By JOHANNA SCHNELLER
Friday, November 10, 2017
It was a crazy few days in the Valley. Late last week, the Los Angeles Times published a note to its readers announcing that Disney had barred it from press screenings.
The blackout was punishment for an investigation into Disney's influence on the city of Anaheim, Calif.
(home to its theme parks), including subsidies, rebates and tax protection, which the L.A. Times had published in September.
Reaction was swift and loud: On Monday, director Ava DuVernay, whose film A Wrinkle in Time will be released by Disney on March 9, tweeted, "Saluting the film journalists standing up for one another.
Standing with you." CNN anchor Jake Tapper tweeted, "I just took out a subscription to the LA Times in honor of Disney boycotting the newspaper because it engaged in journalism. Join me!" Washington Post culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg vowed to not attend Disney's media screenings or write advance reviews of its films, as did culture website The A.V. Club.
Tuesday morning, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics released a rare joint statement denouncing the blackout, stating that Disney films, including the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, would not be considered for their year-end awards until the ban was lifted. That afternoon, the Toronto Film Critics Association (I and several Globe and Mail employees are members) joined them.
The TFCA's gesture of solidarity made it just under the wire: Minutes after its news release went out, the Mouse House caved. "We've had productive discussions with the newly installed leadership at The Los Angeles Times regarding our specific concerns, and as a result, we've agreed to restore access to advance screenings for their film critics," read Disney's statement.
(When contacted for comment by The Globe, a spokesperson for Disney in Canada replied, "As you know the issue is no longer relevant and we will not be commenting further.") It's fascinating that Disney (or any company) persists in thinking it can get away with this stuff in our current superheated journalistic climate (more on that later). Maybe it's because the studio is dominating the box office with a thoroughness unseen since Metro-GoldwynMayer in the 1930s.
With only 13 releases last year, Disney earned 26 per cent of total box office. (The No. 2 studio, Time Warner, had a 17-per-cent share with 23 movies.)
Disney is on track to win 2017, too: Beauty and the Beast made $500-million (all figures U.S.); Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 nearly $400-million; and this past weekend, Thor: Ragnarok crushed the competition with its $123-million opening. (Its nearest competitor, A Bad Mom's Christmas, made $17-million.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi is projected to top $500-million when it opens in December.
Taking advantage of that domination, Disney reportedly set noxious, secret terms that theatre owners must agree to if they want to screen The Last Jedi. According to a Nov. 1 Wall Street Journal article, Disney is demanding 65 per cent of ticket revenue - a new high - and requiring cinemas to screen the film in their largest auditoriums for at least four weeks. This means that many small-town, single-screen theatres won't be able to show the film at all: Even if every person in these towns were to buy a ticket, the house would sit empty for a week. The terms would be onerous in any year, but in 2017, with box-office revenue down 5 per cent from last year and continuing to fall, it's extra harsh. Especially since other studios are going the opposite way, shortening their theatrical windows and making their fare available for home viewing sooner.
Which brings me to the other reason Disney had a crazy week: In a bid to dominate TV and streaming the way it dominates theatres, the Mouse had reportedly been exploring a bid to acquire 21st Century Fox's film and television studios, its entertainment cable networks (including FX and a stake in Europe's Sky TV, but not Fox News) and its 30-per-cent share of the streaming service Hulu (which aired The Handmaid's Tale). Those negotiations stalled - but for how long? Kevin Mayer, Disney's chief strategy officer, has said that he wants to grow his television platform as aggressively as Disney grew its film platform (for example, by spending $15-billion for Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm).
Disney has already declared war on Netflix. (The Mouse's TV arm is larger than Netflix's, but Netflix's revenue is growing.) Disney's deal with Netflix expires next year and won't be renewed: It's spending billions to launch its own streaming service in 2019, including movies, television shows and sports programming. Adding Fox's assets to its own would have given Disney a huge jump-start there. So even if the current Fox deal is dead, another may soon surface.
Adding to the craziness, all of Hollywood continues to reel over ongoing revelations of sexual abuse. In just the past few days, The New Yorker published a piece detailing the "network of spies," including private investigators and ex-Mossad agents, that producer Harvey Weinstein hired to track actresses and journalists whom he feared would expose his alleged sexual assaults; the litigationfinance start-up Legalist launched #MeTooTales, a confidential telephone hotline and online forum offering legal support for sexualharassment complainants; the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it's investigating rape charges against actor Ed Westwick (Gossip Girl); entertainment exec David Guillod resigned amid sexual-assault allegations; and a petition circled at the University of Southern California to remove the director and alleged harasser Bryan Singer's name from its cinema school.
But the most shocking news was saved for last, when, late on Wednesday, director Ridley Scott announced that he would remove Kevin Spacey from the finished film All the Money in the World and immediately reshoot his scenes with Christopher Plummer. (In the past week and a half, more than a dozen men have come forward in the media alleging that Spacey sexually harassed or assaulted them.)
It is an unprecedented move, all the more so because Sony Pictures intends to keep the All the Money in the World's Dec. 22 release date, just in time for Academy Awards consideration.
Which brings me back to why this is a particularly bad time for Disney to challenge the L.A. Times.
Many in the film industry and media have speculated that revelations of sexual abuse are skyrocketing now as a direct result of Donald Trump's being elected U.S. president - fed up with abusers getting away with it, women are fighting back. The same could be said for journalists. Ever since Trump declared us "enemy No. 1," reporters have become more assertive, newspaper subscriptions and news ratings have grown and the public has become more vociferous in their defence of a free press.
We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it any more.
Even the mighty Mouse isn't exempt. It roared at the wrong target this week, and had to retreat with its tail between its legs.
Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co., is seen in 2015. Taking advantage of its recent box-office domination, the company reportedly set secret terms that theatre owners must agree to if they want to screen December juggernaut Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
MARK J. TERRILL/ASSOCIATED PRESS