Akaash Tumuluri: Disney’s monopoly on nostalgia

Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 1:53pm

Disney just broke (its own) record for annual box office earnings with five months still to go in 2019. The number? $7.67 billion. That’s on track for $13.15 billion by the end of the year, which would almost double the $7.61 billion record they set in 2016. Disney’s direct production studio, Buena Vista, has captured 38 percent of the market share so far this year, and that doesn’t even include the earnings from recent acquisitions like 21st Century Fox (home of “Dark Phoenix,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and multi-studio productions like “Spiderman: Far From Home.” But even excluding those, Disney’s slate this year has been ludicrous: “Avengers: Endgame,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” have all grossed over $1 billion each.

With “Frozen 2” and the “Star Wars” finale waiting in the wings to close out the year, the house of mouse should find themselves even more comfortable after a profitable 2019. But do you notice something about all these movies? They’re either part of — or ending — an existing franchise or a remake. So, is the industry slowly becoming a vacuum for originality? Or is Disney, in its role as market-maker, leading the industry away from what Walt himself used to embody: creativity and innovation?

Obviously, this is an exaggeration. There are still original movies. This past weekend, Quentin Tanrantino’s “Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood” rewrote history, and Jordan Peele stripped away the comfort of seeing our own reflection with “Us” earlier this year. But both of those movies were greenlit, for the most part, because both directors have track records of success. That’s really all Disney wants: proven capability in the market. Few truly original scripts are even produced for the silver screen these days, a symptom of streaming companies like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon buying and turning those ideas into longer-form, binge-worthy content that can be re-signed for a second season if successful. In short, they turn those ideas into TV. 

Movies have followed suit. Instead of “Toy Story: Season 4”, we get “Toy Story 4.” We get a spit-shined “The Lion King” remake with diversity to somewhat rectify the vanilla original cast of a movie set in Africa. But it’s not just Disney. Lionsgate’s biggest movie this year is “John Wick: Chapter 3.” Sony’s biggest movie this year is “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (which was still made in conjunction with Marvel, owned by Disney). Universal’s biggest movie is about to be, barring a catastrophic fluke, “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.” Their current worldwide biggie is “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” which is intellectual property from an acquired company (DreamWorks Animation). Warner’s biggest movie will most likely be “It Chapter Two,” and Paramount’s biggest is likely to be “Terminator: Dark Fate,” per Scott Mendelson of Forbes.

So, it’s tough to say that Disney has caused this proliferation of recycled intellectual property. Moviegoers in a content-saturated, streaming-dominated market want to have some security in their investment, especially when they could’ve just stayed at home and watched something else on their streaming app of choice. “Going to the movies” just isn’t necessary anymore. The public now requires the movie to be “an event” to even show up. “Avengers,” “The Lion King,” “Star Wars”: we go to those movies for the community presence, the experience of shared fandom and the nostalgia of growing with characters. And that is why Disney owns the box office — they own nostalgia. Millennials who grew up on the Disney animated features of the ’90s are having their own children, and Disney is hoping to influence them also, continuing the cycle of recycled nostalgia.

The one good part about remaking movies is the opportunity to fix their original mistakes. Disney, in particular, has made a conscious effort to rectify the diversity issues that have plagued Hollywood, with “Black Panther,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” featuring diverse casts, the remake of “A Little Mermaid” featuring an African American Ariel, and “Captain Marvel” showing off a strong female lead. That is the most valuable asset of the Disney entertaimpire: the ability to introduce diversity and still make money.

Movies like “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “Moonlight,” while highlighting stories less told and winning Oscars, will never net anywhere near the amount any Marvel movie will — so Marvel can afford, and is given the freedom, to franchise a movie with an all-Black cast; the “suits” of entertainment can still expect to make back their investments with “Black Panther 2.” But nowhere in the future will we be seeing a “BlacKkKlansman 2,” so we need to see diversity wherever we can, even if it is under a superhero costume or princess makeup. It is also why those voices of diversity are starting to be heard louder on TV and streaming media. Shows like “Atlanta,” “Insecure,” “Master of None” and “Ramy” are winning Emmys and slaying ratings, because money is made differently and audiences want something different in TV than in traditional films.

So, until Disney runs out of iterations of its own ideas, it seems like we’re due for a slate of stories that we’ve heard before, at least on the big screen. And with Disney+ launching in 2020, don’t expect the king of entertainment to give up its crown anytime soon. If you’re looking for something new, something authentic or something that’s plain different, look on your phone. You’re more likely to find it there than anywhere else. 

Akaash Tumuluri can be reached at tumula@umich.edu.