the Danger of Disney Magic
In an era of “socially conscious,” anthropomorphic corporations, it is worthwhile to examine the pioneering work of the Walt Disney Company as it prepares to rake in gobs of comic book money with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and toot its own representation horn.
Shortly after J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan entered public domain in the late twentieth century, CBS began the process of developing a Peter Pan cartoon series.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, Chairman of Disney Studios at the time, swiftly responded that CBS should drop such plans “if it isn’t of the essence to you.”
CBS dropped their plans. Disney is scheduled to release Peter Pan and Wendy in 2023, another live-action adaptation of their own animated work, reaffirming their authority over public domain, kid-friendly characters.
Eight years earlier, Warner Bros. attempted their own live-action Peter Pan, without regard for Disney, and titled it “Pan.” It was a box office flop.
It is possible that Walt Disney would not recognize in the modern media conglomerate the house he built in Burbank for cheap. Walt’s model was to manufacture “magic”; presently, the company bearing his name largely seeks to mine it (a whopping seventy-five percent of the Disney box office in 2018 derived from Incredibles 2 and Marvel films).
Continually, however, the Walt Disney Company has emphasized its brand as “magic for the family,” edging out other studios who must settle to sell “cinematic fantasy.”
“Magic for the family” is the backbone of the Disney company, and all their aggressive business tactics are folded under it. For instance, Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney from 2005 to 2020, absorbed Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Twentieth Century Fox in his fifteen-year tenure for less than 100 billion dollars. In the process, Iger layered the sheen of assembling an attractive toy box over massive corporate maneuvers.
Foremost, a minimum of 3,320 people were put out of work due to Iger’s spending spree. The bulk of layoffs originated from “redundancies” cut in the Disney-Fox merger, an operation that enhanced the vertical and horizontal integration of the Walt Disney Company while being absolutely terrible for jobs.
The scale of Disney is such that their anti-competitive nature has seismic consequences. Blue Sky Studios, an entire animation studio packaged with their Fox purchase, was axed in 2021 to stay “lean” through the theatrical slowdown associated with the pandemic. Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney to start up DreamWorks Animation, but the studio pigeon-holed into “talking animal” franchises couldn’t outperform “magic for the family” or even outlast Iger’s term as CEO; in 2016, NBCUniversal pocketed DreamWorks for 3.8 billion dollars to complement the talking creatures of their own Illumination Studios. And so on and so forth until only the sharks remain.
It should be noted that companies gobbling up other companies is nothing new, and that Disney has been in show business from day one. However, Disney is a “magic for the family” brand—executive decisions and consumer preferences reflect this. Disney prospers from the perception that their goal is to service families and a broad consumer base. Their capitalism is scrutinized less bluntly than competitors, who benefit regardless from the road Disney paves.
In more concrete terms, the purchase of Twentieth Century Fox both empowered Disney significantly and teed up competitors. Disney gained a controlling stake in Hulu, the established TV brand FX to feed it, and massive outright market share while they managed the launch of Disney+. The hands of the Department of Justice are now tied—the Disney-Fox merger is an inherited approval, though rejection of other major studios merging would be tantamount to signaling that the Disney-Fox merger is unsound. As a result, anti-competitive aftershocks will continue—for example, new WarnerBrosDiscovery CEO David Zaslav can pinkie promise that the new company is secure, but rumors of a sale to NBCUniversal flew out of Wall Street less than a year after his arrival.
Summarily, “magic for the family” is a heartwarming sentiment, but it enables Disney and other media empires under the guise of customer-centric growth. Genie+, a child of the Chapek era in the Walt Disney Company, is an excellent example; sure customers—like large families—may appreciate the itinerary generated by the input of park visit preferences, though Disney collects on the service per person, per day.
Lastly, the fewer sharks there are, the more impactful their messages are. Disney may not produce or distribute the most meaningful films—in fact, there’s an emerging flippancy with which directors degrade their films—but they are the studio that supplies “magic for the family.” Brush off a Florida fiasco or two, and families consistently look to the Disney library for momentous childhood content. Contemporary Disney executives should bear in mind the “essence” that Katzenberg spoke of—they have tremendous authority to execute potent stories, and considerable public faith is vested in their productions.
Pan flopped, among many reasons, because it simply wasn’t Disney. The spin that Disney puts on a story, the “magic” they put into it, can be game-changing. I hope the top brass reckons with that beyond the bottom line every now and again.