Way back when cartoons were about entire worlds and not stand-alone characters, there was Disney and there was Warner Bros. Each studio offered an ensemble cast of colorful characters to keep kids’ eyes fixated on their television screens. You could have Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto or Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Marvin the Martian, and Taz. Their wide array of characters had something to offer to any given viewer from their diverse audience. A diversified portfolio proved to be the successful business model that established two of the largest media giants in Hollywood and television today.
The field of battle for these two warring factions used to be the Saturday morning lineup, but the stakes have been raised in a game of acquisitions to get as much franchise power under their belts as possible. This may not mean much to the average viewer at first glance, but the competition will have a massive influence over how movies are made in the future.
To better understand the fight between these two corporations, we must also turn our attention to a smaller set of rivals: Marvel and DC. The same children that watched Disney and Looney Toons would grow up to be the adolescents that read Marvel and DC comics as their media consumption matured and turned to other formats. Anyone remotely aware of comic culture knows that the rivalry between Marvel and DC runs deep.
From a business perspective, a media giant like Disney or Warner Bros. will look for ways to retain their viewers, and the best way to do so is to provide content suitable for each stage of life, ensuring a secure base of life-long customers. Cartoons, comic books, and an MPAA film rating system that can cover all of the bases necessary to accomplish such a task.
Prior to 2005, the Batman franchise was in ruins after Joel Schumacher had effectively turned a complex character into a campy buffoon strutting around in a cape. Christopher Nolan, a talented director but with a portfolio of small projects, approached the series with a gritty reboot firmly grounded in realism. Batman Begins was Nolan’s first summer blockbuster picture. With his follow-up The Dark Knight, and passion project Inception, he put himself on the Hollywood map and cemented his role as Warner Bros’ golden boy.
These pictures, as well as every other venture into DC superheroes (aside from The Green Lantern), was co-financed by Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures. Warner Bros and DC Comics have been longtime partners in film, and in September of 2009, Warner Bros officially acquired DC Comics under its newly created subsidiary, DC Entertainment. The companies’ close relationship had proved this acquisition to be an eventual inevitability, but the ultimate catalyst for this move was WB’s archrival, The Walt Disney Company. Disney had been making waves of its own with Marvel Comics.
In 2004, after a string of poor films, Marvel Entertainment focused on self-financing its films, thereby granting greater creative control over their properties. In 2004, Marvel obtained financing from Merrill Lynch to fund a long-term revival project. The deal issued to Marvel $525 million to produce no more than 10 films over an 8 year period. The terms of the loan stipulated that profits obtained from the project would be used to pay off their debt. To ensure profitability for their upcoming projects, in the year 2005, Marvel obtained the film rights to Ironman, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Black Widow to supplement its arsenal of character properties. The new era of Marvel filmmaking was established with the release of Ironman in 2008.
Soon after the Marvel revival, Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment and all its subsidiaries in August of 2009. (Just one month later, Warner Bros. announced DC Entertainment’s entry into the company portfolio.) Milking their intellectual property for all it was worth, Marvel films were dotted with Easter eggs hinting at the larger Marvel universe to be unveiled with their flagship film The Avengers in 2012. (In the same year, Nolan and Warner Bros. released The Dark Knight Rises to maintain competition.) The film broke box office records, both domestically and worldwide, confirming to Marvel that their long-term plan would prove to be successful. This success only encouraged Marvel to continue following its formula, planning projects well in advance, with the long list of films spanning as far out as 2019. Projects included Ant-Man, the Fantastic Four reboot series, and sequels to Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, and the unexpectedly successful Guardians of the Galaxy.
Gathering character properties and planning into the future has enabled Disney to once again establish a wide character portfolio to attract audiences. A series of stand-alone films seeks to serve the targeted segments of its fan base followed by more ambitious projects featuring the entire ensemble cast to gather the wider audience and snag ticket sales. So by investing in their smaller projects, Disney can expect higher returns for its larger Marvel films.
Warner Bros. recognized this and immediately followed suit announcing Man of Steel 2, or as it has been retitled, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Some cried afoul over the immediate reboot of a recently concluded Batman trilogy, but given that Disney/Marvel’s grand scheme is already in full swing, Warner Bros. and DC have to play catch up and not fall into the shadow of their rival. Rather than tread unfamiliar terrain, WB/DC is aiming to take the conservative route and play copycat. In late 2013, Gal Gadot was confirmed to play as Wonderwoman in Batman v Superman to fortify DC’s own character collection in a single film.
The film is also boasting Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth. Rumors circulate about a potential appearance by the Flash as well. Plans for the release of Warner’s super project originally listed a May 6th release date for the film in 2015. However, as a result of Disney’s aggressive tactics, Batman v Superman’s release was moved to March 25th after reports that Captain America 3 would be released on the same day. Perhaps this is Warner and DC backing down from Disney and Marvel to avoid a weekend box office showdown. Alternatively, it could be a smart move on their part to avoid comparisons that Marvel’s standalone film is on par with DC’s super project. It is difficult to frame the situation accurately at this time, but hasty rewrites and release push backs are generally a death sentence for any movie.
Judging by how these two studios are so intent on beating each other in the realm of superhero films, it’s inevitable that this back and forth series of retaliations would bleed into the studios’ other franchises. When box office sales matter, Hollywood’s fastest and favorite way to sell tickets is with reboots, sequels, and spin-offs. The power of franchise films lies in familiarity. When a teaser trailer for a new film is released, the viewer has to discern the film’s value, but when a fan sees the release of a next installment in a beloved franchise, ticket purchases are reflexive; a fan simply MUST watch.
Studios begin to recognize what elements fans respond to and the creative process for generating new films falls into a formula. As long as you serve what audiences expect, you are guaranteed ticket sales. Having already acquired a resuscitated comic franchise, Disney set its sights on another old-school heavyweight. Though Star Wars fans will howl in agony over the prequel trilogy, Blu-ray boxed-set sales and cartoon spin-offs show no signs of slowing down. Disney’s decision to acquire Marvel was largely fueled by its need to appeal to older audiences, and in October 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion. Acquiring Lucasfilm would not only add to the material it can offer to young adults but it will tap into a vast reserve of adult fans for a film that was universally praised in its time.
To pull a franchise out of the mire, Disney needed its own revival master to breathe life into the series once more. Having proved himself with another sci-fi franchise revival (Star Trek), it should come as no shock that J.J. Abrams was signed on to direct Star Wars: Episode VII as of January 2013. The anticipation has reached dizzying levels and its release is not until December 2015. It was not long after Disney’s announcement of a Star Wars sequel trilogy that whispers of a return to Hogwarts began to float around. Finally, several months after the Star Wars announcement, Warner Bros. announces a spin-off trilogy, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For a series that has a devoted fan base both in print and on-screen, this announcement was equally as disruptive as Disney’s Star Wars.
In the battle for market share, these studios will reach for the most easily accessible tools at their disposal to get ahead. What is happening between Disney and Warner Bros. is symptomatic of the movie industry as a whole. Keep an eye out and you will see these trends are manifesting themselves in other projects from other studios e.g. The Hobbit trilogy’s strikingly similar structure to The Lord of the Rings. Filmmaking on larger budgets is less of an expressive brush stroke and more of a well-greased machine. It is efficient and it sells tickets, but relying on a formula in the long-run renders new films predictable. Though it still puts smiles on people’s faces for now, being fed more of the same will leave audiences yearning for more.