Disney’s Monopoly on Nostalgia
With the launch of Disney+ last week and the massive box office haul in progress for Walt Disney Studios, the Mouse House is really having a moment. Indeed after just one day Disney plus reported over 10 million subscribers to its streaming platform. If that seems like a lot, it is. Disney+ already boasts a subscriber count higher than that of any other streaming platform except Netflix and Hulu (which Disney also owns.) Couple that with the company’s staggering box office numbers in the first 10 months of 2019 and you’re left with, pretty inarguably, the most powerful media company in the world right now.
At their best moments, like this current one, Disney has understood that the most powerful tool they have at their disposal is nostalgia. Dating back to his company’s inception Walt Disney and his successors have capitalized on the public’s* desire — at least a certain, very white, segment of the public, but that is a story for another day -- to see something familiar on screen. Indeed early Disney hits such as Snow White, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland were family friendly adaptations of popular fairy tales or short stories. The Disney Renaissance (defined as 1989-1999) brought with it a fresh slate of adapted fairy tales --The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Mulan amongst others— that are now revered as some of Disney’s most iconic properties.
But when the well ran dry, Disney struggled to break through to audiences in a meaningful way. Aside from the Pixar collaborations, relatively few Disney films from the early 2000s are held in the same regard as those Renaissance films. So what did the Mouse House do? They charted a path forward by capitalizing on familiarity again.
Disney’s 2006 purchase of Pixar really began the era that Disney finds itself in now. An era in which Disney releases a handful of films per year without having to create something genuinely new. Upon witnessing the early popularity of the MCU Disney snapped up Marvel in 2009. In 2012 they bought Lucasfilm and began releasing Star Wars films. All of these acquisitions were about picking up intellectual property that already had established fan bases. The most recent pickup, Fox, gave Disney control over the X-men —to expand the MCU’s box office dominance— and the Simpsons —to create one more nostalgic entry point for their burgeoning streaming service.
During this time Disney proper has all but halted any original output, instead diving deeper and deeper into nostalgia. The studio has focused instead on live action recreations of their own beloved animated catalogue. Nearly every one of these remakes has been panned by critics as lifeless copies that evoke the images of their models but none of the spark that made those originals so beloved. Despite the middling product, nearly every one has done massive business at the box office. People are willing to go see anything that gives them that warm fuzzy feeling of what they loved when they were young.
Going forward, Disney CEO Bob Iger has said that Disney+ series will tie into MCU and Star Wars theatrical releases. Disney+ is now essential to not only nostalgia junkies but now to anyone who wants to keep up with the biggest film franchises in the world these days.
All of this creates one clear winner: Disney. As they sink their roots deeper into all corners of modern pop culture, they continue to rake in huge money from theatrical audiences and streaming subscribers.
The loser here may ultimately be the consumer. Although we are being given a product that we seemingly want, we are really being given a product that is safe but unexciting. Increasingly the ‘Moana’s and ‘Frozen’s are exceptions rather than rules. 2019 saw Disney release exactly 0 original films, compared to 6 remakes or sequels, 3 MCU films and 1 Star War. In 2018 that number was 2/9 (both ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ bombed.)
So Disney will keep producing mediocre but familiar films. They will continue to lean further into established properties like Marvel, Star Wars and now Avatar. And you know what, they’ll keep printing money. As disappointed I am in the lack of originality coming out of the world’s largest media company, I still subscribe to Disney+. I still watch every disappointing film put out by Disney in the hopes that the next one could capture some of that magic that got Disney where they were in the first place. Disney will be fine because they’ve created a monopoly on nostalgia.