4 Ways How 2020 will change Disney

I don’t think I’m alone in declaring 2020 to be an absolute dumpster fire of a year.  Wildfires in the Amazon.  Trump avoiding getting voted out of office due partisan politics.  A divisive general election.  Multiple murders of unarmed black men by police.  Race riots and protests.  Mysterious abductions from armed militia in Portland.  Wildfires in California ignited by gender reveal parties.  Roaming teenage terrorists with assault rifles.  Cripplingly tiny stimulus packages.  And, you know, a freaking global pandemic mishandled by our administrative officials that have caused insofar over 210,000 deaths!

And here I am wondering how Disney’s doing.

That probably sounds like my priorities are a tad skewed, but my curiosity’s been particularly piqued about how my country, and by extension, the world, is going to look in a post-Donald Trump/COVID-19 world.  And because of my interest with the Walt Disney Company, my mind wanders in that direction, too.

So how will this abysmal trainwreck of a calendar year affect the Mouse House in the years to come?  Well, I have a few thoughts…

1. Song of the South is pretty much done for

I’ve made it no secret that I do like 1946’s Song of the South.  And no, I’m not a racist, and yes, I do see the problems people have with it.  I get it.  But I can’t help it: James Baskett’s portrayal of Uncle Remus is wholeheartedly endearing, the Uncle Tom stereotype it may be, and the animated characters of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear are wonderful. But fans like me have hoped against hope for years that Disney would finally own up to making Song of the South and just release it.  Would people be mad?  Sure, but they don’t have to watch it.  Could they preface it by having historians discuss racial discourse in a documentary bonus feature?  Absolutely, and I’d watch that over and over.  And really, the only reasons why Disney has waffled so much on releasing the movie is due to the enduring popularity of the Oscar-winning melody of “Zip-a-Dee-doo-dah” and the 1989 attraction Splash Mountain.  But it now looks like that Disney is fully committed to burying Song of the South forever.

Thanks to the abundance of camera phones, the public is getting more and more video footage released of unarmed black Americans getting brutally assaulted or outright murdered by the police.  The Black Lives Matter movement has snowballed as more unnecessary murders accumulate.  And much like the LGBT pride movement over the past decade, big-name companies are cautiously voicing their support in hopes of attaining brand loyalty.  Disney, of course, is no different.  By recognizing the validity of the movement, Disney has capitalized a social justice movement, turning it into a marketing gimmick.  I shouldn’t be upset, because a good initiative, even if done for the wrong reasons, is still a good one.  Better they embrace this than go backwards.

Part of this culminated into the surprise June announcement that Disney would close Splash Mountain and re-theme the ride to be based on 2009’s The Princess and the Frog.  By removing the characters from the ride, and by extension, the character merchandise at the gift shops, Disney has killed a significant mainstay of their appearance in popular culture.  Kids already barely know who Br’er Rabbit is, so by re-theming Splash Mountain, the characters fade even further into the abyss.  But hey, at least we still have “Zip-a-Dee-doo-dah”, right?

Well, not so fast.  Not long after the announcement, the instrumental rendition that played at Disneyland’s promenade was scrubbed from the ambiance tracks. 

Time will, of course, tell whether Disney chooses to continue to conceal Song of the South like the Dursleys hide Harry Potter.  But with Br’er Rabbit getting evicted from Florida and Anaheim and the song getting a significant delete, it’s a pretty safe bet that the matter is closing.  The fewer people know of it, the less demand Disney hopes to hear about it.  Never mind it doesn’t work like that, but for the foreseeable future, Disney is telling us to sit down, be quiet, and we are not to discuss this matter further.

2. The MCU hype has cooled

From 2008 till 2019, we were glued to YouTube, Facebook, and theaters alike in our celebration of Marvel.  The movies came out at a rapid fire and fairly consistent pace.  The post-credit teasers fed our fix.  Every new casting decision and trailer release were practically events in and of themselves.  Marvel trained us real good and we loved it.  We watched with absolute rapture as 11 years of cinema history went to-to-toe with Thanos and capped off a marvelous franchise in the most explosive, awe-inspiring way.  Then we got a bit of a denouement with Spider-Man: Far From Home.  That movie’s post credits scene brought back fan-favorite J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson in his first MCU appearance.  To top it off, he revealed to all of New York City Parker’s biggest anxiety: his secret identity!  Great balls of fire, what would that mean for the third Spider-Man movie?!  And speaking of upcoming movies, what about Black Panther 2Guardians of the Galaxy 3?  What about all the actually-announced Thor: Love and Thunder, Shang-Chi, Blade, The Eternals, and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness?  Oh my Gods, I almost forgot, they’re gonna release series like Loki, Wandavision, Captain Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and What If…? on Disney+, too!  And lest we forget, Black Widow’s long awaited solo title coming in May! 

