By the early 1980’s, with mastermind Walt Disney and his successor Roy O. Disney both laid to rest, the Walt Disney Company was sitting on the edge of bankruptcy. Their two major North American theme parks were doing good business–in fact Disney Parks were providing the company with 70% of its revenue in those days–but the bread and butter of the company, it’s film studio, was struggling to produce consistent hits. A string of animation hits from the late 80’s to the late 90’s turned things around, but other than from Pixar (to whom Disney was attached only as a distributor), the company found it difficult to keep the creative and commercial successes going.
Just as the 80’s had been a depressing decade and the 90’s had been great, the 2000’s were a period of hard times for the media giant. Years of criticism finally caught up with CEO Michael Eisner, who–without the shield of hits like Lion King and Little Mermaid–was ousted in 2005 as the head man at the House of Mouse. His replacement, Bob Iger, spent the rest of the 2000’s putting the pieces in place that would see the 2010’s be a bounce-back decade the way the 90’s were for the 80’s.
It started with Pixar. In 2006, the company purchased the seemingly-flawless movie makers and installed John Lasseter (top brain at Pixar and the mind behind Toy Story) as the head of Disney’s entire animation creative department. A year later, in the spring of 2007, the company finished a process that began in 2003 to fold the Muppets into the Disney family. They were given their own creative “wing” to work in (The Muppets Studios), just as Pixar was allowed to retain their valuable name-brand. These entities, now wholly-owned Disney subsidiaries were not exactly afforded autonomy from their parent company, but their identity was allowed to remain in tact.
With each purchase the company made, there was a fear among fans that there would be a “Disneyfication” that would see Kermit tone down his biting acerbic wit, or see Pixar’s movies dumb down their depth and emotional weight. On the contrary, the new Muppets movies (though their critical response was tepid) held firm to the spirit of the original Jim Henson/Frank Oz works of the 70’s and 80’s. Pixar’s movies have likewise retained their unique identity, despite Disney’s other in-house animation studio shifting almost exclusively to Pixar-like 3D animation. The quality of Disney’s animated outputs has increased (thanks in part to Lasseter’s involvement), but there’s no denying that fans can tell the difference between Frozen and Brave. They just FEEL different–even if both are loved–in a very intangible “Disney vs Pixar” way.
As the last decade closed, Disney made their biggest acquisition to date: A four billion dollar purchase of Marvel. Had the deal been made just five years earlier it would have been viewed as a merciful takeover by Disney. Marvel was reeling financially and had been forced to sell key rights to their most lucrative properties. The only franchises they still had total control over were the ones no one wanted anything to do with, or ones the company had managed to re-secure because the properties were thought to be incapable of profit. Using these B-characters as a foundation, Marvel Studios President Kevin Fiege produced Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Captain America and Thor (most of those were released after Disney announced their purchase, but the production and distribution of those movies were grandfathered-in by Paramount).
Each film in Marvel’s arsenal was based on a property assumed to be dead on arrival, but the great success of Iron Man (thanks in part to Jon Favreau’s brilliant directing and Robert Downey Jr.’s inspired casting) bouyed the remaining franchises, with each building up toward the promise of cinema’s first big budget Superhero teamup movie: The Avengers.
Had Disney purchased Marvel in 2005, they might have been able to snag the company for a cool billion. By the end of 2009, the company was worth four times as much. Immediately, Disney reaped the fruits of their venture, as their first distributed Marvel movie, The Avengers, grossed over 1.5 billion at the box office. Factor in the amount of revenue generated from toys, comic book sales, costumes, etc (all of which was now under the Disney umbrella) and Avengers alone likely recouped the money Disney spent in buying the company.
Marvel’s phase two, now totally under Disney’s umbrella, continued to blow up the box office. Though the company had turned a corner in their animation department, those movies (both from Pixar Studios and Disney Animation Studios) took time to produce. The company has basically tried to release one animated film from each division per year (though Pixar did not release a film in 2014, it has two planned for 2015). Marvel, on the other hand, is putting out two to three films per year, and bringing much more revenue than the animated films with each one. It looked like Marvel was going to be Disney’s blockbuster cash-cow going forward, until the company dropped another bombshell in 2012: Lucasfilms.
Now, with Marvel movies set to dominate in May, July and August, Disney Animated and Pixar movies doing big business in June and November, and with Star Wars poised to take over every December from now till the end of time, Disney is poised to dominate the box office each year, every year. It’s hard to believe that this company was struggling to stay relevant just fifteen years ago. Their resurgence has come, not only from buying key money-making properties, but also in allowing those properities the freedom to be themselves. Yes, Disney Land will have appearances by Mickey Mouse waving a lightsaber, and yes you can take a Disney Cruise and see Goofy crash and burn trying to be Iron Man, but when it comes to the core of those properties (the movies, TV shows and the comic books), the creative direction has remained free of “Disneyfication.”
What does the future hold for the most powerful entertainment company on earth? Are there any more worlds to conquer?
With control over ABC studios, Disney has at their disposal one fourth of the biggest block of TV viewers in the United States: Network television. Numerous properties they own lend themselves exceptionally well to primetime, with “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” proving that there’s an interest in expanding the market. On the other hand, there’s always a danger of oversaturating the marketplace (which is one of the criticisms of the comic book movie-dominated world we live in today). Probably one Marvel show on network TV is enough.
