Disney’s next step into a post-Fox world: More tentpole releases, but fewer movies?

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Jan 8, 2019, 5:00 PM EST (Updated)

The theater is changing. Thanks to the burgeoning TV-scape of streaming entertainment, major studios long preoccupied with luring patrons to the cinema on a steady and varied diet of feature films are rethinking their approach, as Netflix and its video-on-demand kin profit by keeping those same would-be theater patrons, more and more often, at home.

But there’ll always be mondo money to be made from mondo productions: Star Wars, The Avengers, Jurassic Park, and Avatar. In sheer dollars (not adjusted for inflation), eight of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in the history of film bear the banner of sci-fi, animation, superhero, or fantasy fare.

But once Disney-Fox's gamechanging merger clears regulatory approval, could we be seeing an expanded blockbuster slate under Disney’s newly swollen umbrella?

Not necessarily, observers say. In a new report by The Hollywood Reporter, the paper holds that the juggernaut studio may still stick to a tight and targeted release slate despite its burgeoning film resources. 

"It is unlikely that Disney would grow its annual theatrical release calendar significantly," THR offers, adding: "Disney released just eight films in 2017 from across its empire, which includes Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Disney Animation and Disney's live-action studio.”

Most tellingly, it's a strategy that succeeded big time: According to data from the report, Disney ended 2017 as the top-earning studio, with $6.46 billion in revenues despite churning out the least number of films — eight — compared with, say Warner Bros., which pumped out 20 films last year. Not to mention the fact that the movie industry saw its lowest ticket sales in 25 years, as audiences decamp for other entertainment options like the burgeoning streaming market.  

Couple Disney's strategy with the trend away from lots of films for smaller audiences, and toward only a few movies that can cast a wide net, and the theater may increasingly become a place that vacillates between dead as a doornail — when there’s no tentpole release on the screen — and packed like the mall on Black Friday when there is.

The numbers support that. “Back in 2007, the six major studios released 150 titles, then midrange movies began falling off their slates,” THR reports. “In 2017, they released 93.”

That was 10 years ago, when there were still six big film studios. But as Disney and its competitors slowly consolidate their resources, lavish the lion’s share of them on safe bets at the theater, and turn the remainder of their attention to capturing the viewing audience in their living rooms, expect to catch fewer movies at the theater — even as more and more of your ticket stubs bear the names of sci-fi, fantasy, and CGI flicks.

Looking at the biggest films of last few years, two traditional Disney features — Frozen and Beauty and the Beast — are among those, to say nothing of other Disney properties both familiar as such (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and, with its takeover of 21st Century Fox, soon-to-be new to the family (Avatar).

It’s fair to say, then, that Disney knows a thing or two about the moneymaking value of tentpole movies, those spare-no-expense cultural events that manage to draw people from all walks of life to the theater.

It’s perhaps one reason why genre films remain on an upward trajectory. The exorbitant cost of making effects-laden features with A-list celebrities, exotic location shots, reality-bending story arcs, and mind-boggling promotional budgets is often handsomely returned to the studio when viewers come back for seconds … and thirds. It paves the way for licensing and merchandising arrangements that rely on the film itself as a two-hour commercial for all that comes after.

But while Disney has taken what may prove to be only a first step in consolidating its brand power by absorbing 21st Century Fox — one of Disney’s “big six” peers within the familiar Hollywood studio system — it’s simply following industry changes that it both helped create (must-see event movies on the one hand), and seeks to control (the Netflix-led shift away from steady theater attendance and toward home entertainment, on the other).

What that may mean is a new reality at the cineplex in the years to come, as the major studios grow increasingly hesitant to risk their film budgets on niche, experimental, or avant-garde art flicks. It could mean fewer movies overall — but an increasing handful of heavily promoted landmark features, like 2017's Star Wars: The Last Jedi, that hoover hundreds of millions of dollars in profit during their first run at the domestic box office.