We don’t much like giant media conglomerates around here – they make art inaccessible to the poor and abuse the copyright system to steal from the entire human race. But if I could smash just one of the huge corporations that dominate the entertainment industry, it would be Disney, no question. The Walt Disney Company is now the second-largest media conglomerate in the world following its acquisition of Fox, just behind AT&T. It is by far the largest film company in the world, collecting over a third of the global box office this year alone. And it’s a terrible, evil company that can’t be trusted with the power it’s acquired.
The merger’s first victims – after the thousands of people who lost their jobs because of it – were independent cinemas. Disney has a unique policy about who can screen its new and old films. It divides theatres into commercial theatres (which can show new Disney films, but not old ones) and repertory theatres (which can show old Disney films, but not new ones). Most independent theatres don’t fit this binary, of course. Many will screen some new releases so their foot traffic can subsidise smaller films or releases. After the merger, Disney extended this policy to the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, with disastrous implications for independent theatres. Disney is arbitrarily ruling theatres commercial or repertory, often without communicating this fact to their management, so they only learn when an attempted booking goes nowhere. The Fox catalogue contains loads of classic films whose well-attended rereleases are the financial backbone of many independent theatres: Young Frankenstein, Alien, Raising Arizona, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Die Hard. Without them, independent cinemas will struggle to survive. (There is a purported exemption for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for unexplained reasons.)
But it won’t stop there. Disney doesn’t care about the collateral damage of its endless pursuit of profit for its own sake. The people who run it are perfectly willing to lay waste to anyone who delays them even one second on their way to the next billion dollars. Disney will only grow more and more powerful unless it’s broken up by state action.
Until then, here’s some other things Disney will destroy.
Martin Scorsese recently caused a commotion by comparing Marvel movies to theme park rides:
“Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
However fair or unfair you think his comments are, it’s been bizarre to watch people cast this as a battle between popular cinema and the snobby, elitist fancy-pants tastes of…Martin Scorsese. He’s one of the most popular directors of all time, a household name across the world whose films have enjoyed a huge influence on pop culture. You can’t even call him a relic of another era: he made his six highest-grossing films between 2002 and 2013 (total worldwide gross: roughly 1.5 billion dollars). Martin Scorsese is popular cinema. Goodfellas was parodied in one of the core Animaniacs sketches. He played an anthropomorphic pufferfish in Shark Tale. How did the idea of popular cinema become so narrow that Martin Scorsese no longer makes the cut?
It’s hard to say exactly, but this conception of popular cinema is extremely recent. It’s more than just pointing out The Godfather was the highest-grossing film the year it came out, you can see the creep in just the last few years. Sure, action and animated features have been taking up more and more space at the top of box office charts for the bones of thirty years, but Slumdog Millionaire was still a film for everyone in 2008. No one was complaining about the Harry Potter movies getting snubbed at the Oscars like Deadpool or Wonder Woman. Disney wasn’t trying to use its ownership of ABC, who televise the Oscars, to demand a Best Popular Film award as an alternative to Best Picture, even though popular films get nominated for Best Picture every year: from Mad Max: Fury Road (gross: $378m) to La La Land (gross: $446m) to Get Out (gross: $255m).
Disney is most responsible for this narrowing both because it is reducing the number of films made and given wide releases and because its own conception of popular cinema is so narrow. I don’t think a lot of people really understand that Disney buying out Fox will result in fewer movies being released every year, but it will. Disney have announced that once they’ve burned off the last few movies Fox made before the buyout, Fox will release only five or six films per year, less than half of what it previously released. Disney itself already releases just six or seven per year. You might think other movies can just rise up to take the empty spots in the film calendar, but that’s not possible.
There’s a limited amount of capital available in the economy to make films, and Disney’s acquisition of Fox has increased Disney’s share of that capital. Disney now controls more of the means of the production – the resources you need to make movies – but makes fewer films. Imagine a bakery that buys up more and more flour while making the same number of cakes. The flour they’ve bought isn’t available to other bakeries, so their competitors can’t increase production to make up for the reduction in supply. There are just fewer cakes available to buy.
