Classic Hollywood, New Monopoly

On Recent Events in Disneyland, AKA The Film Industry

In a recent event bearing the predictably cynical title ‘investor day¹,’ Disney revealed a slew of new Marvel and Star Wars titles, the majority of which are new series’ for their Disney+ streaming service. The new films include a fifth Indiana Jones movie – whose haggard star seems indicative of the infinite, stale repetition of these ventures – and Patty Jenkins’ Rogue Squadron. Stocks in the monolithic company skyrocketed after these announcements, confirming more than ever that the current pop culture industry can, at least for a while, sustain itself on vague promises.

Only the most devout fans of these franchises would argue that the studio has any significant artistic integrity; most point instead to a clear demand for their content, alongside their seeming liberalism, as justifications for their entertainment empire. Even more rare, in our era of free-market ideology, is any viable opposition to their economic stranglehold on the film and television industry, which already represents a great threat to creative expression as well as to the freedoms of studios, distributors, independent theatres, and their workers.

The last two years have been ones of exponential growth for the company. They became the first studio to have five films gross $1 billion in a single year (2019); and, with their recent Fox merger, they now control 38 percent of the U.S. film market, by far the largest amount in the history of the studio system. Indeed, while we are certainly at an unprecedented apex of corporate culture and inequality, the Golden Age of Hollywood and its subsequent breakdown can help us understand where Disney are now, what its precedents are, and whether or not it is justifiable to challenge it.

Contrasting the Mouse’s attempt at monopoly, though in many ways sharing its rigorous command, Hollywood’s peak years in the early 20th century were dominated by five major studios. The largest, MGM, had a market share of around 22 percent at its height. They were vertically integrated, meaning that each aspect of movie-making, from production to exhibition, was centrally managed. According to Britannica, the system of vertical integration meant that studios owned, by 1930, 2600 first-run theatres – a small proportion that made three quarters of the revenue.

In the heyday of these production giants, encompassing the 1920s up until the late 1940s, a practice known as ‘block booking’ allowed studios to force independent theatre chains to purchase a number of unseen movies alongside the first-class star vehicles that they actually wanted. Screens were – as they undoubtedly are now, however forcefully – saturated by the same sellers shifting rubbish alongside single heavy-hitters. Price fixing and discrimination against independent theatres were widespread.

Unfortunately, despite our distance from this period, some of its more insidious methods have clear modern parallels. Disney themselves have already been responsible for a number of coercive practises that harm independent cinemas, penalising them for more of the already gargantuan box office takings if they dared to move The Force Awakens to a smaller screen (even after three weeks), as well as restricting access to their recently-acquired Fox catalogue titles for theatres that also want to play first-run Disney titles.

For Hollywood’s Golden Age, the counter for this hegemony was an earth-shattering one. The ‘Paramount Decree’ of 1948 (appropriately titled considering its economic and ethical significance) ended this reign through a number of measures, most significantly by forcing production companies to sell off their theatre chains. Block booking became limited to five movies, which were now pre-screened for transparency. Antitrust laws like these were designed to prevent monopoly and to ensure consumer freedoms, and their effect on the industry was severe.

Audience numbers and profits were severely handicapped, though, with the advent of television, the amount of blame levelled at this legal battle is likely overstated. A boom in independent film-making and a breakdown of censorship laws followed, culminating in the New Hollywood movement and the rise of the blockbuster. Ironically, Walt Disney himself utilised this breakdown of the big studios to consolidate his power, forming a parent company to maintain the rights of his pre-1953 works and to handle distribution of newer works.

More often than not, the “Big Five” studios failed to recognise the importance of their back catalogues, and thus suffered by their own hands as well as those of the government. Disney, like most of the corporate conglomerates that now rule the film-making world, were not recognised in the suit. However, its enforcement formed an implicit threat of legal action, making it clear that studios should keep their hands away from cinema chains.

So, why does this matter now?

