In an era when the corporation is king and certain U.S. anti-monopoly restrictions appear to be a thing of the past, another massive move consolidating a pair of media giants was approved by the Justice Department some months back. Disney — home of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and their cartoon pals, a slew of beloved animated musical properties, ABC-TV and its affiliates (ESPN, etc.), and a worldwide network of theme parks — acquired Fox’s entertainment assets, specifically 21st Century Fox, for $71.3 billion in March. And this move has the potential to have a profound effect on the pop culture landscape, for better or worse and for many years to come.
Disney had already taken over Pixar Studios and its characters after years of distributing features from the innovative computer animation company. Which explains why you might run into facsimiles of Pixar creations such as Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and Bo-Peep of the Toy Story movies, Merida of Brave, and even the Inside Out avatars of emotion at Disneyland. In 2009, Disney also snapped up the Marvel Cinematic Universe a.k.a. the MCU with its multibillion dollar stable of superheroes, and a few years later, bought the rights to Lucasfilm’s Star Wars in all its various platforms and iterations. That would seem like more than enough intellectual property and brand power for the company that was built by animation pioneer Walt Disney in the 1930s and ’40s and became the veritable empire bearing his name. But then came the Fox deal.
Ownership of Fox gives Disney purview over even more crucial digital age iconography. Consider that Fox has had contractual dominion over a few of Marvel’s most valuable superhero properties: X-Men and Deadpool, both proven moneymakers, and the venerable first family of comics, the Fantastic Four. They can now be folded into the even more successful MCU. That’s just for starters. Disney now oversees the Avatar, Alien, Predator, Planet of the Apes, and Die Hard film franchises. Hard to think there won’t be more of those heading to theaters, especially since filmmaker James Cameron already has three Avatar sequels in production. Throw in reboots of sequel-ready Fox-fostered movies Night at the Museum, Home Alone, and Cheaper by the Dozen that Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, has already suggested will be on Disney’s slate, and it seems like there’s little or no need to develop anything truly new or original beyond what’s already in hand.
CASING THE CORPORATE CONSOLIDATION
To put this in perspective, the control of American pop culture has been consolidated into fewer and fewer megalithic entities born out of mergers: AT&T/Time-Warner, including some of the most familiar fictional figures in history (Warner Brothers’ cartoon menagerie fronted by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig, and DC Comics’ roster of superheroes led by the so-called Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman); Sony-Columbia, including MGM; NBCUniversal/Comcast; and with the recent reconsolidation of its two briefly separated halves, Viacom-CBS, including Paramount Studios.
With the every-corp-for-itself mentality and the government seeming to give the players free reign, why shouldn’t Disney grab what it can to solidify its market position? Plus, the competition is further exacerbated by the rise of streaming services, starting with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, as Apple’s entry into the field gets in gear and Warner’s DC Universe ramps up. So the imminent launch of the Disney Plus streaming unit, presumably repurposing their movie and video treasury, will benefit from the new Fox additions.
I’ve got to confess: I’m a Disney kid. As a small child, one of the first things I could recognize (aside from my mom and dad) was none other than Walt Disney’s first and most renowned cartoon creation, Mickey Mouse. According to my parents, I would say Mickey’s name in some form whenever I saw his visage on the TV. And, having learned the alphabet, I purportedly taught myself to read at age 3 by sounding out the word balloons in various Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books written and drawn by the legendary Disney artist Carl Barks.
THE WAGES OF WALT’S WORLD
To say that Disney’s imprinting had an effect on me is to say the least. I still read those classic, adventurous, and ever-witty Barks tales in paperback anthologies, their preternatural satire of American mores continuing to carry a sting today, and I have lately reveled in the jaunty, clever animated update of DuckTales — the escapades of self-made multibillionaire Scrooge McDuck and his family — on Disney’s flagship cable channel. Furthermore, I totally enjoy an occasional trip to Disneyland, and I consider the Walt Disney Family Museum, located in San Francisco’s Presidio, one of the greatest museums of any kind in the world. So the caveats I express here are delivered with love.
Homogenization and bowdlerization could be issues with an entity the size of Disney, as well as the meddling of suits and bean counters. Disney’s stewardship of Star Wars has not met with across-the-board acclaim, particularly the crucial new episodes in the nine-movie Skywalker saga which will end this year with the ninth and final installment. Blame has been levied at the filmmakers chosen by Disney execs to oversee the deathless space opera. But the MCU movies, among the most profitable of all time, have been critically acclaimed for wide stylistic range, thrills, complexity, and humor while satisfying diehard fans with a fidelity to their comic book origins, in large part due to Disney giving Marvel’s producers a measure of autonomy. And the current DuckTales is a treat, with the company allowing the production team to fully embrace and enhance the original material. Will the Fox assets be afforded the sort of care and creative freedom given the MCU? Although the answer to that question is yet to be determined, there’s a flip side to the situation. Word has come down that at least one Fox project — an animated adaptation of the fanciful, award-winning comic book series Mouse Guard — has been canceled by Disney, despite some amazing proof-of-concept-and-execution video footage that held great promise. Consider it a consequence or a casualty of the conglomeration.
Where the Internet was once a new frontier that could foster budding, idiosyncratic artists, this new world order of a few gargantuan show-business factories with attendant streaming services may very well turn the little fish of the industry into an endangered species. In a worst-case scenario, the corporations flood us with their tightly regulated idea of consumer-friendly, bottom-line-focused productions and smother the independent and low-budget creators and their work or, at very least, overshadow it. The public will buy what it can see. Let’s hope that what they see from Disney and its competitors offers quality amid the quantity.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABnet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.