This is the core of what makes Disney such an evil company, even among its peers. It actively limits the scope of what’s possible for popular cinema. Disney releases most of the best-selling movies of any given year, so theatres have to carry its movies, which allows it to take a bigger cut of ticket sales than other studios. It has also at least once in recent years required theatres to show one of its films – The Last Jedi – for a minimum four-week run upfront, effectively blocking other films from those screens for a month even if the film flopped. These money-gouging practices force cinemas to carry Disney movies even longer to make money because they get a larger percentage the later a film runs. Fewer films will be made overall in the future, while more screens are taken up by Disney movies. Whatever room is left over in the market or in theatres for other studios will be increasingly dedicated to their own big tentpole releases – blockbusters and animated features for children – to stay competitive with Disney. The end result is fewer and fewer wide releases of less and less diverse movies. I go to the same small town cinema where my parents saw Blue Velvet on release in the 1980s and my dad saw Sex, Lies and Videotape on release in the 1990s. Just a few months ago, John Wick 3 – one of the highest-grossing films of the year – was too small potatoes to play there.
Even within its own films, Disney promotes such rigid adherence to formula that it all but abolishes creative freedom. The Marvel films that Scorsese criticised are prime examples. One of Disney’s core corporate values is “brand integrity”, which entails, among other things, that its creative output has to “agree” with itself, e.g. nothing in the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge park in Disneyland can contradict the canon of the films or TV shows it’s based on. Strong insistence on canon is a very clear and obvious example with unclear harms, but there are more subtle ones with more pernicious effects. Since Thor, no Marvel movies have been shot on film and all but one (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2) were shot on Arri Alexa cameras (also the camera of “choice” for the live-action remakes of Maleficent, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King). While it’s possibly let up a bit since, for many years, Disney mandated every Marvel movie have the same colour grading, giving them all a washed-out, muted look. They’re also one of the more pernicious abusers of temp music, which is why almost all the Marvel movies have such bland, inoffensive, repetitive scores.
Disney’s directors are constrained on every level from canon to camera choice to colour grading, until they’re mostly just caretakers of an automated production line. Disney announces the release dates of its films years before their directors are even considered for the job and it’s all blockbusters: live-action remakes of animated films, Marvel movies and alternating biennial Star Wars and Avatar films for the rest of time. Whole genres are just absent. You don’t find many horror movies or crime dramas or romantic comedies on Disney’s release calendar. Disney do not release films with an age rating higher than PG-13. They exclusively make four very narrow kinds of movies over and over while taking a bigger and bigger chunk of the capital available to make movies at all.
Disney makes popular cinema less diverse and interesting simply by existing, and it’s only going to get worse.
Disney’s dominance will have a particularly acute effect on independent cinema. The first and most obvious blow is its apparent war on independent theatres, which risks leaving independent movies without a sustainable number of screens to play. The second, less obvious strike is the downward pressure that Disney’s increasing dominance of multiplex screens will create on other major studios. When studios struggle to find screens in chain cinemas for anything but their biggest blockbusters, they’ll take screens in smaller theatres instead, displacing independent films just as Disney displaces them. What independent theatres survive Disney’s onslaught may well have fewer screens available for independent films as a result.
Disney will choke independent cinema of the box office revenue it needs to survive, leaving indie filmmakers even more dependent on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu – which Disney now owns – for distribution. That dependence will give those companies more leverage in negotiations, allowing them to pay less for streaming rights. Disney will squeeze independent films out of theatres on one side, while the streaming giants take a bigger cut on the other, bleeding the indies dry.
The Theatre Experience
Disney will soon launch Disney+ to compete with Netflix in the streaming space. Mostly, their fight is just a battle for market share, but there’s also an important difference of strategy at play. Netflix is trying to make itself the one true home of cinema, not just among streaming platforms, but among all distribution channels. It ultimately seeks the destruction of movie theatres altogether so it can replace them as the basic infrastructure of film distribution. Disney want to dominate the streaming space, but not at the expense of theatres. They still want cinemas to exist, they just want them to almost exclusively screen Disney movies.
This desire to control so much of the box office that Disney becomes practically synonymous with “a film you see in the cinema” is a likely motivation for their war on independent theatres. The clearest way to read their false commercial/repertory division is a split between theatres that can play new Disney films and theatres that can’t and therefore can’t survive. Their stranglehold on theatres will grow even tighter if the Trump administration tears up the Paramount Consent Decrees that ended the studio system in Hollywood in the late 1940s, when the major studios completely controlled every aspect of the industry, from production to distribution to exhibition. The Decrees prohibit abusive anticompetitive practices like block booking, whereby theatres can’t screen one of a studio’s films unless it agrees to screen all the films they’re releasing that quarter or year.
