Disney Versus Indies: A Perspective Check
Disney has owned Fox since March of this year. Every major publication that covers business or film has already written about it. But after the summer blockbuster season this year, I felt a renewed unease seeing Disney films topping the billion dollar mark at the box office. Is this the end of the indie? Will we be force-fed Marvel movies and live-action remakes until we keel over in our seats?
As someone new to LA and trying to break into the industry, this fear feels very personal. Will the types of movies I want to make get rejected in favor of box office fodder? Will all of Hollywood eventually be painted by the same Disney brush? I’m not a diehard Marvel fan and I have no interest in the string of remakes Disney has planned, but my feelings have less to do with what I personally think of the movies themselves and more to do with how capitalism impacts art.
But let’s start with the facts.
For a quick recap, Disney purchased Fox for $71.3 billion. That purchase included Fox’s 30% stake in Hulu, adding to Disney’s already owned 30%, 20th Century Fox, and Fox Searchlight. Fox Searchlight is the studio behind films such as The Shape of Water and The Favourite, critical darlings with unconventional stories. It is unclear as to what Disney plans to do with Searchlight, but it’s likely their new relationship with Hulu will play a factor in distribution.
Following the merger, Disney’s debt/equity ratio skyrocketed. Their equity nearly doubled, jumping from $54.9 billion at the end of 2018 to $104.34 billion after the merger. Their market share in the box office is at a historic 35%. According to Variety Insight, the top 5 highest grossing films of the year (so far) are all Disney properties. Plus, Disney is already making moves in regard to their stake in Hulu with their recent announcement: Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu will be sold as a bundle for $12/month.
Now that we know where we are, let’s look back at where we came from. The last Disney boom was in the 90s, now called the “Disney Renaissance”. This was the era of films such as Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast. However, Disney was in a rut in the 70s and 80s, ending only with the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989. Throughout this time, iconic indie films continued to be released, such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Before Sunrise, and Pulp Fiction, among countless others. Disney and indies coexisted. Obviously we live in a very different world now, with the ever-changing world of streaming and the Disney/Fox merger, and with these radical changes to the industry, some fear for the indie.
This has been a heated debate with people taking one of two sides. One side of the argument is the hardcore Marvel/Disney fans, who see these films as harmless, often repeating the adage “let people enjoy things”. On the other side are cinephiles who proclaim that Disney’s reign of remakes and superhero flicks are the death knell of cinema as a whole.
Let’s address the first party. Marvel movies are polished, fun, and appeal to a wide audience. Saying “this is popular and therefore it is bad” is pretty childish. However, criticism of Disney’s releases is valid, as it is a symptom of a much larger problem; namely, media consolidation. Even for fans who cheered when they saw the Marvel release lineup at SDCC this year, it’s important to acknowledge that this glut is impacting the industry.
However, this doesn’t mean the death of the indie. It’s important to remember that we are in an industry that can change overnight. These changes come and go in waves. We’re at the precipice of the next phase of streaming, for example: when streaming becomes cable 2.0, where do we go from there? When Disney’s dynasty fades, what will happen next? Plus, as previously mentioned, indie films have always been successful, if not commercially then critically, no matter the industry trends of the decade.
Even though I have problems with Marvel movies in general, I think it’s unfair to debate artistic merit in this context. Some people express their frustration at Disney by attacking the quality of the films, but I would prefer to stay away from that. This isn’t about the artistic value of Disney’s recent releases versus the quality of indies that are getting snubbed. I think instead it’s more productive to view this problem from an industry perspective rather than an artistic one, due to the subjective nature of deeming something worthy or not.
The bottom line is, even if you don’t like Marvel movies or Disney remakes, you can’t deny their popularity. Of course, popularity doesn’t equate to quality, but it does mean that they are big moneymakers, which only strengthens Disney’s grip on the box office. In my opinion, we shouldn’t be squabbling over “superhero movies bad, indie films good”. Rather, what we should be concerned about is how capitalism affects film as a whole.
We already know this is bad. Media consolidation is the death of original stories. So what can we do about this? Well, the best place to start is with your wallet. If you have to see every Marvel movie or Disney remake that comes out, take the time to seek out a new release from a smaller studio. Tech companies could shake things up as well. The film industry is cyclical. Indies aren’t going anywhere. This is not the first Disney boom, and time will tell how the changing world of streaming affects them.
But if you want real change: make something. Nowadays, everyone has a camera in their pocket. You don’t have to be gunning for the Palme d’Or or anything. The act of creating an original story is radical enough. If you aren’t a filmmaker but still a cinephile, I would encourage you to engage with film in a new way. Seek out your local video rental store. Watch a foreign film. Check out a director you’ve never heard of. Watch bad movies, good movies, honest movies, bizarre movies. Find something that challenges you. Film is so much more than who’s at the top of the box office. You have over a hundred years of movies to explore. Take a deep breath. Dive.