Is All of Disney’s Success Bad for the Entertainment Industry?

Walt Disney always liked to remind people “I hope we never lose sight of one thing. It was all started by a mouse.” Now the mouse has grown so large it’s roaring like a lion. And Disney is at the top of the food chain. 

If you read an entertainment news story on this site, or any website for that matter, chances are at least 50/50 the article was about something related to Disney, be it Marvel, Star Wars or Disney’s home-grown properties. While Disney products are loved the world over, the Disney company itself faces increased criticism that its dominance is hurting the entertainment industry. 

Disney logo on a phone screen
Disney logo | Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

How Disney got so big

It may be the distant past by now, but once upon a time, Disney wasn’t such a behemoth. At first, it was just a studio that made cartoons. Short ones at first, with Mickey Mouse and friends, then longer ones, like Pinocchio. Innovations abounded, including the first sound cartoon (Steamboat Willie), the first color cartoon (Flowers and Trees) and the first feature-length animated film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

For all its success, Disney didn’t even distribute its own movies until the mid-1950s. That was when the company started being something more than a studio that made movies and cartoons.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, that was the sea change that made Disney truly corporate. But after Walt Disney died in 1966, the company took a long time to recover. By the early 1980s, Disney  had stagnated so badly there was talk that the company would be taken over and broken apart. 

Executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells righted the ship by the mid-1980s, turning it back into a powerhouse, which has only grown bigger with each passing decade. It all seemed to reach a grand culmination when Disney purchased 20th Century Fox, a studio that had its roots in movies that came out even before Mickey Mouse came along in 1928. 

Once it was illegal to be this big

The ironic thing about Disney’s growth is that the big boom happened after the classic Hollywood studio system had started to fall apart. From the 1920s, through the 1950s, the studios were dream factories that made put out one or two movies every week. And the purpose of those factories was to put a product in the theaters they owned.

There were some independent theaters, but the ones that dominated were the ones owned by studios, including Paramount, MGM and Warner Bros. 

The government thought this vertical integration amounted to a monopoly that stifled competition, and the Paramount Consent Decrees took effect in 1948, forcing the studios to divest themselves of their theaters. That was a major factor in the decline of the golden age of Hollywood, the movies of the 30s through the 50s.

More recently, however, the restrictions against such large corporations kept loosening, resulting in mega-mergers like the ones that allowed Comcast to buy Universal, allowed AT&T to buy Time Warner, and that allowed Disney to buy 20th Century Fox.

Now there’s talk that the Paramount Consent Decrees will be rolled back, which observers believe could be very damaging to the movies. 

People love Disney, with caveats

People might argue, in a nutshell, “Well, what’s wrong with all this? Mickey Mouse is lovable and Star Wars and Marvel are loads of fun. Disney is just giving the people want they want.” 

That may be true to an extent, but it can also stifle creativity and make movies worse. People often complain that there are already too many sequels, remakes and reboots, and Disney in particular makes those their bread and butter.

Many film fans were troubled when they learned that Disney’s ownership of Fox meant that classic Fox titles from Miracle on 34th Street to The Sound of Music to Die Hard, could no longer be shown in most theaters

That may not seem like a big deal to most people, but film historian Eddie Muller pointed out, “It gives Disney a huge catalog from which to pull remakes while burying the original films. Not kidding. I know writers and directors who have been approached to ‘pick a project from the catalog.'”

For a new generation, the original will not be available for comparison. 

Burying history is rarely, if ever a good thing. One can love Frozen 2 and The Mandalorian while also questioning the practices of the company that paid for them. Product that only comes from one place is by definition homogenized, and some experts argue that the blockbusters are becoming less entertaining and more like one big, numbing blur. If Disney continues to monopolize the industry, it can be hard to argue it makes movies and TV better.