Walt Disney Chairman Bob Iger has shown a willingness to write big checks, plunking down nearly $16 billion to purchase Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. This marks the first year these big bets will result in such a nuclear-powered slate that the other Hollywood players are scrambling to replenish their own arsenals. In the process, the movie industry has transformed into a business dominated by one superpower, a handful of favored states and a few rogue nations.
The Burbank studio’s upcoming 2015 movie lineup features a new “Star Wars” picture from Lucasfilm; two offerings from Marvel, a sequel to “The Avengers” and an “Ant-Man” entry; a pair of films from Pixar, “Inside Out” and “The Good Dinosaur”; plus Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland,” with George Clooney, from Disney’s own movie unit.
Forget the Magic Kingdom. This is how a cinematic empire is built. “Disney is the new high-water mark with brands,” says Tony Wible, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott. “It puts them through their various distribution networks — from TV to merchandising to licensing — and the studio is the birthplace for all of that.”
Disney has itself always been a brand of undisputed power. Its name conjures up images of a smiling Mickey Mouse and wistful fairy princesses. But the company has deftly expanded its list of hot properties to appeal not just to families with children, but to fanboys as well.
“Disney has become something aspirational for other studios,” says Matthew Harrigan, an analyst with Wunderlich Securities. “You can’t replicate what they’re doing.”
That doesn’t mean its rivals can’t try. Warner Bros. is borrowing liberally from the Disney/Marvel model by launching a series of interlocking superhero films based on its DC Comics properties, while Sony has announced that it views its upcoming “Ghostbusters” reboot as the first step toward crafting a “shared universe” encompassing TV shows and merchandising that’s pegged to the proton-pack-wielding ectoplasm-fighters. At the same time, Hollywood players are in a mad rush to snap up anything with a whiff of franchise to it, ranging from anime series to Stephen King novels.
That puts pressure on Disney, especially regarding costumed crime fighters. The coming years will see a superhero onslaught, as Warners prepares to field one to two comicbook movies a year, and Fox keeps churning out films based on licensed Marvel properties, such as “The Fantastic Four” and “X-Men.”
“On the comic side, soon you’re going to have a crowded slate,” notes Wible. “Studios may need to be more flexible in order to ease up on the congestion.”
That could mean Disney will be forced to become more lenient in its licensing terms, instead of strictly enforcing rules that mandate other studios that buy rights to films based on Marvel’s comicbook heroes, for instance, produce them within a certain time frame, or risk having those rights revert back to Marvel. Or it could necessitate collaboration along the lines of the studio’s recent partnership with Sony on its forthcoming “Spider-Man” reboot.
Any way you look at it, it’s an enviable universe to play in.