When I first played Kingdom Hearts, I was still in uni. I wasn’t expecting much. It’s a game where you play a kid with huge shoes, big spiky hair, and unrealistic clothing called Sora. Sora wields a “keyblade”, and goes on adventures with Donald Duck and Goofy through different “Disney/Square Enix worlds” such as the world of Hercules etc. Which you fly to on a gummi ship. I know — it sounds ridiculous to me even as I’m typing it. Despite all odds, though, Kingdom Hearts turned out to be an unexpectedly entertaining game. The combat system was fluid and challenging without being annoyingly difficult, the storyline was extremely earnest (read: for kids) but coherent enough to tie the weird storyline together, and most of all — I kid you not — the gummi ship system was incredibly fun. The ship you build is fully customisable, and gummi ship space was fun to navigate.
That was in 2002.
As the game got bigger and more complex, Disney began to add in more and more of the franchises it owned.
In this year’s game, there was Toy Story and Monster’s Inc, on top of the wildly popular franchises of Frozen and Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m surprised they didn’t add worlds like Coco, Finding Nemo, and Moana. Or Star Wars, or Marvel. Playing through Toy Story beside Woody was a strange feeling, in between “I still can’t believe they own Toy Story” to “Why Toy Story 1 and not some newer Pixar property?” By far the biggest Disney flex in popular media so far, however, is probably that one scene in the second Wreck-it Ralph:
This was meant to be a funny/triumphant moment in the film, but I mostly just found it scary. How much popular culture does Disney now own? What would this mean for entertainment in general in the future? Needless to say, this wariness isn’t exactly a popularly held opinion. When Disney finally ate 20th Century Fox for $71.3 billion, the news was greeted with joy from fans — despite the mass job losses that ensued and the inherent problems in creating a monopoly this big. X-men was now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Magneto could meet Captain America! Nevermind the implications of Disney now owning the lion (king)’s share of pop culture. Star Wars, Pixar, X-Men, MCU, hell, even the Simpsons. The Mouse just needs to buy DCEU and Harry Potter to consolidate its dominance.
And it will. Maybe someday it will.
I Will Show You The World
This year, the Lion King’s live-action remake became the highest-grossing animation of all time, along with being the ninth highest-grossing film of all time. It was pretty much the same as the original, except with Beyoncé and some slight changes to the cast. Despite the uncanny valley part at the beginning, I actually rather enjoyed it. Just like how I enjoyed the mediocre Avengers: Endgame film, or the very average Aladdin live-action, or the kinda eh Spiderman: Far from Home. That’s the thing about empire. Sooner or later you get used to it. Isn’t it better to have some content than no content?
The problem is in the type of content that gets produced, now that Disney is the Master of the Universe. Via the Guardian:
It’s an almost cartoon-like demonstration of alpha-capitalism: diversity and differentness mushed together into a great big monopolistic blob. With each acquisition, the stakes get higher, as do the profit-opportunities – and, I predict, the numbers of ass-covering executives who will feel less and less inclined to take risky chances on new and different types of film from new and different types of film-maker.
It also has an impact in the way films are now experienced. Via the Atlantic:
The merger essentially confirms that a new age of entertainment has dawned in Hollywood, one where simply releasing blockbusters in theaters isn’t enough to give a company a healthy profit margin. As my colleague Derek Thompson wrote in 2017, Disney’s acquisition of Fox is its first shot in the ongoing streaming wars—a sign that the company is building an arsenal to take on Netflix and any other tech giant that’s muscling into the entertainment business. Disney is getting ready to launch its own subscription streaming service, Disney+, and the Fox assets will pad out that library nicely.
Disney and Netflix offer the two clearest visions of Hollywood’s future. The former is a media company that’s as old-fashioned as they come, trying to make movies that will pull audiences en masse to the theater. The latter is a tech company that’s largely uninterested in the theater business but has won subscriber loyalty by offering a wealth of viewing options. As the cinema business continues to evolve, perhaps only the biggest films will survive as in-theater experiences, with streaming becoming an equally profitable venue. By adding Fox, Disney has gained ground in that second sphere, but other studios could get left behind in the race.
It’s not so bad yet. At MIFF this year there was a host of diverse, interesting, small-budget films that were screened to mostly booked/packed film theatres. Festivals like Cannes and Tribeca still celebrate creative filmmaking. But it’s often hard for people to see small films unless they’ve caught them at a festival. Not even the number of hipster cinemas in Melbourne screen everything, only the most acclaimed indie films. Films that won the Palme d’Or and such still do get screened at mainstream cinemas, but for everything else, you can either catch the film at MIFF or wait for it to come out on Netflix.
