Borrok: The monopolizing of culture is dangerous

Ben Borrok, Op-Ed Contributor

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In recent months, Disney has taken steps to maximize their influence over the film industry by purchasing 21st Century Fox and starting their own streaming service, Disney+, which was released to consumers on Nov. 12. Major fans of Disney have been rejoicing the consolidation of all Disney properties into one service, as it allows for on-demand access to classic movies and new exclusive series featuring popular characters and titles. The collection of Marvel movies, Star Wars content and “The Simpsons” series makes the offer of Disney+ unbeatable, especially considering the bundle of ESPN+ and Hulu that it is paired with.

Despite all of the excitement surrounding the service, there are still serious flaws with Disney’s moves in the entertainment industry and what the consequences could be for the consumer. The deal is better than any other service ever offered, and Disney is hoping that it will quell fears about their near dominance over our culture.

It would be an understatement to say that television, movies, and video games have largely served as the foundation for American culture. The catchphrases and memorable scenes became, and continue to become, the conversation in every school, workplace, and home. The beauty of our culture was the apparent openness and diversity in the products it created. So many varied genres and unique viewpoints on life, fantasy and society allowed for great debates amongst everyday Americans. The growing reach of Disney, however, threatens the freedom of culture that we have enjoyed and come to define ourselves by.

The merger with 21st Century Fox means that Disney now owns one in seven of all movies ever nominated for Best Picture. It commands 40 percent of the domestic box office sales, roughly equal to $2.7 billion. Essentially, everything we see is Disney, or rather, Disney decides what we see. It isn’t a surprise that many directors, including Martin Scorsese, have come out in recent months to criticize Disney and Marvel for the lack of risk-taking art and commodification of cinema that has occurred. It has been compared to an amusement park ride — each of Disney’s films have some ups and downs, but ultimately, the viewer knows the characters they love are safe and the ending is predictable. The movies result in billions of dollars in merchandise sales for Disney at the expense of free expression and innovative art.

Nowhere is this clearer than Disney’s slant towards China. Since the country began to allow for more foreign films to be shown, Disney has tailored their films to fit within China’s strict censors. Movies such as “Iron Man” and “Christopher Robin” were either altered or banned from viewing in China. Disney doesn’t want to miss out on the market, so recent movies don’t cross boundaries as they used to. The result is a dumbed down version of a film or show being released in the United States due to China’s influence on distributors like Disney.

The scope of Disney’s control is also apparent in the “Disney Vault” policy, where its media properties are sealed until it decides to release them for highly publicized events. Classic films that local theaters up until recently played seasonally, such as “Alien,” “Home Alone,” or “The Sound of Music,” have all been put into the vault since the Fox-Disney merger. This creates unmatched leverage for Disney against theaters, both small and large. Small, indie theaters thrive on being able to show classic movies to old and new audiences. The revenue from those classics allows for independent films such as “Blindspotting” and “mid90s” to be shown, even if the theaters will take a loss. The loss in revenue from classic movies means that many of these theaters will shutter, resulting in a major artistic loss for many American communities, where movie theaters are sometimes the biggest cultural gathering place in town.

As for large, corporate theaters with dozens of screens, Disney has been bullying them into restrictive contracts that demand more occupied screens and more of the ticket revenue. It’s the reason that movies like “Frozen” will show on 7 screens simultaneously, regardless of ticket sales. These contracts restrict theaters from playing other films from smaller studios and explain why it can often be hard to find potential Oscar nominees playing at theaters.

What becomes of us, the audience and, therefore, consumer? When the only content available to the mainstream consumer is from one company, it turns stale. There is no competition, so the product can be whatever they dictate it to be. The future isn’t a bold and diverse array of titles at local theaters. It is a lineup of numerous and repetitive Marvel projects paired with Pixar animations. The social order will not be challenged; Disney will reinforce it. No longer will we have conversations on exciting storylines and moments like we had in the past. Instead, we will continue to pay Disney time and time again for censored products with no soul.

The lineup for their streaming service may be exciting but it is a sign of worse things to come. Remember, Disney+ costs much more than just their monthly fee.

Ben Borrok is a Weinberg sophomore. They can be contacted at benjaminborrok2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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