Features | From Pivot Magazine

Disney owns more film and TV than ever before. That's a scary thought.

It's a small world after all

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Illustration of Mickey Mouse ears on TV setA Disney Plus subscription, which in Canada costs $8.99 a month, gets you access to, among other options, Pixar, Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars films—all of which Disney now owns (Illustration by Alamy)

For years, we’ve been warned about the coming “streaming wars,” a competition between video sites like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. With the November debuts of Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus, the battle lines have been drawn. A fight for dollars and eyeballs is now underway—and the real loser might be viewers. 

Disney—which acquired 21st Century Fox for a cool US$71.3 billion last year—is now home to a culturally rich and historically important catalogue that spans more than 80 years of film production. A Disney Plus subscription, which in Canada costs $8.99 a month, gets you access to, among other options, Pixar, Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars films—all of which Disney now owns. 

Disney’s Fox acquisition was widely seen as a pivot to the future of TV and film consumption, which lies in streaming video; according to a 2019 Deloitte report, 2018 was the first year in which more people subscribed to a streaming service than traditional pay TV. Disney is projecting between 60 and 90 million worldwide subscribers by 2024. (According to the company, more than 10 million people signed up on the first day alone.) All this seems like a win-win for viewers. There are fewer ads and more choices, and even if you bundle together a few streaming services, you’ll still be paying a lot less than the average cable subscriber. But if you zoom out a little, the picture isn’t quite so clear. 

Let’s leave aside ads, which will continue to bombard us at every turn—screens in elevators, Instagram feeds, the backside of paper boarding passes and pretty much any other surface on which our eyeballs are likely to flicker. There’s no question advertisers will find ever more creative ways to target streaming viewers. Even in terms of price and choice, streaming may not always be a net gain for film and TV fans.

Duncan Stewart, Deloitte Canada’s director of technology, media and telecommunications research, points out that the streaming revolution is still in its infancy. “In the early days of most new technology, things tend to not cost very much and you have a lot of freedom and a lot of choices,” he says. “As time goes on, you tend to see industry consolidation and price increases.”

In a few years, that $8.99 subscription might be $15. No biggie; between Disney Plus, Crave, Netflix and Amazon Prime, you’d still have access to thousands of movies and series for a relative bargain.

But where does this leave those of us who like to watch movies in theatres? Not long after the Disney-Fox merger, independent theatre owners reported that Disney was suddenly denying requests to screen popular Fox titles. Even chain cinemas like Cineplex are no longer permitted to screen Fox repertory titles without special permission—perhaps in an effort to compel viewers to purchase Disney Plus subscriptions to access these films. It’s the classic Disney strategy of manufacturing scarcity by placing older, beloved titles into their “vault,” thus inflating the value of those films when the company decides to release them, usually for a limited time. Some speculate that Disney is trying to reserve as many cinema screens as possible for its newest offerings.

In the past, Disney could re-release The Lion King for a limited time to generate interest and then put it back in the “vault” to cultivate demand. But the company didn’t own the physical VHS or DVD or Blu-ray that The Lion King was released on. With Disney Plus, they now control both the content and the distribution.

Stewart points out that, adjusted for inflation, North American box-office revenues have been “bizarrely stable” for the past 15 years. But an increasing percentage of moviegoers’ dollars goes to fewer and fewer tent-pole titles every year—Disney properties, for example, now account for 40 per cent of North American box office revenues, a number that’s expected to rise to 50 per cent post-merger. Those blockbusters, typically franchise films, “occupy more screens for more weeks,” says Stewart. “In other words, the effective availability of seeing movies in theatres has gone down in the last decade.”

From this vantage point, Disney looms inescapably large. A writer for The American Prospect even called the company’s model “a walking antitrust violation.” In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige suggested Marvel fans would need to keep up with forthcoming Disney Plus series. “If you want to understand everything in future Marvel movies,” he admitted, “you’ll probably need a Disney Plus subscription.”

According to Stewart, US$42 billion will be spent on streaming content in 2020. Disney CEO Bob Iger reportedly paid US$2.6 billion on the technology for Disney Plus, and plans to spend a billion dollars on original content in 2020. Apple TV Plus spent somewhere between one and six billion on its relatively paltry slate of 10 original series. Compared to TV budgets in the days when cable and broadcast still reigned, Stewart says, “An awful lot more money is being spent on scripts and stars and directors and special effects.” 

When it comes to art—and yes, TV is art—more money might guarantee bigger stars and superior effects, but it doesn’t guarantee an overall better experience. Mad Men wasn’t revolutionary because AMC spent a ton of money on it; it was excellent because of the writing, the attention to detail and the performances. Similarly, CBC’s flagship comedy Schitt’s Creek is great not because of its budget but in spite of it.

It’s never been easier to watch high-quality movies and TV shows from the comfort of your living room. And yet I worry about a future in which people are perfectly content to watch whatever Disney offers because they never knew a time when there were other options.

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