Recently the excellent post by OldFashionedMillenial, titled "Is Disney Monopolizing Hollywood?," has been getting a lot of hits and general buzz. So the Editors That Be asked the Present Author to weigh in.
What a fortunate pass this is because I happen to have a lot on my mind about Disney. See, I grew up in Southern California, in the south of L.A., and quite a bit of my time was spent in Anaheim, California, home to Disneyland itself. My step-dad worked there as a night engineer. He'd score me free passes and Disney swag all the time. On top of that, going to school in Southern California meant that every time there was a field trip, the whole class would go to Disneyland.
And yet again on top of that, whenever I had friends from out of town to visit, I'd hopefully offer a few activities from the bountiful recreation opportunities in the golden state. We could go surfing, or check out a swanky restaurant I know, or take the Universal Studios tour in Hollywood, or - nope, I was always cut off by the rallying cry of "DISNEYLAND!" Oh, that place again. I'd rather go to Knott's Berry Farm just two blocks away, but I could be standing in front of the place and still nobody would believe me when I tell them about it. Seriously, Disneyland isn't fit to cower in Knott's shadow - better rides, better food, better entertainment, less crowds, and cheaper too!
It sure felt to me like Disney was a monopoly. Now that Disney has recently bought out both Marvel comics and the Star Wars franchise, it's starting to feel like a monopoly to everybody else. But there's actually far more interesting questions to ask about The Mouse That Roared.
Entertainment Monopolies Are Everywhere!
Entertainment companies just tend to mushroom into behemoths, and Disney is far from the only swine gorging at the trough. American entertainment companies function more like a collage of oligarchies, eating everything in sight until they bump into a competitor too big to swallow. For instance, I just mentioned Knott's Berry Farm - they have "Camp Snoopy," a section themed after the characters of Charles M. Schulz' Peanuts comic strip, itself an entertainment monolith. Walk into any office and count the Snoopy mugs, or ask a kid which Christmas TV special they re-watch every year, without fail.
Knott's itself is a subsidiary of Cedar Fair Amusement, which owns fifteen theme and amusement parks and a scattering of hotels. Meanwhile, the food branch of Knott's - its original claim to fame was a literal berry farm and chicken pie restaurant - is now owned by The J.M. Smucker Company, a huge food corporation which counts among its holdings the Dunkin' Donuts restaurant chain, Folgers coffee, and the Pillsbury foods line. Interesting story about Pillsbury, General Mills - another huge food conglomerate - bought Pillsbury but a government antitrust suit ruled that they couldn't keep it because that made them too big, so they sold it to Smucker's.
Just to show that it does happen.
Disney vs. Other Entertainment Monopolies
It goes round and round with American corporations. You're always surprised at who owns what. With Disney, even though Marvel comics and Lucasfilm, Inc., sound like they should be Disney's "Pillsbury moment," they're actually peanuts (Sorry, Charlie Brown!) compared to the whole of the almighty Walt Disney Company empire.
Pixar, Buena Vista, DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC (bought from Dreamworks itself), Hollywood Records, American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (ABC Network) and everything ABC owns, which was itself a merger of Capital Cities Corporation and all the media they own, A&E Network and their whole entertainment group, ESPN and all the sports franchises they control, and THEN we can talk about the parks, resorts, hotels, and yawning megameters of raw real estate the Walt Disney Company grasps in its talons.
Oops, almost missed it, they own Go.com. Providential grab, that.
Disney's biggest competitor is WarnerMedia, no slouch in being a multi-headed Lovecraftian beast of media itself. Warner was once merged with Time, Inc. before AT&T (another company that's been hassled for antitrust law) snapped it off them. Assets of Warner include the Home Box Office network (HBO, the company that made cable TV sell), Turner Entertainment, Cartoon Network, CNN, D.C. Comics, New Line Cinema, Castle Rock Entertainment, and THEN there's the whole Warner Brothers entertainment empire, which extends back to Bugs Bunny competing with Mickey Mouse on the big screen.
Lest you think Disney's bigger than Warner because Disney has theme parks, Warner once owned Six Flags before they sold it off because they didn't need it. In fact, Warner's also sold off Atari, Inc., and AOL, which was once the biggest Internet franchise in the USA.
Wait, did you think Warner was the top of the totem pole? No, Warner is owned by AT&T.
