“Whi do We Do I have to grow up?” Walt Disney once marveled. As it begins its centennial celebrations on January 27, The Walt Disney Company continues its appeal to the young and the young at heart. This year, Hollywood’s biggest studio will invest more in original content than any other company. It dominates the global box office with four of last year’s ten biggest hits, and has more subscriptions than anyone else. intellectual property (IP) has been commoditized from lunch boxes to lampshades, and even as Covid-19 slows down, it’s being exploited in parks that are turning a healthy profit. More than just a business, Disney is perhaps the most successful cultural factory the world has ever known.
Therefore, the upheaval the company is rocking today has more significance than its empire. Uncertainty over the future profitability of DC’s massive entertainment portfolio has sent the stock price on a rollercoaster ride. He fired the CEO in November and will soon replace the chairman. He also faces a backlash from an activist investment firm seeking a board seat in what could turn into the biggest head-to-head showdown since predecessor Michael Isner. General managerIn the year It was enforced in 2005. Disney’s experiments are not just boardroom drama. Similar crises are occurring at other leading cultural factories, from Warner Bros. to Netflix. The reason is that the technological revolution is a Hollywood inversion.
The continued prescience of a centenarian like Dizzy confounded many predictions. Ever since “Steamboat Willie” debuted from Mickey Mouse in 1928, there has been an explosion in the supply of video entertainment. Television, cable, home video and then the Internet offered an increasing choice. Anyone with a phone can record video and share it with billions of people for free. Disney+ uploads more content to YouTube every hour than it has in its entire catalog of releases.
Many predicted that this rampant proliferation of content would bring down the major killers. They are mostly wrong. Endless choice in entertainment has decimated the companies that produce the mediocre content people watch because there’s nothing else—witness the collapse in broadcast-television ratings. But the people at the top of the business have grown tremendously. When anyone can see anything, people flock to the best. Global streamers like Netflix and Amazon have more than 200m live subscribers, a once-unthinkable number.
It’s the owners who have fared better at the shrinking box office. IP It is already popular. As people visit movie theaters more often and competition becomes more intense, studios spend money on movies that people go see even three or four times a year. America’s ten biggest movies last year were all sequels or franchises; Disney’s upcoming slate includes 80-year-old Harrison Ford returning for a fifth stint as Indiana Jones. It wasn’t a golden age for cinema, but it was a lucrative one for those at the top.
Now technology is shaking things up again. Online distribution concerns technology firms used to distribute hardware and software. Silicon Valley is far from Tinseltown (Amazon’s growing advertising business is three times that of Disney), and the moguls don’t need to make money from streaming, which they see as a supplement to their core business. Hollywood initially wrote off narcissists. But narcissists have enough money to take creative risks. Last year, Apple won the Best Oscar for “CODA”, a comedy-drama done partly in sign language, less than three years after it went into film production. As these new producers sell better content and lower prices, older studios run the risk of falling from high media status to dangerous middle ground.
At the same time, new technology gives those who are relegated to the “long tail” a better chance to reach a profitable level. Innovations such as game engines that help create virtual collections are lowering barriers to entry. Generative artificial intelligence, which is already capable of producing accurate video, may eventually degrade them further. The first users were non-American film studios who, until recently, struggled to line up first-class special effects. no longer. Last year’s two top-grossing films from around the world were Chinese – and expect that number to rise with the outbreak of Covid-19 in China. China has yet to turn foreign audiences into a hit like “Wolf Warrior 2” (tagline: “Anyone who offends China must die, no matter where they are”). But do not doubt that this will always be so. China has a globally successful social media app in Tik Tok and makes internationally popular video games, including Tencent’s “Honour of Kings,” the world’s top-grossing mobile game.
Perhaps the most dramatic way technology can disrupt the business of culture is by creating new categories of entertainment. Young adults in developed countries spend more time playing games than watching broadcast television. Hollywood has been slow to catch on, but its Silicon Valley rivals are upping their games. IP. Microsoft’s proposed Activision-Blizzard acquisition of games including “Call of Duty” and “Candy Crush” is worth nearly ten times what Amazon paid for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the home of James Bond and Rocky Balboa. Movies based on games are becoming almost as popular as games based on movies. A series based on “The Last of Us,” a post-apocalyptic game, seems to be a critical success. Sonic the Hedgehog was one of the biggest movies of last year and Mario may be one of the biggest movies of this year. Nintendo is opening a new Mario theme park next month—in Hollywood, no less.
Mouse and long tail
If Hollywood’s great creative factories are to survive, they must adapt. Another successful era is not beyond their reach. Disney’s century was one of endless innovation, both commercially and artistically, as the company moved its products from projectors to cables to tapes and now bytes. It will probably continue to evolve. Still, there are signs that much of the next century’s popular culture will be directed elsewhere than Hollywood. For series-weary viewers, that might be a welcome relief. ■
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