Four Eras in Disney History – Trend Analysis

On Memorial Day weekend 2017, Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast crossed $500M at the domestic box office. Only eight films have reached this – four of which are Disney releases. Across all other benchmarks of box office success, Disney has left its closest competitor in the dust. What’s unique about Disney’s dominance at the box office is not just how much money it earns, but rather the focus Disney has brought to its annual theatrical slate. To understand this focus, I’ve categorized Disney releases into three buckets:

  1. Disney Animation: Produced by either Walt Disney Animation (“WDA”) or Pixar and bear the trademark Disney name.
  2. Disney Live Action: Marketed alongside the Disney name and mostly produced by Walt Disney Pictures (“WDP”).
  3. Non-Disney branded films: Distributed via Touchstone, Hollywood Pictures, and in later years, Marvel and LucasFilm. In other words, you don’t see the Disney name featured in any marketing.

With these categories in mind, let’s take a journey back to the 1990’s and track a once sprawling lineup of films into modern day.

The Katzenberg Era – 1990 to 1995

Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were atop the Mouse House as CEO and Studio Chief, respectively. At this time Disney’s brand name carried more weight than any other post-Walt era. Classic animated films like The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast carried the box office and earned rapturous critical reception. The annual film slate averaged 2-3 animated films (usually one or two being a re-release), 4-5 live-action films, and over a dozen films marketed without the Disney name.

By 1990, Katzenberg’s strategies were firing on all cylinders. WDA titles anchored the annual slate and they consistently averaged a higher box office gross per release than any other Disney film. See chart below.

Katzenberg EraAverage No. of FilmsAverage Box Office Gross
Stock Price+ 110.27%
Disney Animation2.33$92,533,357
Disney Live Action4.67$33,259,387
Non-Disney Branded17.67$26,909,021

 

Post-Katz Era – 1996 to 2002

After Katzenberg left Disney, his proven strategy lingered. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Despite multiple studio chiefs filling his gap during the next seven years, the slate carried the signature Katzenberg trademarks: a few animated hits (mainly supplied by Pixar) and high utilization of Touchstone’s adult and teenage audience. Nobody filled the top spot long enough to establish a different strategy.

While Disney was treading water, the industry was changing rapidly. The transition from hand-drawn to CG animation created new competitors in the marketplace including DreamWorks, Blue Sky Animation, and Pixar. Yes, at this time Pixar was fiercely competing with Disney for talent despite being in a distribution deal with the Mouse House.

With the talent pool splintered between multiple animation studios, the marketplace became flooded with animated offerings. During this time, Disney’s animation output slightly increased but with little marginal increase in box office performance. As you can see from the chart below, the Disney slate remained relatively unchanged in the post-Katz era.

Post-Katz EraAverage No. of FilmsAverage Box Office Gross
Stock Price- 16.89%
Disney Animation3.00$95,773,359
Disney Live Action4.43$51,686,932
Non-Disney Branded14.29$39,536,588

Despite each category improving slightly at the box office, Disney’s stock suffered. During this era, CEO Michael Eisner was wading into uncharted waters as he attempted to grow the business.

  • 1995, acquisition of ABC and ESPN television networks
  • 1998, planning begins for Hong Kong Disneyland
  • 1998, acquired a majority stake in the Anaheim Angels baseball team
  • 1998, maiden voyage of the now industry leading Disney cruise line
  • 1998, acquired Starwave, an internet business integral to giving ABC and ESPN an online presence

Through these acquisitions Disney became Hollywood’s first media conglomerate. However, corporate lawsuits and power mongering at the executive level had shareholders frazzled. The Disney family members and Disney executives were not seeing eye-to-eye. With so much tension in Eisner’s ivory tower, a change in management seemed afoot.

The Cook Era – 2003 to 2010

Dick Cook was the first studio chief to work with CEO Bob Iger, who took over for Eisner in late 2005. This new executive team made two acquisitions: Pixar and Marvel. Pixar was acquired in May 2006, and Iger immediately put Pixar’s creative and managerial talent in charge of WDA. This new oversight would breathe new life into the fledgling animation team. At this point a studio was lucky to have one animated hit a year. By 2007, Disney’s slate included two animated films. One Pixar and one WDA. Both hits.

On the live action front Disney began to narrow its focus for the first time. Things were clumsy at first. A studio chief’s job can sometimes be described as throwing a handful of darts all at once and hoping for one bullseye. Remember the Eddie Murphy PG-rated horror/comedy, The Haunted Mansion? Or The Country Bears? These darts were thrown along with Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. One was a bullseye. Two didn’t even hit the board.

The Cook era also witnessed the beginning of a still growing Hollywood trend: the franchise. The earliest iteration of Hollywood franchising was simply making sequels. This evolved into creating big-screen iterations of existing brands, and has since evolved into the connected universe. Cook found himself in the middle of this growing trend and brought the Pirates, Narnia, and National Treasure franchises to the screen.

