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Disney Strategy: Dazzle With Familiarity, Then Take Over the World — CinemaCon Analysis

From “The Avengers” to “Solo” and “Christopher Robin,” there's not a single original idea — and that's only one reason that Disney remains poised to win.

Dave Hollis The Walt Disney Studios Presentation, CinemaCon, Las Vegas, USA - 24 Apr 2018

Outgoing distribution head Dave Hollis at the Walt Disney Studios Presentation, CinemaCon 2018

Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

While Disney is the undisputed king of the major studios, Tuesday morning’s CinemaCon presentations — including its own — demonstrated why it’s also positioned to succeed on a level that its competitors may not be.

During the state of the industry presentation that preceded Disney’s, both National Association of Theater Owners CEO John Fithian and new MPAA CEO and chairman Charles Rivkin hit many of the same notes: The industry is not struggling. Audiences want an experience that theaters can give and Netflix can’t.

John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, discusses diversity in current films at CinemaCon 2018, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, at Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas2018 CinemaCon - State of the Industry, Las Vegas, USA - 24 Apr 2018

John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

And Fithian made a particular point on the hot-button topic of diversity: “We also applaud content creators and distributors  both large and small — for taking significant steps to achieve more diversity and positive representation on the big screen,” he said. “Our customers are demanding it, and we are optimistic that 2017 and 2018 will one day be viewed as a turning point on this front.”

Of course, all studios are working to address these familiar points. However, here’s why Disney looks like it could remain unbeatable for years to come.

Big Screens = BIG Movies

While every studio produces tentpoles and would-be blockbusters, that’s all Disney does. “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “The Incredibles 2,” “Christopher Robin,” “Wreck-It Ralph Breaks the Internet,” “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” “Mary Poppins Returns” — every single one is a franchise or a spinoff.  Where they may lose points for originality, they more than make up the difference with full-blown production spectacles featuring beloved characters and lots of old-fashioned elements like singing and dancing. Disney’s sweet spot dovetails very nicely with what the movie theater is uniquely positioned to deliver.

It’s also worth noting what Disney didn’t include in its presentation. “Magic Camp,” based on an original story by Steve Martin and directed by Mark Waters, was once dated for April 2018, has since been pulled, and was nowhere to be found at CinemaCon. There also was no mention of Fox, which it’s scheduled to acquire by the end of 2018. Outside the obvious candidates — hello, Marvel reunification! — it’s hard to envision exactly how the Fox pipelines will fit into this finely tuned machine. (That studio’s own presentation is on Thursday.)

Dave HollisThe Walt Disney Studios Presentation, CinemaCon, Las Vegas, USA - 24 Apr 2018

Dave Hollis at the Walt Disney Studios Presentation, CinemaCon

Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

BIG Movies = Global Dominance

While the domestic box office is currently flat, both Fithian and Rivkin hailed the continued growth of the foreign markets including Saudi Arabia (which Fithian said could reach $1 billion “in a few years”) and China. “China’s going to be the largest film market in the world in short order,” said Rivkin at a press meeting following the presentations.

A global industry also means global movies, which can be a tricky needle for some (see: “The Great Wall”). However, Disney has a first-mover advantage: It’s been selling its IP to the world for decades. And the sheer, bludgeoning scale of its productions often transcends language barriers even before the subtitles kick in.

Global Dominance = Diversity

Newly installed Disney distribution head Cathleen Taff — the rare woman in studio distribution — couldn’t help but be delighted to show footage of Evangeline Lilly as Wasp, the new sidekick to Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. “I can’t tell you how excited we are to have another female superhero,” she said.

Beyond that, however, Taff didn’t say anything about diversity. She let her studio’s movies do it instead. From Donald Glover in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” Holly Hunter’s ass-kicking mom in “The Incredibles 2,” Mackenzie Foy, Jayden Fowora-Knight, and Misty Copeland in “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” and the cast of next year’s “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” there’s multiple representations of race and gender in the world’s biggest franchises.

Possibly the biggest highlight of the presentation wasn’t footage but a special animated clip, created in the style of “Wreck-It Ralph,” in which “new princess” Vanellope meets her fellow Disney royalty and they talk shop on the annoyances of being rescued, the reason Snow White always seems be wide-eyed and marveling (she’s blind without her glasses), and the path to true happiness (hoodies and leggings). “I never thought I’d get to wear one of these,” sighs Ariel. “What do you call this … a shirt?”

Doesn’t make Disney a hero (remember the utter non-event of last year’s “gay moment” in “Beauty and the Beast”?), but it makes them smart(er). And, even smarter not to bother pointing it out themselves.

Finally, Disney put on an impressive show, with low production costs: While it certainly could have secured the cooperation of Will Smith to promote “Aladdin,” or Aden Erhenrich for “Solo,” Horn, Taff, and outgoing distribution president Dave Hollis chose to go it alone. No talent means a significant cost savings — and no actors awkwardly shuffling their feet as they wonder what they’re supposed to say next.

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