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‘We’re not embarrassed by the fact that we have big blockbusters,’ Disney exec says

How Disney+ and Hulu will change theatrical releases

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Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios is at the heart of a debate. One side is represented by directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who argue that superhero movies dominating the box office make it difficult for any other type of movie to survive, let alone thrive, in theaters. On the other is Disney, a company whose executives argue that it’s one of the largest supporters of cinema and theatrical releases.

Disney is a company poised to make $10 billion this year at the box office — the highest for one studio in history — on the backs of remakes, sequels, and franchise installments. Scorsese, Coppola, and a community of cinephiles have long bemoaned what mega entertainment companies like Disney are doing to film, but company executives feel differently.

“We are not embarrassed by the fact that we have big blockbuster movies that people enjoy,” Kevin Mayer, Disney’s head of direct-to-consumer products, told The Verge at a recent media day in New York City. “If you look at the box office success, that’s an indicator of how popular and how embraced these films are by real audiences.”

Back-and-forth remarks from filmmakers and studio executives about Scorsese’s take on superhero films dominating the box office have escalated. Everything came to a head when Scorsese published an essay in The New York Times’ Opinion section clarifying his remarks, examining the relationship between what movies get theatrical releases and proper marketing. The bottom line, Scorsese wrote, is “that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.”

“For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art,” Scorsese wrote.

Mayer and other Disney executives, including CEO Bob Iger, don’t see it that way. Disney is “one of the biggest supporters of the theatrical business in the world,” Mayer said, adding that Disney’s films are “really helping cinema quite a bit.” Now that Disney owns 21st Century Fox, including beloved studio Fox Searchlight (The Shape of Water, Juno, Boys Don’t Cry, The Wrestler), Mayer said Disney wants to continue supporting the “smaller, edgier, more artsy films” by giving them full theatrical releases.

That doesn’t mean every movie will get a theatrical release; because Disney is in the streaming business, some titles will be made exclusively for Disney+ and Hulu. Take The Lady and the Tramp, a live-action remake starring Justin Theroux and Janelle Monaé. It was supposed to be a theatrical release, but was switched to a Disney+ exclusive launch title instead.

Live-action remakes are an important part of Disney’s theatrical calendar, but enthusiasm may be waning. Although The Lion King and Aladdin both crossed the $1 billion mark worldwide, Dumbo only pulled in $353 million. All three movies received mixed reviews. From a business perspective, it makes sense for some movies to receive streaming exclusivity windows, where they may bring in more subscribers, than to get standard theatrical releases.

Iger suggested on Disney’s most recent earnings call that studios such as Fox Searchlight could start making exclusive movies for Hulu. Those decisions are made through conversations between the studios, Disney’s content team, and input from Iger himself, Mayer said.

“So we continue to make more incremental films,” Mayer said. “We think that we’re deploying in the right way. And I think we think we’re supporting the cinema business point.”

Unlike Netflix, Disney isn’t abandoning a traditional theatrical release schedule in order to appeal to digital subscribers. The company wants to continue working with talent to bring their films into theaters — especially blockbusters, like Avengers: Endgame.

“We are happy to have those films, and those films — our big event films — will continue to be theatrically released,” Mayer said.

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