Why Disney Fans Should Be Concerned About the Fox Deal

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(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises. In this edition: why Disney fans should be very concerned about the upcoming deal to buy 20th Century Fox.)

Let’s get this right out of the way: yes, this is going to be a Debbie Downer essay. By now, it’s been a few days since the Walt Disney Company confirmed the rumors: they are aiming to buy 21st Century Fox, meaning that everything from Avatar to Die Hard to the X-Men to Hulu, FX, and National Geographic is going to be under the House of Mouse, should the deal be finalized and approved by all necessary parties. (It should go without saying, but that hasn’t happened yet, and may not happen for a little while.) Some folks, of course, are rejoicing at this news, tantalized by the thought that Charles Xavier and his mutant friends might make a pit stop in an Avengers movie somewhere down the road, to just name one example. There are, no doubt, financial upsides for both Disney and Fox in making this deal, but from my point of view, it’s hard to see a lot of good in this story.

Pushing the Press Around

In early November, the Los Angeles Times made waves online when it revealed that its entertainment journalists had been barred from attending press screenings of the latest Marvel movie, Thor; Ragnarok, as well as from watching advance screeners of TV shows distributed by networks like ABC. Why did Disney bar writers from these events? Because it didn’t like the journalism on display in this twopart story about Disneyland’s battle with the Anaheim City Council over the past year. The two-part feature by Daniel Miller is excellent reporting, all the more so because it riled Disney so much (and don’t forget: for all of the criticism that Disney levied at Miller’s articles, they never specified what exactly they disliked about the story). Ironically, until Disney’s upper management threw this tantrum, the story didn’t get quite as much attention from readers around the world, let alone those in Southern California. In short, Disney got a fast lesson in the Streisand Effect.

I wrote about this story right before Disney announced that it would reverse this ban against the Los Angeles Times. While the outcome was indeed encouraging, it only came about because journalists and organizations around the country stood in solidarity against the Walt Disney Company. That the ban no longer exists is a good thing. That it ever existed is, however, very troubling. I bring this story up in context with the possible Disney/Fox merger because the bullying tactics against the press are not automatically likely to go away if the Walt Disney Company becomes even larger, even more massive, and even more powerful.

It is, of course, possible that Disney purchasing 21st Century Fox and its various assets, from its film studios to its stake in the Hulu streaming service and beyond, won’t compel the company to further push back against stories it doesn’t like, writers who they feel pose a threat to their interests, and so on. But it’s important to remember: while we may enjoy the films and TV shows and theme parks that feature the Disney name (and I clearly do), that doesn’t mean that the company at large is anyone’s friend. If anything, the way the company acted in light of the Times story makes them seem like…well…

wall-e bnl

Becoming the Bad Guy?

This, in effect, is the second issue at hand with Disney’s merger with Fox. Disney is, of course, no stranger to purchasing other studios and properties. In 2006, they bought Pixar Animation Studios and brought John Lasseter and Ed Catmull into the fold at Disney Animation as well. (Recent stories about Mr. Lasseter suggest that was a great deal more unwise than it may have initially seemed to outsiders.) A couple years later, Disney bought Marvel, and then they bought Lucasfilm. These three studios make up a large amount of what Disney movies are on a yearly basis now, with Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe having become the company’s financial backbone. But while the films from these studios often depict a struggle between underdogs and a monolithic bad guy, the former triumphing over the latter in a victory for the little guys, Disney buying Fox only makes them seem more like the Goliath to someone else’s David.

A couple years after Disney bought Pixar, the animation studio released one of its best films, WALL-E. That film doesn’t spend a ton of time on describing how the remaining vestiges of the human race became so fat that they couldn’t walk around on their own two feet. We just see plenty of happy, wildly unhealthy humans rolling around on floating recliners on an outer-space cruise ship as they enjoy the spoils of what appears to be the only corporation left in humanity: Buy-n-Large. The few shots we see of abandoned BNL stores call to mind the Super Targets or Wal-Marts that appear in various metropolitan markets around the country. But BNL’s influence extends beyond the superstores of the 21st century; the last footage we see of a live-action president (played by Fred Willard) suggests that he was part of the BNL corporation as well as being a politician. By the time that WALL-E finds himself on the cruise ship Axiom, there’s no separation between BNL (referred to in a nursery overseen by robots as “your very best friend”) and any of the services offered on the ship or even the clothes the humans wear.

Disney is not at the level of BNL…yet. One of the side stories of Disney buying Fox is that its current CEO Robert Iger will extend his term at the top of the company through 2021, meaning that those pervasive rumors earlier this year about him running for President in 2020 are now moot. But it’s hard not to see some parallels between the rise of Disney over the last decade-plus (there was once a time when they didn’t even own Pixar, let alone Lucasfilm, Marvel, or Fox) and a massive conglomerate like BNL. Disney does not have superstores like the BNLs of the real world, but its products are everywhere to a point of maddening ubiquity. It’s not like Disney buying Fox would be the first time they’ve expanded their growth, but this time, it suggests something more disquieting and engulfing.

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