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illustration featuring glitchy digital Disney logo Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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Behind Disney’s takeover of 2019

Box office domination still leaves the future up for grabs

Fact: Today, five of the top nine highest-grossing movies of all time come courtesy of the Disney. All of them arrived in or after 2012.

Unless this fall’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker or Frozen 2 “disappoints” (i.e. grosses less than $1.24 billion each worldwide), then Disney will end the year with 16 movies (four Avengers films, four Marvel Cinematic universe-related flicks, three Star Wars episodes, two Frozen movies, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Incredibles 2) all released between 2012 and 2019, among the top 25 highest-grossing films of all time. Universal’s two Jurassic World movies, Minions, and two of the studio’s Fast and the Furious sequels, Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 and Aquaman, and 20th Century Fox’s two James Cameron epics, Avatar and Titanic, hold the remaining spots. Thanks to the acquisition of Fox, Cameron’s entries are now Disney property, too.

The record board doesn’t account for domestic inflation (the rise in the cost of a ticket compared to years past), overseas exchange rates, and a massive theatrical expansion in China over the last decade, which coincided with a post-Avatar boom in overseas 3D movies and an opening for higher ticket prices. But in an evolving entertainment landscape, Disney has found itself as a proverbial king of the mountain. In 2019, the studio took full advantage; the last nine months have seen a steady barrage of the biggest titles imaginable, and the slate isn’t slowing down. So why did Disney light all the fireworks at once?

The Lion king lions, young Simba and Scar, stare each other down after the stampede Walt Disney Pictures

Whether by coincidence (Disney and Marvel split and dated the two-part Avengers finale in October 2014) or design (Star Wars IX looked like a 2019 release since the announcement of a new trilogy), Disney arrived to 2019 with Endgame, the last Skywalker Star Wars flick, the fourth Toy Story movie, live-action remakes of the two most popular Disney toons of the “renaissance” era (The Lion King and Aladdin), a Frozen sequel, and a promise of inevitable, unprecedented box office numbers. All that and the addition of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Captain Marvel and Dumbo sent rivals running like hell to get out of the way.

Even non-Disney success stories live in the studio’s shadow. The blockbuster summer season mostly came to a close on the weekend of August 23 with the $100 million debut of Hobbs & Shaw in China, a pivotal territory for business. Having now grossed $175 million in the country, and $700 million worldwide, the Fast & Furious spinoff is now the year’s only international, mega-blockbuster that isn’t a Disney movie or MCU hero vehicle.

And yet, Hobbs & Shaw’s shared the spotlight, as Disney’s The Lion King soared past $1 billion overseas and $1.5 billion worldwide in parallel. The Lion King has passed Furious 7 ($1.517 billion) and The Avengers ($1.519 billion) and may pass $1.6 billion by the time you read this. Now the photoreal remake is only behind Jurassic World ($1.671 billion), Avengers: Infinity War ($2.048 billion), Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($2.068 billion), Titanic ($2.2 billion), Avatar ($2.789 billion) and Avengers: Endgame ($2.0796 billion) on the global all-time list.

There was a time, in 2011, when Paramount ruled the roast in terms of huge franchise flicks. Their slate included Thor, Captain America, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Paranormal Activity 3, Super 8, Rango, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots. But Disney’s purchase of Marvel in 2009 went into effect in 2012, with Paramount sharing only partial success (and at least some money from) The Avengers, which also marked the end of the studio’s distribution arrangement with DreamWorks Animation. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s studio ended up with Fox for a few years, and hits like How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Penguins of Madagascar helped the studio earn the market share, or the larger percentage of global box office compared to its rivals, alongside Gone Girl, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and The Fault in Our Stars.

The notion of Disney ruling over the industry didn’t really become a “thing” until 2015, when a strong slate of big movies (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Inside Out) papered over big misses like Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland and The Good Dinosaur (Pixar’s first flop). Even then, the year’s market share champion was Universal, earning big bucks from movies big (Jurassic World, Furious 7) and small (Straight Outta Compton, Minions, Fifty Shades of Grey). But the end of 2015 saw the upswing of another trend, one which would benefit Disney far more than its competitors. Entire swaths of once-reliable moviegoers began to forsake theaters for smaller, adult-skewing or non-event movies in order to stay home and binge Netflix or related VOD content.

