A Game of Cash and Mouse

Disney’s unrivaled mastery of public relations makes us complicit in its monopolistic practices.

image: Christopher DOMBRES [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

The playground bully has struck again, and this time we’re all cheering him on.

As of last week, Sony’s profit sharing deal with Disney that allowed for Spider-Man to be present in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has fallen through. Several months of attempted renegotiation between the two corporations have failed to bear fruit, the sticking point being Disney’s demands for a larger share of ticket sales. Across the internet, fans have revolted, painting an image of Sony as a greedy corporation uninterested in providing quality entertainment and filled with self-important L-suite suits unable to recognize that Disney’s innovative shared universe was what brought their IP value. Indeed, many such fans have announced their intention to boycott Sony’s next Spider-Man productions in order to put pressure on a feckless corporation shallowly attempting to manipulate them into parting with their money.

The fans have it completely backwards. Disney’s monopolistic practices fall far short of the respect deserved by their consumers.

Many people justify their desire to see Disney handed control of the Spider-Man IP by their continued interest in a coherent and fully integrated MCU, particularly after his successful integration into the universe. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is effectively a fan-favorite, and far preferred to the Sony Spider-Man duology featuring Andrew Garfield as the lead. However, siding with Disney encourages ever more manipulation of intellectual property law [1], as it’s by and large their lobbying that has contributed to ever more stringent laws forbidding free use of characters who should at this point already have rejoined the public domain, including Spider-Man, Darth Vader, or even Mickey Mouse. 

This is in line with an ongoing push by Disney to control every aspect of its IP’s entertainment value and production; Disney+ is a major part of this ongoing strategy, as its announcement allowed for the severing of the House of Mouse’s profitable connections to Netflix [2].

Let me be clear: this sort of monopolistic behavior benefits no one but Disney.

These practices have also contributed to the unending slew of uninspired reboots, remakes,  and sequels which, while leading to no truly new innovation, have allowed Disney to wow audiences with cutting edge visual rendering and win over audiences through savvy marketing-friendly productions such as Mulan, The Lion King, and Aladdin, all of which were bursting at the seams with popular casting choices and big names like Will Smith, Beyonce, and Jet Li.

Furthermore, Disney’s decisive home run with the recent productions by Marvel Studios can’t even be fully attributed to them. If we take a moment to look closer at the past of the sprawling Cinematic Universe, it becomes clear that Disney’s great success was to take credit for a project green-lit when Marvel was still owned by Paramount Studios, who produced the first four phase 1 movies [3]. Indeed, Disney’s intent to purchase Marvel studios was only announced in August of 2009, over a year after the release of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, and well into production of Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and even The Avengers. As such, the innovation and even much of the risk is not on Disney’s shoulders; instead they can only be lauded for having the sense to not stop a good plan once it had already taken form.

Let’s take a moment to discuss an IP that Disney actually revived whole-cloth: Star Wars. From beginning to end, the new Star Wars trilogy and expanded universe were produced under their roof. A lot can be said of it; it certainly has longtime fans roaring. The meticulous planning for a new and tightly plotted trilogy has been nothing short of utterly unique. From launching the first film in the trilogy with no clear script or plan for the next two, to blaming the poor performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story on audience fatigue (when the same audience turns out in droves to see a new Marvel release every four months), Disney has clearly demonstrated a creatively bankrupt approach to franchise management. 

Disney can’t be allowed to continue to control all of our pop cultural zeitgeist. Absurd though it may seem to defend a mega corporation on the scale of Sony, the reality is that Disney’s yearly profits (standing at $12.6 billion in 2018) [4] are nearly twice that of Sony ($7.7 billion in 2018) [5]; overall Disney’s total assets are valued at just shy of $100 billion (98.598), comparable to the GDP of Ecuador. After their recent acquisition of Fox, Disney seems more unstoppable than ever, with approximately 40% [6] of blockbuster releases being attributed to studios under their direct control. With fans now floating the idea of Disney purchasing Sony, one of their last remaining rivals, it’s more important than ever to highlight the dismal dealings and manipulative practices of the corporation. Sony’s Enter the Spiderverse (and even more significantly, the 2018 Spider-Man PS4 game) shows that they’re more than capable of producing worthwhile Spidey content; it’s imperative that they not be forced to lick Disney’s boots for the privilege of this IP.

1. John Escovado, “Disney’s Influence on United States Copyright Law”, The IP Law Blog, 17 February 2016
2. Sayanti Chakraborti; Munsif Vengattil; Arjun Panchador, “Disney to Take On Netflix as Streaming War Heats Up”, Reuters, August 19 2019
3. Nikki Finke; Mike Fleming Jr, “Paramount to End Relationship with Marvel in 2012: Disney Will Distribute ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘The Avengers'”, Deadline, October 18 2010
4. Erich Schwartzel; Maria Armental, “Walt Disney Posts Record Annual Profit”, The Wall Street Journal, November 8 2018
5. Stefanie Fogel, “Sony Eyes Record Profit Thanks to ‘God of War’, ‘Spider-Man'”, Variety, October 30 2018
6. Rani Molla, “If Disney and Fox Combine, They’ll Dominate the Box Office – Owning 40 Percent of This Year’s Top Hits”, Recode, December 14 2017

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