Movies condense hours of film into posters and trailers to attract viewers. Having seen roughly 1% of the film, we must decide whether to cough up the dough to see the rest. We therefore fall back on branding and reputation, using those as cognitive shortcuts to make an inference about the quality and characteristics of the film.
In the film industry, Disney quite possibly has the strongest and most well known brand name. Its movies are family-friendly PG adventures guaranteed to have a happy ending. Any child seeking approval for a movie outing need only say two magic words- "it’s Disney". From Bambi to Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s movies are safe and predictable choices.
But behind the magic castle, the world’s largest media company has produced some family-unfriendly films and done some very unDisney-like things.
Disney is big
Disney has expanded far beyond family-friendly entertainment. In the past decades, riding on its numerous box office successes, it has gobbled up many other film studios and television networks. The galaxy far far away fell under Disney imperial rule back in 2012, together with Indiana Jones as part of the Lucasfilm package. Just this year it absorbed Maker Studios, producer of Epic Rap Battles and former employer of PewDiePie. More "serious" movies meant for older audiences have succumbed too. How To Get Away With Murder, The Prestige and The Sixth Sense are all Disney-owned. Even the unapologetically crude Scary Movie series has a place in the Clubhouse.
Success breeds success. Disney has mastered the art of turning what would otherwise be one-hit wonders into cash cows by following up with sequels, prequels and remakes then launching accompanying theme park attractions and merchandise. Disney’s Marvel followed this established formula and produced the highest-grossing film franchise of all time.
Big is powerful
The revenue pouring in from their many divisions allows it to channel even more money into each of its productions. Its films have become increasingly expensive to produce. The Beauty and the Beast remake cost 6 times of what the original did. There’s a lot you can do with a budget the size of a small country’s GDP. It operates an entertainment complex the size of San Francisco, and has spent at least USD 9.2 billion acquiring competitors in the last 8 years. Money can’t buy everything but it can buy top-notch CGI and motion-capture technology, as well as the highest paid actress in the world. Disney’s ample coffers allow it to recruit top talent, splurge on marketing and simply buy rivals it can’t beat.
The company’s been taking advantage of its size to bend rules in some of the countries it operates in. When Malaysian censors demanded it edit the recent Beauty and the Beast film to meet local guidelines, director Bill Condon decided instead to draw public attention to the case by emphasising how it was the first "gay scene" in a Disney film. Faced with public pressure, Malaysia backed down, releasing the film in its entirety. A smaller movie studio or solo filmmaker without Disney’s clout would never have been able to force such a reversal.
Disney has also sought to influence policy to serve its own interests. In Florida (where Disney World Orlando is located) , the company employs multiple lobbying firms they keep on retainer who work hard to preserve Orlando's image as a family-friendly holiday destination and ensure families continue coming. Over the past few decades, this has involved going head-to-head with gambling giants Las Vegas Sands and the Genting Group, vehemently arguing against the construction of casinos. These are the same two groups that successfully built resort-casinos in Singapore. Disney has been the victor thus far- in 2012 it managed to convince legislators to decline a multi-billion dollar resort-casino investment from Genting (including tens of thousands of jobs and millions in potential tax revenue) despite the sluggish local economy and high unemployment. This has cemented Disney’s reputation as the biggest foe of gambling firms in Florida.
Reedy Creek Emergency Services
Disney has been a powerful political force in Florida since 1967 when the state agreed to its unprecedented request for the creation of a special district for the company. This district, roughly the size of Paris, includes 2 cities and has the power to issue tax-free bonds and has full immunity from any state land-use laws. This allows Disney to tap tax revenue to finance construction in the district and avoid having to seek approval to rezone land or use experimental technologies. It's essentially a municipal government that runs emergency services, law enforcement and even local courts, providing Disney with unheard of autonomy over its land.
Disney is also a formidable force on Capitol Hill where its legions of lobbyists monitor legislative action on any issue that could potentially affect the company and take preemptive action. Whilst it keeps its lobbying efforts largely opaque, it’s been linked to lobbying organisations advocating against raising the minimum wage and implementing paid sick leave and has repeatedly questioned climate science and attacked environmentally-friendly policies as part of the US Chamber of Commerce.
It has also taken a keen interest in copyright laws. Initially, under the 1909 Copyright scheme, copyright on Mickey Mouse was due to expire in 1984. Disney lobbied for changes to copyright law and was successful in extending the deadline to 2003, then 2023. While the change in legislation is good news for copyright holders, the company’s apparent ability to change laws to fit its interests is deeply troubling. Furthermore, research suggests such extended copyright protection has stifled creation of new works. Creators today are prevented from remixing, reusing or building upon any work created in their lifetimes because of extended copyright protection.
Disney plays politics too
Power must be checked
With great power comes great responsibility
- Uncle Ben (property of Disney)
Disney has grown into a formidable corporate empire with the political influence to protect its interests worldwide. Disney might not harbour intentions to rule the world with an iron fist, but it does have its own agenda. It has long extended its reach beyond the realm of entertainment and has been influencing issues in the real world- extending copyright, contributing to global warming and setting up its own political jurisdiction. We as audiences should look at Disney with a more critical eye-- past the innocent, cartoonish veneer to understand the extent of its power behind the scenes.
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