It’s also technically not illegal for Disney to acquire a theatre chain: though the Paramount Decrees arose from a court case in which the studios were forced to divest from theatres, that was only the remedy prescribed for that specific set of anticompetitive conditions. Studio ownership of theatres was not banned and the existence of streaming services as an alternative to cinemas might provide enough competition to theatres as a whole that Disney owning a chain of theatres isn’t ruled anticompetitive in a future antitrust case, likely overseen by Trump-appointed judges. It’s a long shot right now, but one day soon you may hear young people talk about going to see “the new Disney” at the Disneyplex.
However quickly or slowly it creeps toward monopoly, Disney will make cinemas less interesting and special places to be. They will increasingly become just a venue for new Disney films, the same four films over and over, squeezing out other kinds of viewing experience. You won’t go to the cinema to gasp in horror with a crowd, or to weep silently among others at a gutwrenching drama, or to laugh yourself breathless at a black comedy. Theatres will exist only for big-budget spectacle, the shiniest, most expensivest rollercoasters you can ride without moving. It doesn’t feel like a distant future if you live outside a city either. I rarely expect to be able to see films that interest me in the cinema. I was genuinely shocked when my local cinema released Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Ad Astra, major studio films fronted by actual movie star Brad Pitt. They didn’t even show John Wick 3. It shouldn’t be so far-fetched for me to hope I can see a drama in the cinema now and then, but it’ll only get more so as Disney’s power grows.
One glimmer of hope to come out of the Disney-Fox merger is the news that Fox Searchlight, Fox’s boutique indie label, has retained complete autonomy over its operations. Searchlight has produced such acclaimed and beloved films as Little Miss Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, Black Swan, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shape of Water, racking up around fifteen Best Picture nominations and four wins over the last decade. Their potential dissolution post-merger was a major concern for many film lovers and the announcement it would be business as usual at Searchlight was received with some relief.
But it’s very early to be taking Disney’s word that they won’t interfere in Searchlight, especially when they don’t have a great track record in this area. Disney bought Miramax from its founders, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, in 1993 to get in on the indie film boom of the 90s. It was at Disney that Harvey Weinstein grew from the head of an upstart indie studio to one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood and used that power to sexually assault dozens of women. Disney has denied knowledge of the numerous crimes he committed in their employment – and rejected any culpability for them in a recent lawsuit – but it’s a difficult claim to buy when Weinstein’s predation was an open secret in Hollywood that several famous people referenced in public long before he was exposed in 2017. According to Disney, the Weinsteins had “virtual autonomy” over Miramax, with little involvement at any level from the parent company and it’s absurd to suggest its executives were even aware of his abuse, let alone that they covered it up or otherwise facilitated it. Unfortunately, that assertion is based on false premises. First, that they would have intervened if a less autonomous studio head was a sex creep, which is easily disproven by the decades of sexual harassment and assault that John Lasseter got away with at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation. Second, that the Weinsteins actually had the autonomy Disney claimed.
In fact, while Disney allowed the Weinsteins much more operational independence than any other Disney subsidiary, it still kept them on a tight leash when brand integrity so demanded. Disney refused to release three Miramax films – Kids (1995), Dogma (1999) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2005) – that undermined its safe, family-friendly brand with their explicit teen sex and drug abuse (Kids), raunchy gross-out humour and irreverent portrayal of Christianity (Dogma) and, uh, incisive critiques of a US president whose administration orchestrated murderous wars that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians (Fahrenheit 9/11). (Re: Dogma, Disney CEO Michael Eisner reportedly said “If one person does not go to Disneyland because of this movie, that will be one person too many.”) The Weinsteins were forced to buy all three films from Disney and sign distribution deals with other, smaller studios to get them released at all. Would anyone at Fox Searchlight go that far if Disney forced their hand? These were the most overt instances of Disney’s interference in Miramax, but it seems safe to assume they interfered in the production of films they did release. At the very least, the awareness of Disney’s ultimate control and the threat of that interference almost certainly limited the scope of the possible in Miramax, discouraging them from backing risky, provocative or controversial films.