It’s only going to get worse. R-rated films, for example, don’t fit into the Disney brand. And it’s already having trouble spacing out its content, as now it’s just competing with itself:
Disney is already having trouble spacing out their plethora of films and franchises across the calendar in a manner that will give each of them a fair shot at financial success; Dumbo will release in late March despite being completed in time for a late 2018 spot – it was only pushed back to avoid clashing with Nutcracker & The Four Realms and Mary Poppins Returns. And, generally speaking, Disney doesn’t release all that many movies. In 2019, they’ll only have around nine titles in theaters with major releases (not including Fox properties soon to fall under their umbrella). Compare that to Universal Pictures, who will have 15 titles come out this year, while 20th Century Fox has 13 titles scheduled for release in 2019, including the repeatedly-delayed X-Men: Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants. With that studio about to be consumed by Disney, the release schedule as we know it will be completely revamped. And that probably won’t be a good thing.
If Disney only has to compete with themselves for box office supremacy, then they have far less incentive to produce more or varied content. The Disney model of content is already one with surprising limitations. After all, this is the studio that has built a decades-long sustainable brand without releasing R-rated movies. These historically came under a different studio name like Touchstone, and so it’s unlikely they will entirely kill such Fox films post-merger, but they perhaps won’t be a priority, particularly if they’re bigger budget efforts such as the Alien movies. James Mangold, director of Logan, was one of many to express concern that the merger would limit such storytelling opportunities since they don’t fit with Disney’s brand.
With a huge share of the market, Disney can now enforce its already unprecedented demands on cinemas:
One way the schedule will be completely changed is in how it will affect movie theaters. Unlike most studios, Disney demands a far larger cut of ticket sales for their films and are also the strictest in terms of the conditions they impose on theaters, both independent and multiplex. For example, Disney demanded a massive 65% cut of domestic ticket sales from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Typically, studios ask for between 50 – 60%.
Other than new films, Disney has also started block Fox’s backlog of films from second run theatres:
Not a surprise, but Disney's blocking of Fox's backlog of films from second-run/indie theatrical showings has begun. No more Aliens, Die Hard, Planet of the Apes, Butch Cassidy, Big Trouble in Little China, etc. at your local revival house. https://t.co/dt2RQr8i8x
— Bill Mudron (@mudron) August 27, 2019
Looks like the future’s in streaming, a handful of indies, or blockbuster fare — watched in huge cinema chains. Fun.
The Empire Strikes Back
When the Copyright Act was enacted in the USA in 1790, copyright duration was only 14 years, renewable for another term of 14 years if the author was still alive at the end of the first term. The law changed gradually over time, allowing for longer and longer terms, but it was only when copyright on the Mickey Mouse character was set to expire in 1984 that Disney started seriously lobbying in the 70s to have the Copyright Act changed. As such, when I was studying copyright law, we used to not-so-jokingly call it the Mickey Mouse Law — because it worked. According to the Art Law Journal:
In 1976, Congress authorized a major overhaul of the copyright system assuring Disney extended protection. Instead of the maximum of 56 years with extensions, individual authors were granted protection for their life plus an additional 50 years, (which was the norm in Europe). For works authored by corporations, the 1976 legislation also granted a retroactive extension for works published before the new system took effect. The maximum term for already-published works was lengthened from 56 years to 75 years pushing Mickey protection out to 2003. Anything published in 1922 or before was in the public domain. Anything after that may still be under copyright.
With only 5 years left on Mickey Mouse’s copyright term, Congress again changed the duration with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. This legislation lengthens copyrights for works created on or after January 1, 1978, to “life of the author plus 70 years,” and extends copyrights for corporate works to 95 years from the year of first publication, or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever expires first. That pushed Mickey’s copyright protection out to 2023.
Not everybody has been happy about these changes due to our inability to use old work to create new artistic works. One author noted that we are “the first generation to deny our own culture to ourselves” since “no work created during your lifetime will, without conscious action by its creator, become available for you to build upon.”
The Empire has until 2023 to figure out how to change the law again — but even if it doesn’t, the copyright that expires is on the original black and white, gloveless iteration of Mickey Mouse as seen in Steamboat Willie. The modern version with the gloves and the red pants expires in 2025 — and Disney will probably still contest the matter with litigation. Disney’s aggressive use of litigation to protect its copyright and its repeated tendency to change American copyright law to suit its own purposes has a damning effect on popular culture and creativity. As the biggest juggernaut remaining in entertainment, its clout has only gotten bigger.
I still look forward to Disney/Pixar/LucasArts/MCU films. I watch many of them on premiere days. I buy the merch, play the games. Yet the more ascendant the company gets, the more depressing the outlook for film and popular culture in general. Massive monopolies like this will only get bigger, more hungry, play safer: we can only hope that something will change. All hail the Mouse.