…And then COVID-19 happened.

The MCU paused at simultaneously the very best and very worst time for Marvel.  On one hand, we got the closure we needed with Avengers: Endgame, and while it’s a damn shame we’ve lost Stan Lee and Chadwick Boseman, at least we had them all the way through the Infinity saga.  Yeah, it bites that we still can’t see Black Widow, we at least got through to the end of phase 3.  However, because movies have been put on hold for the time being, no new Marvel stuff has been forthcoming, and time, the cruel mistress she is, has eroded our memories of what it was like to be tenuously strung along.

Now, Iron Man’s dead, Cap’s a ninety-year-old, Bruce crippled his arm, Gamora and Black Widow are dead, and of course, we won’t see T’Challa return.  Shang-Chi and the Eternals face an uphill battle in brand recognition (Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy pulled it off, but I think we can all agree that was truly lightning in a bottle.)  It’s going to take some serious effort to restart all that pre-COVID MCU hype.  Not helped by the fact their Disney+ shows were all delayed by months when they could have spent that time re-indoctrinating us during quarantine.

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Disney+ pretty much saved the company completely

I did not like the idea for Disney+ when it was first announced, and frankly, I’m still not thrilled with it as a concept.  Some of my fears have been confirmed, and yes, I do have a subscription (Oh shut up!).  But let’s be honest: it’s a darn good thing they came out with it when they did.  You know, barely a month before China realized something was wrong in Wuhan?  And a certain pandemic drove us to stay indoors and turn on any and all streaming services to help us pass the time?

It was no secret that Disney was losing a ton of money.  They couldn’t release movies to theaters, which means no box office revenue and merchandise sales.  A highly contagious virus means closing the theme parks, which means no ticket sales and no merchandise or food sales.  What little they saved in operating costs and cast member wages meant nothing compared to the frighteningly terrifying vacuum their money was disappearing into.  The primary source of funding the company had was their still-fairly-new streaming service which only cost households $13 a month to binge some Disney goodness.

Now, like I pointed out before, Disney just hasn’t been able to release movies in theaters since Pixar’s Onward.  Some theaters tentatively experimented with releasing their theatrical releases to digital with mixed success, particularly with releases of Trolls: World Tour and Scoob!.  Disney clearly wanted to test the waters and it hasn’t gone particularly flawlessly.  Disney has been forced to release some of their lower-stake titles like Artemis Fowl and The One and Only Ivan on the service.

Of course, Mulan came, and Disney clearly hoped it would be their summer tentpole blockbuster for its original August release.  How do we know this?  Because unlike the other two, Disney requires us to buy the movie for a whopping $30 – remember that’s more that twice a monthly subscription! – just to watch it before its free release in December.  Disney would not have been this shameless unless they sunk some serious costs into its production and anticipating it to be their next billion-dollar gangbusters.  Even despite the outrage many had about this exorbitant charge, Disney was still able to rake in even more revenue, further ensuring Disney will live to extort…I mean, make art next year.

Here’s hoping the waits for Black Widow, Soul, and Jungle Cruise will have been worth it, assuming any of them get released to theaters.

4. Expect to see A LOT of cost-cutting measures for years to come.

The number one thing I hate most about about Disney’s approach to capitalism is their general modus operandi.  It makes business sense to invest heavily in ventures you’re certain will make money and temper the purse strings on the ones you feel won’t.  But the times they skimp on the budget are sometimes glaringly obvious and can often cause consumers to think Disney’s cheating them.  For a good chunk of the decade, Disney’s go-to for squeezing out more money from park patrons were dessert parties and dance parties.  Yes, a lot of people are willing to pay $30 for a two hour event involving characters, music, and some of their let’s-be-honest-they’re-just-kind-of-okay cupcakes, but you can tell they’d much rather do this than build more rides.

