I wrote in the recent past about how Disney was preparing for a world where streaming was a significant revenue stream as they reached an agreement with Twentieth Century Fox to absorb them and their film assets. It was a smart move and helped establish the most interesting question in the film business – can Disney become Netflix before Netflix becomes Disney? Well, despite Comcast (who owns Universal and has ambition to buy other film assets including Fox) trying to sidetrack the Disney/Fox deal by raising the price on the sale of the UK’s biggest pay TV network, Sky, Disney is acting as if the Fox deal will be going through by staking claim to almost 30 theatrical slots between 2019 and 2022. Sky is a huge asset in the deal but Fox, who actually took less money from Disney than Comcast offered, can renegotiate the deal with Disney without Sky being involved. Or Fox can up their offer and enter into a bidding war for Sky.
For our purposes here, I’m gonna assume that Disney thinks the merger is gonna happen. I do think this announcement suggests that, but I also think that when Disney recently gave out large bonuses to a lot of their employees thanks to the GOP’s recent tax law, it was an attempt to show a sign of good faith to Trump, who has stated his disapproval of the similar AT&T/Warner merger. Their thinking could be that by giving out these bonuses, it sends a message to Trump that they approve of the new tax law and hope their employees will look favorably upon it as well, now that they have some extra cash.
I also just want to just focus on Disney and how they are looking at their theatrical slate going forward and not their streaming side (although they have also recently announced some direct to streaming content that’s going into production including a new film from rising director/screenwriter Julia Hart). It’s important that Disney establish that they’re well set for the near future both theatrically and through streaming and it’s probably no accident that this announcement comes the same week as when Netflix announced they’ll have 700 original movies and TV shows this year.
Lets take a look at the the enormity of this announcement:
PENGUINS (DISNEYNATURE) now dated on 4/19/19
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 10/4/19
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 11/8/19
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 2/14/20
UNTITLED PIXAR ANIMATION previously dated on 3/13/20 moves to 3/6/20
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION previously dated on 4/3/20 moves to 5/29/20
UNTITLED MARVEL previously dated 8/7/20 moves to 7/31/20
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated 10/9/20
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated 12/23/20
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated 2/12/21
UNTITLED MARVEL now dated on 5/7/21
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 5/28/21
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 7/9/21
UNTITLED MARVEL now dated on 7/30/21
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated 10/8/21
UNTITLED MARVEL now dated on 11/5/21
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 12/22/21
UNTITLED MARVEL now dated on 2/18/22
UNTITLED PIXAR now dated on 3/18/22
UNTITLED MARVEL now dated on 5/6/22
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 5/27/22
UNTITLED PIXAR now dated on 6/17/22
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 7/8/22
UNTITLED MARVEL now dated on 7/29/22
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 10/7/22
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 11/4/22
UNTITLED DISNEY ANIMATION now dated on 11/23/22
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 12/16/22
UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION now dated on 2/17/23
Twenty-nine titles in all over 200 weeks. If you shorten the time frame to the 148 weeks announced between 2020 and 2022, you can get a really good idea of Disney’s theatrical strategy. Twenty-five titles over 148 weeks means a title every six weeks on average. There’s also big sections of the year showing a title every three or four weeks. I’m looking at this time frame because if you assume the Disney/Fox merger goes through sometime this year, Disney (or Fox proper before they are completely merged in with Disney) will release all the Fox films currently in production throughout 2019, so you can get the best idea of Disney’s strategy by focusing on 2020, 2021 and 2022 (2019 looks already set up in a similar fashion).
A tentpole from the same studio every three to four weeks is insanely ambitious, especially considering Disney is one of the main reasons we’re seeing a lot fewer studio films getting released these days as they just focus on a few big tentpoles every year. However, they are taking advantage of the increased consolidation we’re likely going to see emerge over the next few years where majors like Sony and Paramount and Lionsgate are likely to be sold and/or merge. Is it possible that Disney will be the only studio left releasing movies in theaters? Unlikely, but they are certainly acting like it.
Another observation with this announcement is almost none of these films have titles attached to them, and while there are Pixar and Marvel spread throughout, there are no Star Wars titles mentioned; most of them are simply UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION. We know some of these will be Star Wars (maybe even two a year) and some of them will also be Avatar sequels and maybe a few select Fox franchise titles. Finally, given the immediate joy fanboys and fangirls have about Marvel getting their hands on the characters that Fox owns, I wouldn’t be shocked if Marvel ups their output, despite Kevin Feige publicly stating that he hasn’t even thought of what he’ll do with those characters and possibilities yet.
I’ve already speculated why Disney is changing their strategy to more tentpoles, but the interesting question really is: can all these titles co-exist without cannibalizing each other? I’m willing to bet that most don’t think so. There are certainly already voices that think Disney is oversaturating the Star Wars universe by making one a year and having Solo come out so quickly after The Last Jedi. I’m not so sure I want to bet against them yet. If one looks at the domestic gross of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its domestic revenue is trending up even after ten years.
Pixar is also slightly trending up after over twenty years.
Disney Animation Studios has been a huge growth brand for Disney, maybe even surpassing Pixar in quality and popularity.
Finally, the Disney live-action reimaginings are also trending up.
I didn’t look at Star Wars because it’s only three data points right now and The Force Awakens certainly skews these three points as it was the first Star Wars with the original cast in thirty years.
Disney has to feel confident that the products they’re releasing with their four central brands are working for the theatrical audience. We’re going to get a glimpse of the future if you look at Disney’s schedule for the rest of this year as they have a lot of big titles coming out in condensed periods of time, with some again happening every three or four weeks this summer and then again in Q4.
While demonstrating increased success over time doesn’t prove there won’t be diminishing returns in the future with increased saturation, Disney is likely looking at less content coming out from their current competitors so they are betting their increased output replaces slots from studios whose output could decrease or even disappear. If you accept this, then the release this week feels bigger than a usual release slate announcement. It feels like a checkmate move. Comcast certainly isn’t done trying to derail the Fox deal so they can get Fox for themselves, and they will be taking a hard look at Sony and Paramount. We can’t forget that “nobody knows anything” so fresh new content we’re not aware of yet could emerge outside Disney’s dominance that propels other distributors into elevated status. Maybe DC gets their act together under AT&T management and superhero saturation impacts Disney harder than they expect, but whenever a company puffs out their feathers the way Disney did this week, it’s hard not to notice.