As each of those franchises began to wind down (or in the case of Pirates, stay in the fridge long past the expiration date), Disney acquired Marvel. At this time Marvel was essentially a licensing company, selling its name to Fox, Sony, and Universal. Disney wisely ceased licensing in favor of developing its own Marvel films. We now know this as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Its success has shaped Hollywood as we know it. Every studio scrambled to develop a shared universe akin to the MCU. Universal launched its “Dark Universe” with this summer’s The Mummy. Paramount flirted with a connected universe of Mattel toy properties. Warner Brothers has the DC Comics.

Just ten years prior, Disney’s live action films were heavily reliant on Touchstone and the few WDP films were not franchise material. With the addition of Marvel, Disney focused less on Touchstone in favor of Marvel films. Not only did they have a loyal fan base, but the properties were easily integrated into Disney’s parks and resorts.  The same could hardly be said for a Touchstone film.

The overall slate was significantly reduced in the Cook era. Note in the chart below that even though the Marvel acquisition falls under this era, non-Disney branded content actually dipped on a per film average basis. This is due to film distribution contracts already in place with Paramount and Universal. Disney didn’t start pocketing MCU money until Marvel’s The Avengers (2012).

Cook EraAverage No. of FilmsAverage Box Office Gross
Stock Price+ 60.78%
Disney Animation2.38
$152,507,987
Disney Live Action6.38$98,365,581
Non-Disney Branded7.88$36,110,635

 

Alan Horn and the Modern Era – 2011 to Today

When Cook eventually stepped down, TV veteran Rich Ross filled the spot of studio chief for two short years. He greenlit several films that flopped, resulting in write-downs of hundreds of millions of dollars. “Write-down” is accountant-speak for flushing money down the toilet. Some of the turds include Mars Needs Moms, John Carter, and The Lone Ranger. His brevity in the boss’s seat show that even with a finely tuned strategy, the art behind picking what gets made is not as easy as it seems. Consider the films listed above: John Carter was a beloved sci-fi property (albeit dated) directed by Academy Award winner Andrew Stanton. The Lone Ranger reunited the creative team behind the wildly successful Pirates franchise. Both ideas sounded amazing on paper, but fell victim to a combination of poor timing, ineffective marketing, and Johnny Depp being a weirdo. As for Mars, I have no idea what Ross was thinking.

With Ross fired, Iger hired industry veteran Alan Horn who ushered in the modern era of Disney’s theatrical strategy: bring every film into a franchise fold. Horn inherited the most valuable brand portfolio in the world, and each brand has room to grow its respective franchises. In the minds of executives and their Wall Street bean counters, franchises eliminate risk which increases predictability and blah-blah-blah business-business-business. The stock market moves when businesses beat or miss expectations every quarter. It’s not always fair or even an accurate indicator of value, but that’s how the system works and Disney has built its slate around reality. Case in point:

  • Winter 2016 and 2017 both had a Marvel, Star Wars, and an animated film.
  • Spring 2016 and 2017 both had a live-action remake of a Disney classic and rode the wake of December’s Star Wars film.
  • Summer 2015, 2016, and 2017 had a Pixar and at least one Marvel film.

This strategy is great for Disney’s stock price, but after a while the movies start feeling manufactured rather than crafted. We’ve seen this with Pixar, the MCU, and WDP’s live action remakes of Disney classics. They’re being made to fit a corporate strategy rather than letting the corporate strategy revolve around the creativity. Part of what made the Katzenberg era so important was that Disney changed its business as a result of the WDA’s films. Now, they’re forcing Pixar to fit a corporate strategy. God help us if the same corrupts Star Wars.

Horn and the Modern EraAverage No. of FilmsAverage Box Office Gross
Stock Price+ 177.85%
Disney Animation3.00 $192,164,693
Disney Live Action4.67$88,566,454
Non-Disney Branded4.67$197,748,759

 

It’s easy to sit back and critique. But I critique because I care. My advice to Disney is to let each film breath. What an executive may see as a risky film, an artist sees an amazing opportunity to think differently and surprise an audience. Don’t make another Incredibles film because you need a guaranteed hit, make it because Brad Bird came up with an idea so good he won’t shut up about it.

Rather than building a slate quarter to quarter, build it based on the films that are ready to be made. If that means one year you release 15 movies and the next only 7, so be it. In either case each film will be doing more for its brand than sell toys. They’ll be creating lifelong fans that will follow the brand wherever it naturally develops.

***

Because I nerd-out over this stuff, I made a scatter plot of Disney releases from 1990 to 2016. I eliminated he top and bottom 10% (based on box office) because these outliers skewed the data. Ahem – looking at you, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. White dots, for example, represent animated films from WDA and Pixar. The trend line is made up of an average box office gross for that year in the animation category. For example, if there were 2 animated films in a given year that grossed $100M and $150M, the trend line would track at $125M. Also attached is an excel spreadsheet with the raw data I pulled from Box Office Mojo. Let me know what other trends you may find and remember, there’s always a story behind the numbers.

 

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