It’s difficult not to look at Disney’s record-breaking year, securing eight of the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2019 domestically and its impressive entrance into streaming with Disney+, without whispering to yourself “maybe Martin Scorsese had a point.”
Disney’s new record follows the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The film grossed $175.5 million domestically in its opening weekend, just skirting past Universal Pictures’ critically acclaimed horror film, Us, which grossed $175.05 million total domestically. Although Rise of Skywalker is currently the 10th highest-grossing movie in 2019 in the United States, that’s expected to change as more people go out to watch the film in the coming days.
Glancing at Disney’s releases this year yields an unprecedented collection of guaranteed hits. Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home (Marvel Studios and Disney co-produced the film with Sony, but Marvel Studios had full creative control) brought an end the Infinity Saga. Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2 were highly anticipated next installments in adored franchises. Aladdin and The Lion King were remakes of some of Disney’s most popular ‘90s animated films, and The Rise of Skywalker is a Star Wars movie. It works out to more than $10 billion in global revenue.
The list reads like an algorithm spewed out movies people would pay $20 to watch. It also epitomizes Disney’s decade-long strategy. Everything belongs to a franchise, or is designed to potentially start a franchise. Even Frozen, released as a standalone movie in 2013 with a fully contained story, was brought back for a sequel and a series of smaller spinoffs because the demand was there. Plus, merchandise sales were through the roof.
Everything is going according to plan for the House of Mouse. Disney began the decade with two key purchases: Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012. The combined more than $8 billion investment has exceedingly paid off for Disney; Marvel Studios has made more than $28 billion at the box office alone, while Star Wars is the centerpiece of Disney’s future, Disney+. The goal was to build out franchises Disney could consistently use and build worlds around.
The strategy paid off. Each year of the last 10 years is punctuated by Disney’s dominance. 2018’s box office saw the successes of Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, and Incredibles 2 — all from studios Disney acquired between 2006 and 2012. The Last Jedi and Beauty and the Beast topped 2017. Rogue One, Finding Dory, and Captain America: Civil War were 2016’s biggest releases.
The only years Disney didn’t completely dominate the top 10 domestic box office releases were between 2011 and 2013, just before any new Star Wars films came out, right as the Marvel Cinematic Universe was finding its pace, and before Disney’s live-action renaissance really took off. There’s something fitting, albeit sad and worrisome, about Disney ending its decade of rising into a singular Hollywood powerhouse by sitting upon the box office throne.
“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.”
Everyone wants to know what happens next. Contrary to popular belief, Disney doesn’t own all the important IP. Warner Bros. has Harry Potter, DC Comics, and Game of Thrones. Sony has Spider-Man. Universal has the Fast and Furious and Despicable Me franchises. The biggest difference is Sony and Warner Bros. have suffered a series of critical failures whereas Disney’s films (especially Marvel titles) have largely done well enough. If the quality of Disney movies starts to slide, so will box office tickets.
Let’s look at next year. Disney’s 2020 is far less packed with anticipated movies. There are a couple of major titles, including a live-action adaptation of Mulan and Black Widow and The Eternals from Marvel. But none of those have the cultural weight and recognition of Endgame, The Lion King, or a Toy Story film. Disney’s future isn’t just theatrical releases anymore, nor is it arguably a main focus. 2020 is about Disney+, the company’s streaming service, and continuing to entice people to sign up. All eyes from investors are on Disney’s streaming strategy, not necessarily just on box office returns.
Disney’s already shifted a number of theatrical titles into Disney+ exclusives (the Lady and the Tramp remake, Noelle), pulled its titles from competitors to offer exclusivity, and is bringing non-Disney franchises like The Simpsons over to ensure people have something to put on in the background. Expect to see more out of Disney+ in 2020, especially as the company heads toward its first full year as a streamer. And by 2021, when Avatar 2 and a number of other highly anticipated movies hit theaters, Disney could be at a place where it dominates the box office and streaming.