Why fans should be concerned about Disney buying Fox

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: (L to R) Chief executive officer and chairman of The Walt Disney Company Bob Iger and Mickey Mouse look on before ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), November 27, 2017 in New York City. Disney is marking the company's 60th anniversary as a listed company on the NYSE. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: (L to R) Chief executive officer and chairman of The Walt Disney Company Bob Iger and Mickey Mouse look on before ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), November 27, 2017 in New York City. Disney is marking the company's 60th anniversary as a listed company on the NYSE. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images) /

After months of suspense, the merger between Disney and Fox is set to close. The move portends a troubling future for the entertainment industry.

Underneath its trippy visuals and mind-bending structure, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi thriller Inception is about the economy. The action kicks off when Saito, a businessman played by Ken Watanabe, hires Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb and his team of thieves to break up an energy conglomerate via dream manipulation. Although Cobb accepts the job for personal reasons, Saito has no ideological or moral motives; he simply wants to destroy the competition.

It’s hard to say which is weirder: that this mundane premise is the basis for a movie that earned $800 million at the global box office, or that said premise now feels relevant. Early Tuesday morning, Disney announced that it expects to seal the deal on its acquisition of 21st Century Fox by March 20, ending more than a year of limbo. As of next week, the studio behind All About Eve, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The French Connection will be just another cog in the Disney machine.

Outside of the trades, Disney’s announcement barely made a ripple in Tuesday’s news cycle, drowned out by talk of celebrity scams and college admissions. Barring a Harvey Weinstein-level scoop, however, the impending merger stands to be the defining entertainment story of the year.

Right now, we can only speculate as to how exactly everything will shake out, but suffice to say, a powerful company is about to get even more powerful. While other studios have struggled in recent years to draw audiences, Disney has flourished, thanks to its past acquisitions of Marvel Studios, Pixar, and Lucasfilm. Since 2015, the highest-grossing movie of each year has belonged to Disney, and since 2016, so has the runner-up. Just one weekend into its run, Captain Marvel has catapulted to the top of the 2019 box office, handily surpassing the opening weekend total of Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman despite arriving second and centering on a less iconic character.

Disney’s clout extends beyond box office numbers. As Screen Rant’s Kayleigh Donaldson points out, the Mouse House exercises tight control over the exhibition of its products, imposing strict demands on theaters and the press. Its advertising is ubiquitous, encompassing massively popular trailers as well as merchandise, cross-platform tie-ins (e.g. novelizations, TV shows), amusement parks, and a holiday. It owns a broadcast news network, a sports network, and a cable network. It has effectively monopolized American children’s entertainment for multiple generations to the extent that its logo elicits a Pavlovian feeling of nostalgia.

By absorbing Fox, Disney not only obtains the rights to lucrative franchises like X-Men and The Simpsons but also neutralizes a major competitor. In effect, this will be the closest a Hollywood studio has come to a monopoly; had the merger been finalized last year, Disney would have been responsible for six of the 10 highest-grossing movies in the U.S. (Technically, antitrust laws exist to regulate the market, ensuring that no entity gains an “unreasonable” advantage, but with some maneuvering, Disney managed to circumvent them.)

While it’s nerve-wracking to contemplate the potential changes on the horizon, more dispiriting is the fact that in the grand scheme of things, those changes will be negligible. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff notes, the media landscape has long been ruled by empires – conglomerates within conglomerates. Universal, Paramount, and Columbia are owned by Comcast, Viacom, and Sony, respectively, and Warner Bros., already a subsidiary of Time Warner, has recently been incorporated into AT&T.

One effect of media consolidation has been to accelerate the stratification of mass entertainment, widening the gap between “mainstream” and “niche.” As late as the ‘90s, a blockbuster could be anything from a romantic comedy to a historical epic; in 1994, Forrest Gump beat The Lion King and True Lies to become the year’s box office champion. This century, however, Hollywood has become increasingly reliant on two kinds of movies – PG-13 action fantasies and family-friendly animated fare. Adult-oriented dramas and offbeat genre films are relegated to specialty divisions like Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, if and when they’re made at all.

Disney isn’t the sole offender here, but it is the most conspicuous. If anything, it’s unique in that aside from some work released under labels like Miramax and Touchstone, it never displayed an interest in making art that it couldn’t brand. That dictates not only the content of its output (these days, almost exclusively superheroes, Star Wars, animated fare, and remakes of its own archival material), but also the aesthetic. With the arguable exceptions of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the MCU movies virtually look identical, their glossy, utilitarian visuals infused with all the personality of an iPhone; Pixar hasn’t altered its animation style since the original Toy Story.

Meanwhile, Fox has continued to vary its slate throughout the past decade, consistently offering awards contenders (Life of Pi, Hidden Figures) and mid-budget hits (Spy, Bohemian Rhapsody) alongside its blockbusters. Even among those blockbusters, there’s variety. Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men: First Class, for example, feels markedly distinct from James Mangold’s Logan, and not just because the latter is rated-R. Under Disney, Fox will likely have less room for experimental franchise entries like Logan, War for the Planet of the Apes, or the FX television series Legion, not to mention an idiosyncratic, original project like Bad Times at the El Royale.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with liking Marvel or Star Wars or being excited about the possibility of Wolverine meeting Iron Man. But if theaters are filled with nothing but franchises, it’s a bit like walking into a shopping mall filled with Starbucks. The comfort of the familiar must, every so often, be interrupted by the thrill of the new. People might be loyal to brands, but they fall in love with stories.

It’s telling that, despite its seismic implications, the Disney-Fox merger has drawn little criticism from industry circles, even as prominent filmmakers (including, most recently, Steven Spielberg) publicly gripe about Netflix’s growing influence. After all, the future of Hollywood is at stake. If 21st-century pop culture is destined to culminate in war, with old-school studios defending their turf against the Silicon Valley invaders (never mind that, again, most of those studios are already owned by tech corporations), one must choose a side.

More. Joe Russo hopes the Fox-Disney merger doesn’t stop this movie. light

Whoever wins, we as consumers and fans can only hope that the stories we love, of all shapes and sizes, don’t become casualties.