Disney and its movie problem: feasting on the past, rather than looking to the future

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This summer’s box office sees Disney missing from the top three, as its blockbuster movie output looks to be needing a Plan B.

Given that we’re now in September, it feels fairly safe to conclude that the winners of summer 2023 at the movies were the likes of Greta Gerwig, Warner Bros, Christopher Nolan, Universal Pictures, and Sony Pictures Animation.

Unusually, the box office champions of what feels like the past forever had a fairly muted time, with Disney reporting slightly depressed (compared to the Marvel bar) takings for the much-liked Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume III, whilst both Elemental and The Little Mermaid were just about finding their way to half a billion dollars apiece, give or take (exceeding the money brought in by Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny). No slouch, but given we’re used to reporting on billion dollar grosses for Disney films, it’s unusual news.

Disney has, of course, been in the midst of much-reported challenges on many fronts. Price rises at its theme parks, paying billions to remove films, the operating costs of its Disney+ streaming service, the sudden defenestration of its CEO in favour of the guy who held the job before. That, and thousands of job losses as it tries to find a way to the kind of profitability it was previously enjoying.

But this is primarily a film site, and it’s the film side of the business that I find of particular interest at the moment. That’s because the formula that’s kept the log fires burning at Disney HQ for over a decade is fracturing, and what’s odd is there seems to be no workable Plan B in the locker.


For much of the last decade, the Disney annual movie slate has generally been made up of: a Pixar film, a Walt Disney Animation Studios film, two or three Marvel productions, and some live action remakes of stories previously told by the studio in animation in some form. In better times, a Star Wars film too, and a dash of a theme park ride turned into a movie, but that’s pretty much been it.

In 2019 in particular, this resulted in genuinely staggering successes, with eight different movies – all fitting within those aforementioned categories – crossing a billion dollars apiece at the box office. Plus, part-ownership of a ninth. A stunning success, and every other studio seemed to be looking on, working out how to replicate it, Disney included.

Appreciating that the year 2020 upended all sorts of plans, what Disney’s 2019 also marked was a turning point for two of its most reliable Golden Geese. Disney’s fifth Star Wars film – The Rise Of Skywalker – brought in the money, but felt like it was losing the fanbase a little. The stunning achievement that was Avengers: Endgame was the culmination of over a decade of worldbuilding, and a peak to which Marvel movies have now come close to matching since, meanwhile. It had the opposite problem: it utterly enraptured the fanbase, and reached such a level – arguably never quite seen before – that, well, how can you get to those heights again?

As it turned out, Disney went in a different direction with both. As such, Star Wars and Marvel are Golden Geese that have been not quite slaughtered, but certainly sacrificed to a degree in favour of broader corporate objectives.

I don’t buy the narrative that Marvel movies had suddenly gone terrible or anything, but I do feel that the franchise feels a lot less vital than it once was. I remember even on the smaller screen when Wandavision launched when many of us were still locked down to some degree that there was a fission of excitement around it. In the two years since it debuted, there have been eight further television series as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, more total episodes than there have been films to date. That saturation can’t help but have an impact, and I’d suggest it very much has.

Star Wars, ironically, has found more joy on the small screen compared to the big, but there’s still little denying that since The Mandalorian debuted in 2019, there’s a production line at work. Five series have screened, three more at least are incoming. And whilst on the one hand there’s something as successful as Andor, new Star Wars has become a little less special – and notably absent from the big screen, too.

The Mandalorian

Theatrically, the lack of boldness in choices by Disney is similarly reflected. The 2024 slate sees a sequel to the live action remake of The Lion King (a project heightened by the involvement of Barry Jenkins as director), a live action retelling of Snow White, new entries in the Planet Of The Apes and Alien sagas, three Marvel films, and some genuinely original-sounding material from its two animation arms.

2025? So far, two or three Marvel films, and a live action remake of 2016’s animated hit Moana.

Some of these films I’m really keen to see. Disney is also giving 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures a degree of autonomy in its releases, and there are spots of light there.

But when it comes to greenlighting blockbuster movies, the ongoing cannibalisation of the past is stopping Disney looking to the future.

Can you imagine Disney having the boldness in its current form, for instance, to try something like Oppenheimer or Barbie? Neither project would even be offered to the studio with any expectation. Why would anyone even take such a project to Disney’s doors?

We all know what Disney is looking for. It’s looking for the familiar, for more of the same, perhaps with some kind of modern twist. But still: safe foundations, movies oftentimes given to superb filmmakers to make, but with very strict boundaries to the sandbox that those filmmakers can work within.

Of course, other studios are similarly wary of taking a genuine risk, but at least there’s broader material that’s coming through. We’ve had a delightful year for big movies, and some degree of exploration. In the last year or so, major studios have released the likes of Matilda: The Musical, 65, Cocaine Bear, No Hard Feelings, The Lost City, Elvis, M3gan, Nope, The Pope’s Exorcist, Plane and 80 For Brady. I don’t like them all, but I like the range, and I like they exist. And in some of those, there’s evidence that studios are less looking to their back catalogue and trying to get a broader range of material moving.

The corner that Disney has backed itself into is that everything has to be instantly huge, and that’s impossible to sustain. Furthermore, the entirety of its live action slate – again, outside of the Fox projects it inherited – is looking into its history books to some degree.

Where’s the forward path? Where’s the one film on the slate that’s, y’know, a bit of a risk? The closest we’ve had in the last year is Haunted Mansion, and even that had the security blanket that if the movie failed, it might get more people into a theme park.

John Carter

John Carter

The cliche is to write here that something’s got to give, but I think in the case of Disney, it’s already started to, and has been for some time. The studio clearly burned itself a little on expensive films such as Tomorrowland, The Lone Ranger and John Carter just over a decade ago, none of which did the business it was hoping. But after it struck oil with its plan from the mid-2010s onwards, there’s been little incentive to pathfind, to keep innovating, to keep looking for stories that would benefit from a huge canvas. To build, perhaps, a new major franchise.

Disney is going nowhere, though. This isn’t doom and gloom, more a major player in the entertainment business that’s been in a rut for a year or two. The problem to my eyes that, when it comes to films, there’s little sign that it’s climbing out of said rut. And rather than taking one or two chances, it’s still cannibalising the back catalogue and leaning on key franchises that matters the most.

A live action Moana, less than a decade after the original? It can’t just be my eyes that rolled there, and it feels the decision behind that is more the norm than the exception. Yet it’s a symptom, isn’t it? Of a studio willing and actively able to feast on its past rather than develop its future.

The problem there? It’s a strategy that can’t carry on forever. And the cracks are very much showing…

Certain images: BigStock

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