Disney has been an American pop culture behemoth for generations. But even by global standards, it's been a banner year for the house that Mickey Mouse built. And the latest box office successes and recent Hollywood acquisitions are indicative of a foundation it's laying for an edifice that will likely tower over the cinematic landscape for generations to come.
Because Disney now owns Marvel and Pixar as well as continuing to produce its own animated features, Disney is behind three of the five domestically highest-grossing films of 2016 so far, with Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War,” and the live-action adaptation of the animated movie ‘The Jungle Book” all hailing from the Walt Disney Company. Close behind is Disney's "Zootopia" at No. 6.
Wait, there's more.
The studio also owns Lucasfilm, and recently released the domestically highest-grossing film of all time (without adjusting for inflation), the 2015 movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” That took in more than $936 million domestically. In addition, Disney is behind the ABC TV network, and ESPN, among other properties. Its newest bid for a blockbuster, the movie "Pete's Dragon," recently arrived in theaters.
How did Disney get to this position of unprecedented cultural influence today? The path has not been without detours and dead ends. But industry watchers say Disney has made some really smart moves in recent years.
First a little history.
The studio experienced success with its first feature-length animated movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” in 1937. Subsequent animated films, the “Mickey Mouse Club” TV show, and Disneyland followed in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Following a string of underperforming animated movies in the 1980s, Disney burst back onto the animated scene with films such as 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” and 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” movies that were part of a period often referred to as the Disney Renaissance.
Trouble came again in the early to mid-2000s, with misfires like “Dinosaur,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” and “Brother Bear.” “They're just disasters at the box office,” Thomas Schatz, author and media professor at The University of Texas at Austin, says.
But Disney animated movies have again been successes over the past several years, with recent films like “Zootopia” and particularly “Frozen,” the 2013 smash that is now the highest-grossing animated film of all time worldwide, taking in more than $1 billion total.
It was past experiences that taught those at Disney that acquiring popular properties was a smart move, says Professor Schatz. Pixar fans know that the studio’s first feature, 1995’s “Toy Story,” was distributed by Disney, with Disney eventually purchasing Pixar in 2006.
“What they learn from the Pixar buy is the importance of a brand and franchising and a company that could reliably turn out franchise blockbusters whose value was spreadable across the entire Disney empire,” Schatz says.
Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University and author of "The Plot to Save Socrates,” says buying Pixar made sense for Disney – the Pixar films fit the public image of the company.
“There's a logic to it,” Professor Levinson says of Disney’s moves. “So why, for example, did they acquire Pixar? Well, Pixar does animation. Disney does animation, so why not get an additional kind of animation?”
The Marvel purchase would follow in 2009. Marvel Studios had released 2008’s “Iron Man,” a huge smash, and the movie “The Incredible Hulk” that same year. “Iron Man 2” would follow in 2010.
Then Disney purchased Lucasfilm, the production company behind the “Star Wars” films, in 2012, for $4 billion, about the same price as the company paid for Marvel.
Schatz remembers there was skepticism.
“People thought Disney was nuts to buy Lucasfilm, which is really just one franchise,” he says. “But that franchise – its value was immediately established.”
Schatz says he sees this as the direction Hollywood is taking now.
“We've reached a point where the brand, a brand that can produce these – and when I say franchises, I don't just mean movie franchises, I mean global entertainment franchises whose value spreads across a transnational media and entertainment empire like Disney or Warner Bros.,” he says. "And I think in terms of the major studios, that's where the business is going.”
Levinson says he sees these acquisitions as just the newest sign that Disney knows how to stay on top of the entertainment business.
“At each step along the line ... Disney got what was necessary,” he says. “And so now their diversification is just a further example of that.”
Some of their success, says Levinson, comes from the fact that the company has a name that’s recognized by generations. “The Disney organization was quite aware of the fact that in order to become a big success and a lasting success, they had to do something that appealed to both parents and children and they succeeded in that admirably,” he says.
He remembers picking out movies for his own children and being reassured by the Disney name. “When our kids were little, Disney was still the single most reliable source of enjoyable entertainment,” he says. “…[When] people were going to the predecessors of Blockbuster to rent videos, there were huge Disney parts of every single store. So again, Disney was doing something right. They got the fact that it was not just going out to the movies anymore, it was not just watching television anymore, it was actually getting, in this case, videotapes.”
Levinson points to the recent announcement that Marvel movies, Pixar movies, “Star Wars” films, and Disney animated movies will all debut on Netflix this fall as the newest sign of Disney staying with the times.
Does any other company match the current success Disney is experiencing?
Levinson says Disney stands alone, not just in breadth of entertainment fare, but in terms of a legacy brand that spans generations. “No other company has the history that Disney does,” he says.
Schatz, however, sees studio Warner Bros. as a rival. Warner Bros. is the home of such successful film series as the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films; the “Harry Potter” movies, including the upcoming film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”; and the DC Comics film universe, which includes past successes like director Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films and current efforts such as this year’s “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad.”
“I wouldn't quite call them a duopoly, but their dominance has been pretty impressive,” Schatz says of the performances of Disney and Warner Bros. in recent decades. “…We'll see what they do with the DC thing over time.”
With many more Disney animated movies, live-action remakes of Disney animated movies, Pixar films, Marvel movies, and “Star Wars” projects planned, is Disney’s dominance in the entertainment industry a good thing for Hollywood? And is the company's omnipresence in pop culture good for the consumer?
Levinson believes that Disney‘s intriguing projects make its top-performer status a good development.
“There was always something different about Disney properties, whether it was animation, the stories that they told,” he says. “Having Disney in the entertainment mix as a major player has been good for the entertainment industry for what, 70 or 80 years now, and I think it's going to continue to be that way.”
Schatz, however, has qualms.
“Without question, it's good for business,” he says. “Whether it's good for culture? You know? Whether it's good for cinema? I don't know.”