks like "Finding Dory" is on the same trajectory. They've been breaking records left and right, hitting a billion dollars in ticket sales at the domestic box office earlier in the year than any other studio in history.  With potential heavy hitters "Moana," "Doctor Strange," and "Rogue One" still waiting in the wings, it's looking very likely that Disney could have the best box office year on record for any studio ever.

And I am deeply, deeply conflicted as to whether I should be rooting for this to happen or not.  Disney historically hasn't been at the top of the box office for many reasons, the biggest being that they don't release as many movies as the other studios.  In 2015, they released eleven films to Warner Bros.' 26 and Universal's 21.  However, Disney has been devoting more and more of their slate to the massive tentpole event films that can bring in the billion dollar receipts.  They are the biggest and most successful example of the franchise and brand-oriented movie-making strategy that has been so decried by certain film-lovers.  PIXAR, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Disney's own live action and animated productions all fall under the same Buena Vista umbrella.  And all of them have been very successful over the past few years, leading up to this potential perfect storm of 2016 when all these big brands all produce a big hit in the same year.  It's Spielberg's theory of the Hollywood meltdown inverted.

To a certain extent, Disney looks like it has returned to the model of a Golden Age Hollywood film studio, where directors were interchangeable and productions often had on an assembly-line quality. What everyone's worried about is that all the studios will try to mimic Disney's successes by adopting the same strategies, meaning fewer films with bigger budgets and less creative control by the filmmakers.  Lower and mid-budget films are already disappearing at an alarming rate, and there are certain genres that are practically extinct.  At the same time, there's nothing inherently wrong with Disney's approach.  "Zootopia," "The Jungle Book," and "Captain America: Civil War" have all been very well received.  Disney's brands are so strong because they're reliable and consistent, and it took years of careful cultivation to get them to this point.  Sure, there's been a "Thor: the Dark World" or a "Cars 2" occasionally, but it's a given that Disney films don't cut corners or scrimp on the spectacle.  When they do have failures, like "John Carter," or "Tomorrowland," it's not for lack of talent or ambition.

Meanwhile, the efforts of the other studios to copy the Disney models haven't been working too well.  Warner Bros. is going to be in serious trouble if "Suicide Squad" and  "Wonder Woman" tank.  Sony has all but given up on "Spider-man."   I keep thinking about "The Huntsman: Winter's War," which came out in April to awful reviews and was largely ignored by audiences.  Many critics pointed out that it seemed to be cobbled out of pieces of "Frozen" and "Brave."  I think that "Winter's War" has more in common with "Maleficent" - strong female leads, a first-time director with a special effects background, and crummy critical notices - except that Disney was targeting their movie at spectacle-loving children and families, and could capitalize on the reputation of their 1959 animated "Sleeping Beauty."  "Winter's War" was aimed at a much older crowd, which was far quicker to notice all the flaws.  And I wonder, why didn't Universal just make a different fairy tale movie with the same talent and budget instead of trying to awkwardly franchise a minor past hit?  The lack of nerve is just astounding.

I'm starting to wonder if Disney is the only studio that's actually capable of setting up cinematic franchises and universes on the level that they have.  While the other studios have plenty of successful properties, none of them seem to have the resources to invest in the same long-term, big picture plans, despite all the ambitious slates we've seen announced by the likes of DreamWorks and Warner Bros.  I've wondered what it would take to stop the Disney juggernaut at this point, and I think it really would have to be multiple bombs in a row, resulting from systemic failures across the board.  They already do absorb some pretty big failures regularly - "The Good Dinosaur" was PIXAR's first outright bomb - but they have so many other projects to steer attention toward.  The "Pirates" franchise was once a huge earner that's on its last legs today, but Disney's moved on to Marvel and "Star Wars" so no one's worried.  

I think I'm fine with Disney being what it is, as long as they keep making good movies, but less so with its competitors churning out so much ill-considered content in an effort to duplicate them.  Universal is rebooting "The Mummy" again as a potential cornerstone for a new shared horror movie universe?  Warners gave "Aquaman" to James Wan?  And how many "Fantastic Beasts" movies do they want to make? It doesn't help that while this has been a great year for Disney, it's been pretty poor for everyone else.  And while I enjoy most of Disney's output, having only Dsiney's output would be another matter entirely.


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