Disney's season of utter dominance
If you saw a movie in a theater this summer, it was probably a Disney movie.
That's just statistics. The studio that Walt built had an absolutely dominant summer, pulling in more than $6 billion worldwide off blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame and Toy Story 4 and shattering the record for highest-grossing year by the end of the July.
And Disney did it by giving people what they want: Not movies, per se, but must-see events.
With so much content to watch on so many different devices, audiences only think of an increasingly limited set of movies as worth venturing out to see. As Variety's Rebecca Rubin writes, "Disney movies are standing out" in part because "the studio has managed to do what 'peak TV' has: to make them appointment viewing."
The summer's first big blockbuster was arguably the end-of-April release of Avengers: Endgame, since its run continued well into the season's dogs days. Endgame is probably the best example of Disney's "appointment viewing" in action. This end-of-an-era event was marketed as the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the conclusion of a 22-movie series that started with 2008's Iron Man. It was unquestionably the year's most-anticipated film and it delivered, passing Avatar to become the highest-grossing movie in history.
But Disney wasn't content with one culmination to a series. Pitched as an epilogue to Endgame and the true end of Marvel's third phase of movies, Spider-Man: Far From Home (distributed by Sony but a co-production between Sony's Columbia Pictures and Disney's Marvel Studios) was essentially an event by association. It delivered too, pulling in $1.1 billion.
Toy Story 4, Aladdin, and The Lion King also drew in viewers of all ages whose love for Woody, the Genie, and Simba was fostered by Disney for decades; since audiences adore these characters so much, any opportunity to see them on the big screen after a long absence was naturally event-worthy.
Those are the five highest-grossing films of the summer, and in terms of tentpoles — massive blockbuster movies that prop up a studio's business — five is now considered enough. Scott Mendelson notes at Forbes that viewers "literally within the last few years" started not only spending "the vast majority of their moviegoing money on the biggest of big 'event movies,'" but also “spending more of their money on a declining number of big flicks" rather than more evenly distributing the ticket sales around. As The Hollywood Reporter points out, this summer was defined by the absence of middle tier hits, i.e. movies that pull in between $200 million and $300 million domestically.
Making the disparity between the haves and have-nots more extreme was the fact that Disney's blockbusters this summer were generally well-received, while a higher volume of competing tentpole films than usual weren't. Movies like Men in Black: International and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, both of which underperformed and didn't crack $115 million domestically, were hit with green splats on Rotten Tomatoes, with the former getting a dismal rating in the 20s. Meanwhile, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and Toy Story 4 were three of the summer's best-reviewed movies.
One of the few ways to succeed if you weren't Disney this summer was to offer counter-programming that appeals to another audience entirely. For that reason, the season's biggest non-Disney and non-Spider-Man movie domestically was the hard R action-flick John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, which blew away expectations with a U.S. gross nearly two times that of its predecessor. The adult drama Once Upon a Time in Hollywood additionally scored the best opening of Quentin Tarantino's career. Hobbs & Shaw also performed respectably during a month clear of a new Disney blockbuster. But tentpoles offering the same kinds of experiences as Disney, only with less valuable intellectual property and sometimes worse products, had almost no chance.
The good news for those studios who struggled this year is that next summer is anyone's game. Disney is easing up on massive theatrical releases following the debut of its streaming service Disney+ this fall. Nothing on the studio's schedule for 2020 seems to be as much of a box office force to be reckoned with, leaving more room for movies like Warner Bros.' Wonder Woman 1984 and Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick.
But as it becomes more challenging every year to drive audiences to theaters, fewer and fewer of these giant tentpoles are likely to excel to the degree their budgets require. And if that bar for what qualifies as an event continues to be raised, and Disney continues to so easily clear it with crowd-pleasing films based on recognizable brands, the day may come when the summer of Disney becomes the new normal.
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