This trend coincided with Disney’s record $7.6 billion global year in 2016, when audiences flocked to superhero movies (be it Disney’s Captain America: Civil War, Fox’s Deadpool and Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman), talking animal toons (be it Disney’s Zootopia, Universal’s The Secret Life of Pets or Sony’s Sausage Party) and horror films (WB’s The Conjuring 2, Sony’s Don’t Breathe and Universal’s The Purge: Election Year) from the early winter months all the way through the holiday season. Even Disney’s terrific overall year (Doctor Strange, The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Moana) was not immune, as The BFG became Steven Spielberg’s biggest flop ever, Alice Through the Looking Glass earned a stunning 71 percent less than Alice in Wonderland’s $1.025 billion gross six years prior, and Queen of Katwe and The Finest Hours showed that audiences weren’t showing up to mid-budget dramas even produced under the Disney banner.

captain america fighting captain america in avengers endgame, clashing shields in a heroic pose Marvel Studios

Based on the numbers, the box office has only wavered year over year, and ticket sales have remained relatively steady over the last two decades. What’s changed is two-fold: First, more folks are spending their movie-going dollar on “premium” theater experiences, be it 3D, IMAX, related premium large format screens like Dolby Vision or D-Box, or upscale dine-in theaters. These tickets are more expensive than the norm, and thus the increase in their patronage means that more audiences are spending more on each ticket. Second, audiences are now spending much more of those movie-going dollars on a smaller pool of movies. Going to the movie theater is an event, not a pastime.

This year, films that drew people out of their homes were mostly Disney productions. In 2011, the top six movies made up 16 percent of the total domestic box office. In 2018, that number was 25.5 percent. In 2019, the top six movies (as of the unofficial end of the summer, Friday, August 23), which are all either Disney movies or Sony’s MCU-affiliated Spider-Man Far From Home, have earned $2.956 billion out of the year’s $7.532 billion in total domestic grosses. That’s a stunning and entirely unprecedented 39 percent of all domestic earnings divided up among just Avengers: Endgame ($858 million), The Lion King ($510 million), Toy Story 4 ($425 million), Captain Marvel ($427 million), Spider-Man: Far From Home ($379 million) and Aladdin ($354 million). That split is only going to get wider once Frozen 2 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker are added into the equation while (presumably) knocking Sony’s Spider-Man: Far From Home and Disney’s Aladdin out of the top six.

Not counting Fox’s Alita: Battle Angel ($405 million worldwide) and The Kid Who Would Be King ($31 million), which opened before Disney took over, but counting the overseas numbers for Glass (since Unbreakable was a Disney release in 2000, Universal distributed the Split sequel domestically while Disney took overseas), Walt Disney has earned $8.312 billion this year as of August 23, with a likely global take between $10 billion and $12 billion by the end of December. The irony is that the “less going to the movies just to go to the movies” factor that allowed Disney to rise to the top is the same thing that has caused their first batch of Fox movies (Dark Phoenix, Stuber, The Art of Racing in the Rain) to bomb. The failure arrives on the heels of most of Fox’s 2018 slate bombing as well, save for the superhero sequel (Deadpool 2) and the sanitized musical biopic (Bohemian Rhapsody).

aladdin and jafar sit in the middle of the desert talking about their plan to steal the lamp Walt Disney Pictures

Disney doesn’t necessarily have a monopoly on theatrical movie-going, but does own the brands that audiences want to see and are willing to spend the time and money to see, often with kids, in theaters. Superhero movies continue to rule both the U.S. and (to a surprising degree over the last year) China as well. Up until last year, the biggest solo superhero movie was Ant-Man and the Wasp with $121 million in China. Since then, Venom ($269 million in China), Aquaman ($292 million), Captain Marvel ($154 million) and Spider-Man: Far From Home ($198 million) have soared in China to an unprecedented degree. That’s been a problem for non-superhero biggies like Pokemon: Detective Pikachu ($94 million) Godzilla: King of the Monsters ($135 million) and Alita: Battle Angel ($133 million) which ended up settling for smaller-than-expected Chinese box office totals.