Disney are now distributing Fox Searchlight’s films, which means they can refuse to distribute them. Miramax withered slowly under Disney’s ownership and the Weinsteins fled to form their own film studio. It’s nice to imagine the same won’t happen to Searchlight, but Disney have only become more and more obsessed with the value of their brand since their breakup with the Weinsteins. Searchlight will have a couple of good years and then a ton of bad ones.
(To a greater or lesser extent, these concerns should also apply to FX, Hulu, Endemol Shine and any other former Fox assets whose creative output doesn’t necessarily fit the brand. Can you believe the Walt Disney Company now owns It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror? I truly cannot.)
Access to Film
Disney has one of the better records among major studios when it comes to film preservation, but it does atrociously at actually making the films it owns available for people to watch. Until earlier this year, Disney used a program called “The Disney Vault” to limit the availability of its animated films in order to increase their market value. Only two or three of its films would get a home video release per year, then they’d be “returned” to the vault, and not get a new release for around ten years. Most people were unable to legally watch most of Disney animated movies on up-to-date physical media. Between releases, formats would quickly fall behind audience expectations of video quality: your brand-new widescreen VHS copy of The Lion King probably seemed like a godsend when you first bought it, but it only took a few years for DVDs to make VHS look like shit, at which point your tapes had begun to degrade anyway. The strategy worked: every new home video release by Disney sold like crazy.
All the films in the vault will supposedly be available on Disney+ shortly after launch, trading artificial scarcity of physical copies for streaming exclusivity. For the first time ever, you can see all of Disney’s animated classics at the same video quality at the same time. But now that Disney’s library has expanded to include thousands of Fox films, there’s reason to fear the vault will be reinstated for the new arrivals. They’ve already extended the commercial/repertory crap to the Fox catalogue, so why not make their home video releases artificially scarce or non-existent? It would be trivially easy for Disney to recreate the vault system on Disney+ and especially Hulu. Disney has full operational control of Hulu as the majority owner, but Comcast still owns one third of the company, so Hulu is sort of outside Disney even though Disney runs it. There’s no reason that Fox’s entire film catalogue shouldn’t be on Hulu right now or that Disney+ shouldn’t launch with every Disney film, but to stay relevant long-term, to keep attracting new customers, they have to seem like they’re always adding more content, so there’s more that you’re missing out if you don’t subscribe.
Partly that’s satisfied by producing original content exclusively for streaming service, but a lot of it is the come and go of different movies and TV shows from the platform. Entertainment websites across the world write up articles about what’s coming to and going from Netflix and Amazon every month, basically churning out free ad copy. Disney+ seems to be focusing more on original content, but Hulu could continue to maintain the come-and-go by swapping out a set number of Fox films ever month, but never making more than a fraction available at any one time. Disney could even do this new vault system at the same time as they revive the old one by restricting Fox’s home video releases. But, to be honest, it doesn’t even require malice on Disney’s part – indifference and neglect will do just fine. Fox films might be unavailable because Disney doesn’t bother to upload movies it doesn’t think will attract customers to their streaming services. It costs money to host content on servers, after all: the WWE arbitrarily excludes decades of its extensive library of classic wrestling from its streaming service at any given time, just because it would make less money otherwise.
Regardless, we should expect Disney’s continued expansion to have a devastating effect on people’s access to their shared cultural patrimony. Even the abusive copyright regime we live under now – where copyrights outlast the average human lifespan by decades – accepts the ultimate destination of all works of art is the public domain. Art is the common property of all humanity and copyright was conceived to give artists (or, increasingly, giant corporations) temporary control of the reproduction of a work of art (i.e. the right to copy it) so they could profit from their work. Once we understand ownership from this perspective, we should be outraged that Disney makes works of art it merely holds in trust inaccessible to the public, their rightful owners, so it can extort higher rents on its intellectual property. Disney are like Immortan Joe telling his subjects not to become addicted to water, letting out just enough to remind you who you serve and why. Given their track record, it seems reasonable to expect that, unless and until we repeal current copyright laws, Disney will exacerbate inequality of access to art, which is already distributed so unjustly.