Well, in August last year, the decrees were lifted. Citing the fact that it is ‘unlikely that the remaining defendants can reinstate their cartel,’ these fairly well-enshrined laws have been lifted for a two year ‘sunset termination’ period, after which they will cease entirely. The prevalence of streaming services is another clear reason why people cast off the Paramount case as irrelevant. Repeatedly, outlets suggest that companies will simply not buy out theatres because of their continued downfall.

This would perhaps suffice if it weren’t so obviously a consolidation of market power, a kick in the teeth for independent venues who rely on the diversity of releases as well as a reasonable share of the profits. Companies will now be able to fully manipulate ticket prices and force cinemas to play films exclusively, or for periods that will make them miniscule profits against bigger venues that can rely on huge turnouts. If I were a Disney executive, for example, I could ban all Marvel content from places that wished to play repertory, independent, and art films.

Even bleaker is the prospect of cinemas being owned entirely by production companies. Considering that Disney is one of the only studios that makes mass entertainment of a scale comparable to old Hollywood, going out to see movies could be relegated to Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars features. In recent years, ownership of the industry has translated into a perceived demand, and the idea that adults would want to watch anything other than superheroes on-screen is increasingly viewed as pretentious and absurd.

It is true that people willingly veer towards these very bland, repetitious stories, but we should not underestimate the real constraining power of streaming services as well as advertising and social media. The popularity of these IPs becomes perpetual, constantly and idiotically defended by passive fans whose blinded critical faculties are seldom unleashed except for when a great director hurls some mild criticism their way. While places like Netflix bank on the cachet of classic movies, their libraries actively reject them. Apparent freedom gives way to absolute dictation of cultural opinion and choice.

Of course, Neoliberal economic theory dictates that monopolies such as Disney’s should not be legally challenged because they will inevitably be usurped by cheaper, more versatile competition. There are obviously a myriad of fallacies to this view, namely that the actual practice of Laissez-faire capitalism does not yield this contest, especially in such a mechanised, expensive business; and that total control provides immense opportunities for state collusion and for the destruction of rival creators and viewpoints.

While Disney may just be a symptom of wider societal injustice and the formation of the billionaire class, we must encourage fans to become more aware of the industrial processes behind entertainment they enjoy. Inverse evidence of this is present in the fact that they are instinctually defensive when even this outside element is criticised. It is precisely this sense of demand that legitimises anything that a company does wrong, even if their clear acts of coercion serve to indicate their own insecurities. Only by uniting expression to its industrial context can we actually understand what is stifling it.

As even its most cogent critics have noted (Theodor Adorno, for example), there is no use in absolutely disregarding the artifacts of the culture industry. The Golden Age of Hollywood was in fact an excellent period of craftsmanship and invention. Those who could manoeuvre its strict limitations, however briefly (Welles, Ophüls, Sirk, etc.), created some of the greatest works of film art.

On the other hand, we must intuit the purpose of these newer examples from what we see. In the eyes of most audience members, the very best of the Marvel and Star Wars directors are still packhorses. The movies themselves are almost identical in visual style, though their appeal lies more in their grand, inspirational narratives and in the investment people find in this shared, familiar iconography. The issue becomes not whether or not it is great art, but if it is really worth caring.

Realistically, people understand that ten new Star Wars titles are hardly going to be the pinnacle of artistic originality. And that’s fine. Some of them may even turn out to be good. Disney’s illusion of diversity is far worse when viewed through a political lens. By their own cyclical logic of cultural monopoly, Disney has fed to us the ridiculous conclusion that Marvel movies in particular, inherently corporate and conservative from their conception, are beacons of progression and hope for millions of people.

This applies to all Disney products, whose unity implies the mentality of a little something for everyone. In them, a purported corpus of political discourse is suggested – from the now impossibly vague antifascist resistance of Star Wars to the imperialist propaganda of Iron Man – that is universally self-serving and undemocratic. Alienation is mistaken for choice and fulfilment. Ultimately, the worst thing that Disney’s economic and cultural hegemony represents is a repression of our ability to dream.

¹I wrote this a while ago and evidently didn't pitch it to enough places, hence the anachronism. 


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