As recently as 2017, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, xXx: Return of Xander Cage and Kong: Skull Island were pulling in over/under $165 million in China. Hobbs & Shaw made news for being a non Marvel or DC superhero movie to cross $135 million in the country. Avengers: Endgame’s $615 million gross, up 71 percent from Avengers: Infinity War’s $359 million gross, was the key reason it topped Avatar’s global totals. Far From Home’s 71 percent jump from Homecoming’s $116 million Chinese gross in 2017 was why the Spidey sequel passed Skyfall ($1.108 billion in 2012) to become Sony’s biggest global earner. And to the extent that “big” superhero movies are ruling in China, even WB is alternating big-budget superhero movies like Aquaman and Wonder Woman with smaller DC Films flicks like Joker and Shazam!.

Still, this year should go down as a rarity, even as Disney ‘s monolith looks fortified for the future. There may never be another movie in each respective brand (MCU, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Disney Animation, those “live-action remakes,” etc.) as big as the ones we got in 2019. The cascade of big-ticket titles, and the subsequent box-office records, may have nothing to do with theatrical domination, and instead, everything to do with this November’s launch of the streaming service Disney Plus. The 2020 slate might look (comparatively) smaller, but Disney Plus signing up subscribers is a relative win. And as far as market share domination, some of that will be Warner Bros. competing with Wonder Woman 1984, moved from 2019 to 2020, and MGM and Universal shifting No Time to Die (the 25th James Bond movie) to early 2020. Both films were supposed to open in the final months of this year. Ditto Paramount and Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick, which hightailed it from summer 2019 to summer 2020.

While Disney’s current domination is rooted in nostalgia and IP exploitation, it’s worth noting that its 2020 slate, while mostly IP driven, is comparatively “original” in the sense that we’re getting two non-sequel movies from Pixar (Onward in March and Soul in June), two fresh adaptations of YA novels (Artemis Fowl and The One and Only Ivan), The Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, a loose, Niko Caro-directed remake of Mulan, and the Disney Animation original Raya and the Last Dragon for Thanksgiving. Even the MCU movies are less sure things, with Cate Shortland’s Black Widow in May and Chloé Zhao’s The Eternals in November. And while it’s technically Fox, the studio will open Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story for Christmas. Not the industry-smashing slate of 2019, but a safe bet for a studio steeped in brands.

It is arguably likely that summer 2020 will be dominated by Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman 1984 and Universal’s Minions: The Rise of Gru (and/or Fast & Furious 9) versus Black Widow and Soul. The question is whether Disney’s 2020 slate will fly as high as in 2019, and if not, whether moviegoers will put their money toward other studios’ big flicks, or if the industry will see a big drop in overall attendance. If theater attendance doesn’t drop, theater owners are less concerned about the whole “smaller pool making up a larger chunk of sales” thing, since a large popcorn for The Lion King costs the same as a large popcorn during Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. But if less popular Disney flicks don’t translate into bigger grosses for the competition, well, that’s a problem.

Trends suggest that audiences only care so much about the studio that’s releasing the movie they want to see. And when the product is valid, movies like Crazy Rich Asians, The Meg and Mission: Impossible – Fallout can flourish concurrently in late summer of 2018. Last Fall, with Venom, A Star Is Born and Halloween, is another glimmer of the Disney alternative, all soaring to best-case-scenario box office despite opening within two weeks of each other. The difference this year is that Disney had the biggest of what moviegoers wanted. They had the biggest superhero movies, the biggest animated flicks, and the biggest live-action musicals. Rival studios (knowing that a storm was coming) didn’t put their best foot forward. But now that Disney’s cleared their “dream team,” expect the next two years to spread the proverbial wealth — in theaters and on streaming.


Scott Mendelson has studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. His film criticism, box office commentary, and film-skewing scholarship can be found on Forbes.com. Follow him at @ScottMendelson.