There's much more where all that came from. As per Investopedia, Disney has several more competitors in Viacom, 21st Century Fox, Sony, CBS, and Comcast. Viacom owns Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, a honking buffet of TV channels, and MTV. Comcast owns numerous sports teams, half the Internet cable laid in the ground in the US, and NBCUniversal, plus everything they own…
and then… and then… and… and… AHGGGHHHRRGH!
Just take my word for it that we could go on screaming the names of giant megacorps bigger then your most cyberpunk dystopian nightmares forever, OK? The world is a business, Mr. Beale! Take it away, Network (1976), the greatest movie about media ever made!
"I have seen the face of God!" None of us filthy sinners love this golden apple of a movie enough. Now, where was I? Ah:
The Dark Side Of The Disney
Things didn't always look so rosy for the Walt Disney Company. The original Walt Disney took a lot of dodgy risks in the early days of founding his cartoon and amusement park company. Walt came this close to being a bankrupt animator with a sour orange grove on his hands. Even after Disney's big break with animation features in the 1930s, his animators complained that Walt was a money-wasting control freak who barely got his hands on success before turning it into two failures.
Like all of America after WWII, Disney got stinking filthy rich in the 1950s without even trying. But make no mistake, Walt lost money on several films for every hit. He managed to stay the helm and keep the company growing by hook or by crook, until his death in 1966, whereby his brother Roy took over for a few years and then likewise croaked in 1971. Disney management was plunged into chaos after Walt's departure, a snapshot of which is elegantly captured in late author Harlan Ellison's memoir section of the 1982 book Stalking the Nightmare. Ellison, yes, did get fired from Disney without finishing a full day based on management's thin skin, on just one of the days that made him enough of a hero of mine to be one of the few people I'd eulogize.
Let me get back to my Disney experience because here begins my territory. Have you noticed a generational shift in attitudes when it comes to Disney? If not, maybe you haven't talked to enough members of Generation X. Disney's biggest fans were with them in the '50s, through Snow White and Fantasia and Bambi. Disney lost a lot of steam after the death of Walt. Millennials were won back to Disney in the '90s starting with The Lion King and Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.
In between, you have the big brown spot in the Disney timeline I call the Shitty Age of Disney. More polite scholars diplomatically call it "Disney's Dark Age," but the dark part was actually the best part.
During this time, Disney movies laid one rotten egg after another, while their revenue as a theme park empire propped them up. The Happiest Millionaire, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, The Million Dollar Duck, The Shaggy D.A., The Cat from Outer Space, Unidentified Flying Oddball… you do all remember these classics "fondly" - or wait, you never heard of them? Yeah, when was the last time you saw a Disneyland ride based on Herbie Goes Bananas? All these turkeys are from the 1970s.
The Black Cauldron and The Black Hole (sounds like they were in the dumps about something, doesn't it?) are remembered today as two of Disney's biggest flops and yet… we REMEMBER them today, do we not? That's because there was an attempt to reach out of their formula with these two, to grow and explore some new ground. They were attempts, however stunted, to have some actual soul in their movies instead of cold, dead, lifeless wasted air. For a change.
The rest of Disney's output for the entire '70s decade and most of the '80s is best regarded today as utter crap. This is why you won't find many Generation Xers enthusiastic about Disney. Baby Boomers got Sleeping Beauty Disney. Millennials got Lion King Disney. I got The Devil and Max Devlin Disney.
Why Be Scared Of A Mouse?
Yeah, Disney looks big right now, but hopefully, we've put the mouse gangsta in perspective. Disney has a special handicap, you see: Their brand is based on nostalgia for the 1950s. Listen closely and you'll hear it in between the lines: Walt's bow-wow "city of tomorrow" spiels, all the escapist fantasy, the old-school conservative values, the wholesome kid-friendly image. The outdated, sagging 1950s politics. All those decades of "Disney princesses" culturally holding women back. The rebranded European folk tales and their blue-eyed view of the world.
Disney's "Manifest Destiny" 1950s ethos brand died a long time ago, which is why kids today, past a certain age, still sigh and roll their eyes at Elle from Frozen, even if they'll happily ride Space Mountain all day.
And here Disney just acquired two properties which - hold your fire, please - may prove to not be so valuable in a few years' time. Star Wars without Lucas is like Disney without Walt; as is Marvel without Stan Lee. Comic book movies are getting wheezy out there, we've had twenty years of them nonstop. Ditto Star Wars, which has also seen better days.
It's worth pointing this out to take home with you: Disney's fortunes, as is always the case with any multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate, can turn on a dime. Disney can lose their stock with this generation as surely as they lost it with mine.