But we shouldn’t just be concerned about unequal access to movies controlled by Disney. We should be concerned about access altogether. Disney has no qualms suppressing films, as it has with Song of the South, its controversial adaptation of the Uncle Remus folktales collected by Joel Chandler Harris. Song of the South has never received a home video release in the United States due to its prominent use of racial stereotypes and its rose-tinted glasses when it comes to slavery. Or, at least, that’s the official excuse. For what it’s worth, I watched it loads of times as a child and I just remember “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and the tar baby and the bull attack. I live in Ireland and Disney had no problem whatsoever with releasing Song of the South in Europe, because it was never concerned by the content, just the risk of backlash. The legacy of slavery isn’t as much of a live political issue on this side of the Atlantic and there was no risk of parents over here attacking Disney for releasing a movie that made light of it. It just didn’t want to risk damage to its brand in the US. Song of the South will not be available on Disney+ and Dumbo will have its similarly racist “Jim Crow” character cut from the streaming version. This is censorship, pure and simple, a corporation trying to whitewash its own racist past, concealing rather than confronting its own bad behaviour. Who knows what films in the Fox catalogue they might decide to suppress to protect their beloved brand?
That’s worrying enough, but Disney has repeatedly proven susceptible to political pressure over the years, particularly right-wing and authoritarian pressure. While it initially stood up to threats from the Chinese government over the release of Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s biopic about the Dalai Lama, Disney caved soon after and apologised for releasing it as part of negotiations to open Shanghai Disneyland. Just three years ago, one of the writers of Doctor Strange admitted the Ancient One was changed from a Tibetan man to a white woman in part due to fears the Chinese government would ban the film. Disney’s refusal to release Kids and Dogma at least putatively reflect a consistent disinterest with sexual content and profanity, but its attempts to prevent Fahrenheit 9/11 from being released was purely driven by fear of lost profits due to right-wing backlash. They fired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn due to a smear campaign orchestrated by a far-right troll trying to punish Gunn for tweet negatively about Donald Trump. Disney was recently caught removing Rose, a character in The Last Jedi who’s widely despised by right-wing lunatics on the Internet, from merchandise in an apparent attempt to subtly appease them. Just cutting out the first character in the series played by an Asian-American actress, Kelly Marie Tran, who was herself driven off social media by racist abuse, presumably because they think shirts will sell better without her. Again, it’s a small thing, but it tells you a lot about Disney’s priorities as a company and what values and which people they’re willing to sell out to make a little more money.
We have every reason to believe access to Fox films will become more restricted, more censored and more expensive under Disney’s ownership.
I don’t know if Disney is an institutionally homophobic company or just a ruthlessly self-interested one, but it’s safe to say that Disney is not down with the queer community regardless, even more so than the industry in general. Disney is the only major film studio to receive more than three fails on GLAAD’s “studio report cards”, an annual measurement of LGBT representation in films that started tracking major studio releases in 2012. It failed all but two years and hasn’t release more than two films with even a single LGBT character in any of the covered years. These reports have such a low threshold for inclusion that seconds-long cameo appearances by MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, a gay man, as himself in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were counted as “films with LGBT characters”. Yet even with such rock-bottom expectations, Disney disappoints. Their sole LGBT character in 2014 was Lady Gaga as herself in the opening number of Muppets Most Wanted, singing a line about “one liner cameos”. None of their films featured any in 2018. No studio is doing a great job at featuring LGBT people in their movies, but every other studio does a better job than Disney.
Disney is the company that sincerely tried to build good press by hyping the first “exclusively gay moment” in one of their films, their remake of Beauty and the Beast. First, just appreciate how far behind you have to be to be bragging about a first gay anything in your movies in 2017. Then, you find out the first “gay moment” is just two men dancing. The first openly-gay character in the MCU – excluding Roberts, presumably – whose appearance in Avengers: Endgame was leaked to build even more buzz around the film, turned out to be a cameo by one of the directors as a guy in a support group with Captain America who mentions his dead husband. They still tried to brag about it too, with Marvel boss Kevin Feige saying that “I liked it that our hero, Steve Rogers, doesn’t blink an eye at that fact”.
Disney is, simply put, not in a rush to feature more LGBT characters on film and, to the extent it’s (1) reducing the total amount of films made every year, (2) narrowing our understanding of popular film to just blockbusters, and (3) digging the grave of independent film, the fallout will hit queer cinema hardest. LGBT people will hardly exist in the biggest films with the longest runs in the most theatres, while independent studios – historically more open to movies with queer characters and themes – will have less financing to put into films and fewer screens to play them on. It was in the indies that icons of queer cinema like Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Carol), Lisa Chodolenko (High Art, The Kids Are All Right) and Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Milk) cut their teeth and made their names. It was the indies that produced Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Paris Is Burning (1990) and Boys Don’t Cry (1999) when the major studios could hardly acknowledge LGBT people’s existence. Even now, with all the alleged strides we’ve made, it’s independent studios – or, at least, the majors’ boutique labels – that release films like Pariah (2011), Tangerine (2015), The Handmaiden and Moonlight (both 2016), not major studios and certainly not Disney.