Having said that, there is another property that is currently underutilized. As wonderful as the old Muppet movies were, and as hard as the new ones try, the greatest depiction of Jim Henson’s brainchild (in this writer’s opinion) is the old Muppet Show. It aired in an era when variety shows were common place (Johnny Cash had one, Dean Martin had one, Red Skelton had one, etc). The Muppets Show, however, was the only one that felt perfect for all ages. It wasn’t too childish for adults to enjoy and it wasn’t too tongue in cheek that kids were confused. It was a great balance of family entertainment (which is definitely one of Disney’s mantras), and would be right at home on Saturday nights on ABC.
With the purchase of Lucasfilm, the hit cartoon network show Clone Wars was taken off the air and replaced with a Disney XD show, Rebels. The new show works as one piece of the larger Star Wars creative universe that Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy and her team of writers has created, mirroring the work that Kevin Feige did in creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Before the sale to Disney, George Lucas was said to have “a hundred” scripts written for a live action Star Wars TV series, designed to appeal to an older demographic than the kid-friendly Clone Wars show.
Disney is certainly not afraid to let their properties go dark; they’ve done nothing to temper the work Marvel Comics is doing, and their Marvel movies have largely been PG-13 films. Star Wars Rebels is doing well on DisneyXD, but a darker, live action Star Wars show has potential to do great ratings on a weeknight in primetime. Their options on cable are limited (the show wouldn’t be a great fit on any of the “Disney” branded channels) but it could be paired back-to-back with Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD to give ABC a stranglehold on Tuesday nights.
Marvel is already set to debut their first show–DareDevil–on the internet-based service, and others are on the way. If the shows are a hit, and they certainly look promising, the parent company might think about expanding their other properties onto Netflix. Pixar’s track record as a film studio is almost (Cars, Cars 2) spotless. The prospect of a Pixar-produced animated series could be a game-changer.
Netflix has shown a willingness to spend big money in order to secure original programming (their desire is “to become HBO before HBO becomes us”). They spend upfront, and then hope the buzz around their shows (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, etc) is enough to entice new subscribers to check the service out. Netflix offers Pixar an interesting platform that a traditional TV series could not: Pixar could essentially produce a thirteen-hour miniseries, telling one self-contained story, ready to be watched either in its entirety or in increments. ABC can’t offer that, AMC can’t offer that, not even HBO can offer that. If Pixar wanted to tell a story on the small screen, Netflix offers the most creative liberties, and that has to be appealing to the outside-the-box thinkers that created Finding Nemo and Wall-E.
All of the previous possibilities play off of existing franchises in the Disney arsenal. They already own Star Wars, and already have a Star Wars series on the air. Adding another is an obvious next step if they decide to go that route. They already own The Muppets and have used them in one-off specials before. Giving them their own show on network TV would not be a shocking development. Disney already has TV shows in production for Netflix; giving Pixar a 13-episode series wouldn’t be surprising in hindsight.
Nintendo would be huge.
The Japanese-based video game developer and console manufacturer has struggled to stay relevant as of late. The original Wii was a big success, though most of its money was made in its first few years on the market, while the product was still a curious novelty. Nintendo’s attempt to re-catch lightning in the bottle resulted in the WiiU console, which has failed to penetrate the marketplace worse than any other home console Nintendo has produced.
Make no mistake, the company is not in financial trouble, despite the struggles of the WiiU. In fact, Nintendo has such a massive war-chest that the company could post massive losses for the next fifty years and still not face bankruptcy. They have no threat to collapse the way their old rival, Sega, did over a decade ago.
But Marvel Studios was not struggling either when Disney secured them. Pixar was at the zenith of their value when Disney purchased them outright. George Lucas could have sparked an epic bidding war for his properties had he so desired. He chose Disney because he knew the company had the resources and the track record of protecting their intellectual properties. It wasn’t about the money with Lucas; it was about knowing his legacy wouldn’t be tarnished.
With Nintendo, it wouldn’t be about the money. The hold up for them would be control. Nintendo likes to call their own shots, dance to the beat of their own drum, and dare to innovate when everyone else is content with recycling what worked a decade prior. Yes, the company can be resistant to change in other areas (especially with regards to online gaming and storage space on their consoles) but overall they view the video game market as a canvas to create art, not a marketplace to (solely) make money.
Disney’s handling of Marvel and (so far) Star Wars has proven that the company is committed to giving their subsidiaries the freedom to do their own thing. Both companies share a similar creative approach to their businesses: make a product that is entertaining to all. Disney has only a small presence in the (ever expanding) video game market, Nintendo has seemingly lost their ability to stay relevant. Disney can offer exclusive games based on Marvel and Star Wars properties, easy advertisement across Disney networks and the use of their characters and franchises as top attractions in Disney theme parks; all the while Nintendo retains the freedom to make great games. It could be a perfect pairing.
No matter what the future holds, Disney is no longer the company it was when Michael Eisner was forced to step away. It has expanded from an animation and theme park giant, to a multifaceted entertainment empire. Everything: The comics we read, the Halloween costumes we wear, the shows we watch and the blockbusters we pay for, are slowly being covered in the shadow of mouse ears. And there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.
It’s Disney’s world, everybody. Sit back and enjoy it.