My life would be so much easier — and happier — if I could avoid getting myself worked up about stuff that doesn’t, and never will, affect me. I am the old man railing at the clouds, except I’m in my late-20s and I’m screaming at super-mega-corporations in adjacent industries.
This week I’ve been exercised by Disney, HBO and the discourse in between. There are basically two threads to this — firstly, at Disney’s investor event they announced a massive slate of projects that are almost all doubling-down on extant properties from the Disney/Marvel/Star Wars universe that they’ve brought together. 50 new movies and shows were teased (not one of which I feel like I’m interested in) and include forcing the reanimated corpse of Harrison Ford to dust of the fedora, as well as origin stories for Lando Calrissian, Mufasa and Buzz Lightyear.
So that is all visibly and obviously annoying, provided you’re not a Disney shareholder.
Onto HBO. HBO is also shilling its streaming platform, HBO Max, but, unlike Disney, seems also to be grappling with the cinematic disaster that 2020 has been. In order to free up their slate (and hedge against the uncertainty of how open cinemas will be in 2021) they’ve announced a concurrent streaming/cinematic release for most of the big Warner Bros titles in 2021, such as Dune, The Suicide Squad and Matrix 4. This has gotten people very vexed — including the directors of some of those movies — because it is seen to demonstrate a lack of faith in the future of cinemas.
This can all obviously be parsed as a response to covid, which saw a bonza year for streaming services at a time when basically every other part of the economy (except for Zoom and hand sanitiser) was under extreme pressure. There is also a need to clear release schedules at some point (hence the December release of Wonder Woman 1984) with blockbusters like the new James Bond kicked back by a whole year and ready to steal Box Office receipts from that 2021’s scheduled market.
But this is also the latest chapter in the streaming wars, and it seems to illustrate most clearly a point about PR. Disney has hired an incredible roster of talent for their upcoming projects. Directors like Barry Jenkins, Patty Jenkins, Taika Waititi, David Lowery and Nia DaCosta are signed onto the next phase. They’re bringing back historic properties and actors, like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones, Ewan MacGregor in Obi-Wan, Amy Adams in Enchanted 2, and Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 3. They’ve even got John Mulaney and Andy Samberg as the new Chip and Dale.
They’re taking zero chances, but they’re also buying a big enough stake in Hollywood real estate for the PR issues (which have beset the HBO/WB announcement) to go away. Everyone you work with — everyone you want to work with — is currently making a project for Disney. So are you really going to shit talk them right now?
And there should be some shitting talking: this Disney slate is almost monopolistic and will dominate both theatrical and streaming releases in the next few years. They have bought up a huge proportion of the competition — just look at the box office for 2019 (the last year with meaningful data), where 8 of the top 10 highest grossing films came from the enormous Disneyverse of studios. So that all bears some shit talking, but also: this is the most unadventurous, derivative, sequel-obsessed announcement in the history of cinema. It basically guarantees that all financial investment for the next 5-years of cinema’s covid recovery is going to be pumped into franchises. And those companies that are Disney’s competitors (in any meaningful sense), are they really going to take a shot on some original properties to compete with this megalith? I think you’d have to be very optimistic to believe that. Most likely they’ll lean into their own franchises and comic book adaptations and crossover multiverses. If people aren’t saying that it’s pretty sad that Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk is going to be a Lion King prequel, then they should be.
Instead, people vent their anger at Warner Bros/HBO with impunity, because they are retrofitting what were intended as cinematic releases as small-screen releases. Which sucks for the filmmakers, sure, but not so much the audiences. It’s clearly part of a long-term trend, as well as a response to covid-19, and there’s definitely room in the world for people to say “this financial pivot to streaming stinks!”. But if it stinks that Dune is going to be released on HBO Max and cinemas concurrently, then it logically follows that it must also stink that Disney+ is going to be programming the best actors and directors in the world for streaming too. Fair’s fair.