It’s 2019 and Disney’s only named LGBT character is Le Fou from the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Queer cinema will be increasingly ghettoised in a world where Disney continues to dominate the market.
Disney just has a generally subpar record on workers’ rights already. It has a history of union-busting – including naming strike leaders before HUAC and getting them blacklisted from the film industry in the fifties – that continues to this day. Its mistreatment and underpayment of Disneyland employees was a campaign issue for Bernie Sanders last year. It has subcontracted toy production to factories rife with worker abuse. They covered up the death of a cruise employee likely killed due to a lack of basic workplace safety. We can expect that to get worse as Disney grows even bigger. Its way easier to offer low wages if people don’t have much of a choice except working for you. Fewer films means fewer jobs in the industry. More people will be competing for the same work and a willingness to take less money is one of the most attractive qualities a potential employee can offer.
But there are particularly Disney reasons to expect workers’ rights to decline as Disney’s monopoly power grows, beyond the monopoly power itself. Free speech springs to mind, given the company’s history of censorship and submission to political pressure. James Gunn may be the most famous person fired by Disney for speaking out of turn, but he’s not alone. Star Wars comic book writer Chuck Wendig was fired by Marvel for “vulgar” tweets about Donald Trump, and, unlike Gunn, he wasn’t quietly rehired months later. Even if Disney doesn’t fire more high-profile people due to political pressure from the right, firing Gunn and Wendig has created an awareness among its employees they risk losing their jobs for being politically outspoken. Their bosses may have never told them to watch what they say if they want to stay employed, but the threat hangs over their heads all the same.
Disney also has a poor record on protecting its workers – even children – from sexual harassment, assault and abuse. Harvey Weinstein and John Lasseter are the most famous examples, but not the only ones. Bella Thorne described being sexually abused as a child actress, including while working for Disney, while “everyone around [her] saw and did nothing” in an interview with AOL Build. Singer Jordan Pruitt is currently suing Disney for its failure to protect her from her rapist manager as a child performer. It has a pervasive issue with employing sexual predators at its resorts and hired Victor Salva, a film director who filmed himself raping a child actor on the set of Clownhouse, to direct its family film Powder in the mid-90s. Like with race, Disney prefers to simply sweep these matters under the rug and refuse to account for itself. It’s never admitted any fault in these matters, never even issued a boilerplate mea culpa or made a vague commitment to change its corporate culture. I don’t expect they will either: what could possibly damage its vaulted brand more than owning up to facilitating rape. I remember when it came out that Disney had removed a “casting couch” gag from the fake blooper reel in the Toy Story 2 credits in its last home video release. It was a largely well-received move given not just the “#MeToo moment” of it all but the fact it was literally directed by John Lasseter, a sexual predator who used his power in the industry to harass and assault women for decades. But I can’t help but find it a hollow gesture. It’s just Disney getting rid of evidence that they don’t take sexual abuse seriously.
(They also allegedly fired a whistleblower for giving the SEC evidence that Disney were cooking their books. “You don’t fuck with Disney” seems pretty central to their workplace culture.)
To the extent creative freedom, credit for work and control over your own appearance are workers’ rights of special importance in the film industry, Disney doesn’t offer much hope. They fire directors for not doing exactly what they’re told all the time: Patty Jenkins from Thor: The Dark World, Edgar Wright from Ant-Man and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller from Solo: A Star Wars Story. Lord and Miller’s firing was most egregious, as they’d finished shooting most of the film, but Disney brought in Ron Howard to reshoot just enough that he could be credited as director under union rules. Shortly after, Colin Trevorrow was fired from Star Wars: Episode IX, ostensibly due to the failure of his film The Book of Henry, though that was likely just a pretext to get rid of a director who was “difficult”, i.e. wouldn’t do exactly what he was told. On the other side of the camera, Disney is leading the way in puppeteering actors’ likenesses in their films through CGI body doubles, most infamously with Peter Cushing in Rogue One, and they’re not just ugly to look at, they’re a threat to the rights of actors as workers. Imagine a world where CGI can be used to fake anything an actor can’t or won’t do. But what if what an actor can’t or won’t do is work in unjust conditions? What if an actor speaks out about unpaid overtime or untenable shoot hours or even basic things like the availability of water and food or shelter from the sun on set? What if they don’t want to work with a director because that director has sexually assaulted them?
