Following its recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox, The Walt Disney Company has cemented its place as one of the largest entertainment companies on the planet. From The Simpsons to Star Wars, chances are that in the last few days you’ve watched, read, or listened to something that Disney owns.
This follows a worrying trend of media being concentrated in the hands of just a few companies which, because of their size and power, are able to force changes to laws, dominate the market and control distribution of art. Consolidation of power in business is nothing new, so why focus on Disney? For the simple reason that it’s currently the most culturally dominant media company in the Western Hemisphere, with recent releases like Avengers: Endgame topping charts in numerous countries and becoming the 2nd highest grossing film of all time in the process.
It’s easy to see how Disney’s growth has made it too influential. On January the 1st 2024 the copyright to Steamboat Willie and the first version of Mickey Mouse will expire. This isn’t especially noteworthy because Disney will still retain the trademark to the character and any later versions of the character will still be owned by the company.
What is interesting is that Mickey’s copyright was supposed to run out in 2004 but after heavy lobbying by Disney in the late 90s the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), or “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”was passed by the US congress, extending all copyrighted works made in 1923 or afterwards. This applied not only to Disney, who would be relatively unaffected because even the shape of the characters head is a trademark of the company, but to everything made in 1923 and after. The irony of course being that Disney has a long history of making very successful and hugely influential films based on characters and stories that exist in the public domain, so to keep swathes of art from being interpreted and accessed by a new generation of artists feels hypocritical.
CETA is just the tip of Disney’s lobbying iceberg. A recent LA Times investigation into Disney’s ties with the city of Anaheim, California (where Disneyland is located) detailed how Disney negotiated “subsidies, incentives, rebates and protections from future taxes in Anaheim that, in aggregate, would be worth more than $1 billion” with the city. The company allegedly uses a negotiating strategy that included threatening to pull its investment from the city. The article also details how “various deals benefiting Disney has come from Anaheim City Council members who have received generous campaign contributions through a byzantine network of political action committees funded by the company”.
Whilst Disneyland has brought a large number of jobs, investment and tourism to Anaheim, it is clear from the investigation that the small local government is in a far weaker negotiating position than one of the largest corporations on the planet, a corporation that has since grown following its purchase of Fox.
Worryingly, following the investigation Disney banned LA Times’ critics and entertainment writers who weren’t even involved in the investigation from previews of the company’s films and television shows (although they later rescinded the ban following boycotts from other news outlets and critics associations). Now that Disney is an even larger force with even larger box office draws it’s possible that entertainment critics would be financially unable to risk participation in such a boycott due to the potential lost income in not covering a blockbuster movie.
Disney’s growth and dominance of the box office have also made it far too able to pressure cinemas into accepting terms for the ability to show their films (with punishment for any cinema caught breaking the rules). When Disney set out their rules for showing 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, pushback from cinema associations forced Disney to abandon these demands. However when Disney set out their rules for showing 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, cinema owners were unable to repeat this successful pushback. Both Age of Ultron and The Last Jedi were sequels to the highest grossing films in 2012 and 2015, respectively.
The demands to cinema owners included a cut off time for matinee pricing, keeping the film showing on a cinema’s biggest screen(s) for at least four weeks, and a requirement to charge at least the US national average price for a film ticket in order to keep their share cut of the film’s box office revenue. This means that even larger cinema chains are being forced to accept unprecedented terms if they want to show some of the most anticipated films of the year, disadvantaging smaller films or independent studios (who will be unable to get their films shown on larger screens). We can already see that cinemas, and in particular small cinemas, have decided that they are financially unable to push back against Disney and risk the loss of income from not showing a highly anticipated film.
Whilst Netflix makes moves to be seen as a part of old Hollywood through campaigning hard for Oscar glory, Disney is moving into streaming. Disney now owns a controlling share of Hulu, the US based streaming service that produces The Handmaid’s Tale series, and the company will soon be launching their own streaming service Disney+. It’s expected that the service will launch with 500 films and 7,000 episodes of television including exclusive streaming rights to Marvel Studios films and The Simpsons. The service is also planning to exclusively stream series and films based on Disney owned properties like Star Wars, Marvel, and live action remakes of animated Disney films.
Whilst Disney do not currently have plans to skip theatrical distribution for some of its most popular properties, it’s not unreasonable to see a future where, should the streaming service be successful, Disney decides that it’s easier to skip theatrical distribution altogether. Disney then owns both the distribution method and the product. The last time that studios wielded this much power was before the landmark Supreme Court case ‘The United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.’ which ruled that the ownership of cinema chains by studios constituted anti-competitive and monopolistic trade practices.
As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself but it does often rhyme, and it’s easy to draw parallels with an era of cinema where companies were able to control the production, distribution and platform of their product. Again, this isn’t a unique situation, Amazon and Netflix both have production bodies as well as controlling the exclusive distribution of their films on their own platforms respectively.
So the question now becomes what should the response of the left be to Disney, and media monopolies in general? I think it would be pointless, unpopular and arguably impossible to boycott Disney products. I love the Star Wars films and the Marvel characters. A part of me was even happy to hear Fox had been sold to Disney because now the Hulk can fight Wolverine. I’m not saying you should burn your VHS of Beauty and the Beast, or blame the thousands of people who work at Disney and who are passionate about trying to make art that people love. Whilst Disney is currently culturally hegemonic in cinemas, it is not unique and the left needs to seriously look at proposing the breakup of media conglomerates on anti-trust and monopolistic grounds.
Excitingly, in the US Elizabeth Warren has proposed the break-up of tech companies because they have become too large and too influential. We need to remember how to think about media conglomerates in the same way. The control and distribution of art and entertainment cannot be in the hands of a few who can wield outsized influence and bend the rules so that their company can profit.
We need to be holding companies to account even if they make the things we love.