But here’s the problem: that’s their shtick during normal, non-pandemic-stricken times!  You know, when they’re not losing money hand over fist due to a complete shutdown?  So when this pandemic finally goes away, what are they going to do?  What else?  Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice.  Uh…not, like, bonuses for executives or important stuff.  Of course not.  No, it means trimming budgets for everything else.  How do we know this?  My friends, I give you Case Study Number One: 1999 – 2011.

By 1999, Michael Eisner had blown so much money into his Disneyland Paris idea that he was crestfallen when the investment failed to pay off.  He grew similarly despondent when his grand plan to build Disney’s America in Virginia caused an overwhelming PR nightmare.  For the rest of his tenure, Eisner was determined to pinch every penny, particularly when it came to theme parks.  Projects like Epcot’s Project Gemini, DisneySea, and Animal Kingdom’s Beastly Kingdomme were shelved entirely.  California Adventure, Walt Disney Studios, and Hong Kong Disneyland were built with stringent budgets.  The retooling of Journey into Imagination was due strictly to financial woes when Kodak threatened to pull its sponsorship.  In 2001 alone, there was the tepid opening of California Adventure, the Rocket Rods debacle, the reviled opening of Journey into Your Imagination, the short-lived but catastrophic tenure of Paul Pressler at Disneyland, the opening of the abysmal Chester and Hester’s, and to top it all off…September 11th.

Yes, the infamous national tragedy hit the Disney parks hard.  Chief among the reasons was people were now too afraid to fly in airplanes to travel, so Disney – already hurting – was hit even harder.  Hours were slashed, more projects were canceled.  Layoffs.  A new hotel, Disney’s Pop Century, which opened in 2003, had halted construction midway through developing its second half and that part was turned into a whole new resort…in 2012!  The most glaring of these was the shuttering of River Country, the tiny water park that already suffered a multitude of issues, but executives realized it was a loss that had to be cut.  This phase lasted for the rest of the decade, even after Eisner’s departure in 2005, and several smaller scale projects filled their construction schedules.  The only reason I even cite 2011 as the end date was because that was when Disney announced their partnership with James Cameron to build Pandora: World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  For all intents and purposes, it meant Disney was finally willing to invest in a wild and innovative idea with sophisticated technology.  It had been the first time since the park opened we saw anything like that from them.

As I write this, Disney is laying off 28,000 cast members, in addition to the Grand Floridian Society Orchestra and character performer Yehaa Bob.  The Orchestra had been playing at the resort for 32 years, and Yehaa Bob 23.  Epcot had been planning a slow rollout of redesigning Future World, and while no announcements have been made about that, we do know the Mary Poppins ride planned for Epcot’s Future World has been delayed indefinitely.  These are only the first few major revelations since Disney World has reopened, and Disneyland has yet to open again.  The Minnie Van service has been retired.  Character meet-and-greets, parades, and fireworks have all been suspended.

What else may happen?  If the late-Eisner/Early-Iger era is any indication, we’ll see new attractions that’ll rely primarily on screens, more ride closures, more dance parties, and higher ticket prices.  Disney knows full well they can slap a Disney label on something and enough suckers will buy it, but it’s at best, a short term gain, long term loss.  Sooner rather than later, the public will see through the facade and we’ll take our money elsewhere. But there’s only one course of action: serious investment into something public wants…and it isn’t hard. A new E-ticket. A good new E-ticket. (I mean…we all know they will never lower admission prices.)

Even Disney fans are hopelessly distracted when Disney builds a whole new land or attraction that was a considerable investment. I know this sounds cynical, even detrimental to the cause I’m writing for, but if there’s one thing we want from Disney, it’s for them to deliver on what they promise, even if they charge us exorbitant amounts for it. A new E-ticket is the best long-term investment, especially if they use good special effects, tell a good story, and have a high rider capacity.

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I hope things take a turn for the better. 2020 has been a terrible year and we deserve a respite after COVID-19 and the current administration. Maybe I can finally relax and watch my favorite Disney movies without feeling guilty about not stressing about the state of affairs in the world. Once the virus disappears and the white supremacists scurry back to their holes, maybe we all can enjoy Disney entertainment guilt-free once again.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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