The ability to withhold labour is the worker’s most powerful leverage, but when an actor who speaks out of turn can be fired and their likeness just slapped onto a body double, how much leverage have they left? It’ll be the workers already paid least who get hit the hardest too: people who don’t have wealth to fall back on if Disney withholds wages or fires them for complaining about work conditions or decides they’re “difficult”. Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johannsson can walk away from a toxic workplace and probably still make a chunk of change from their likenesses – they’re two of the most famous people in the world – but most won’t be so lucky: the over-the-hill character actor, the new kid in town, the working actor who simply hasn’t the fame to leverage? They’ll just get more and more screwed as the use of CGI body doubles becomes more commonplace and less costly.
Disney isn’t the only media conglomerate who might abuse CGI to undermine workers’ bargaining power, but it’s the one pushing that technology hardest and testing the waters for its widespread adoption. (I’m not saying The Lion King remake’s photorealistic animation was the next step toward preparing audiences to accept films entirely populated by photorealistic animated people, but I am, kinda.) It’s the studio that most abhors movies with performances by real flesh-and-blood people or writers or directors who dare to express themselves through film. The involvement of human beings at all kind of seems like a massive inconvenience for Disney. It’s not hard to see why its rise will likely come at the expense of workers.
Two years ago, Disney barred critics at the LA Times from press screenings of its films as retaliation for reporting on the company’s corrupt grip over the city of Anaheim, California, where Disneyland is located. Writers at other publications responded in uproar: four major critics associations voted to exclude Disney releases from awards consideration until the ban was lifted, and several publications, including the AV Club, the Boston Globe and, ultimately, the New York Times, announced they would boycott Disney’s press screenings until the LA Times were readmitted. Disney backed down quickly enough, citing “productive discussions with the newly installed leadership at The Los Angeles Times regarding our specific concerns”, but never apologised or admitted any wrongdoing.
This might seem like a relatively minor act of petty aggression, since Disney didn’t ban the LA Times’ critics from reviewing the movies, it just forced them to wait until their wide release to do so. But, as Caroline Framke and Alissa Wilkinson noted in Vox, the delay was the punishment:
“Early reviews, and the increased visibility that comes with the resulting higher Google ranking, lead to an uptick in traffic. By withholding access from the LA Times, Disney attempted to undercut their traffic, which cuts into the Times’s competitiveness with other outlets publishing early reviews and hurts the paper’s revenue, and by extension, its journalists.
In short, Disney tried to hurt the LA Times financially to retaliate for how it was covered in a series of investigative articles.”
The last bit is important: Disney weren’t punishing bad reviews, they were punishing good reporting on their attempts to essentially buy control of the government in a city where Disney has extensive business interests. They may have backed down this time, but, as Disney grows more powerful, we can expect them to try it again. The more that popular cinema revolves entirely around their output, the more that entertainment journalism will rely on coverage of Disney movies for revenue. Unless it’s broken up, it’ll just get easier and easier for Disney to bully the news media out of covering their shady business practices and crush outlets that defy them.
Disney will make the world more inhospitable, in other words, to exactly the outlets and journalists who would report on labour disputes between Disney and its employees, or its censorship of films, or its assault on independent theatres. The more powerful a monopoly becomes, the less power we all have to even criticise it, let alone resist it. I’m not a fan of any media conglomerate. It makes me sick when I see yet another acquisition or merger concentrating control of mass media and popular art in ever fewer hands – Hasbro owns eOne now, what!? – but the Disney-Fox merger still feels like a tipping point. No other media conglomerate so openly and nakedly seeks world domination. None of its competitors stifle creative freedom, hoard art or sell out immediately to political pressure quite like Disney does. Most of them want a big slice of the indie film market for themselves. Disney just wants to destroy it.
If I could smash just one of the huge corporations that dominate the entertainment industry, it would be Disney. No question.