At this given moment, the Walt Disney Company stands firmly at the apex of Hollywood, after putting Netflix on notice with the shrewd launch of the streaming outlet Disney+, smartly managing its high-spectacle theatrical slate just as moviegoers are increasingly returning to the multiplexes, and benefitting from a more synergistic approach between its theme park attractions and its powerful entertainment properties—including Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar.
Perhaps most importantly, Disney has secured the support of the creative decision-makers behind its multibillion-dollar sub-brands. That includes Marvel’s Kevin Feige, Star Wars TV innovators Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Favreau, and Dave Filoni, Pixar leaders Jim Morris and Pete Docter, Disney Animation chief Jennifer Lee, and Avatar’s filmmaking fountainhead James Cameron.
And with Bob Iger easing back into the CEO’s seat for at least the next two years, retaking the reins of the company he spent two decades building into the dominant player on the Hollywood landscape, Disney seems well positioned to continue its entertainment domination, even as The Biz faces one of its most anxiety-ridden eras ever.
Then again, entertainment companies are subject to seemingly fickle and unpredictable fortunes. In the mid-’80s, when Disney was foundering and seemingly out of creative gas, no one could have predicted it would transform into the town’s most enduring corporate titan. Which begs the question, as the company celebrates is 100th year, where does Disney go from here? What vision will inform the next five to 10 years for the company, and what moves—particularly from a creative perspective—might assure continued successes?
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Dr. Sabrina Mittermeier, an American cultural history expert and lecturer at the University of Kassel in Germany and author of A Cultural History of Disneyland—Middle-Class Kingdoms (2021) and Fan Phenomena: Disney (2022), doesn’t anticipate “fundamental changes” in the years ahead. “Especially as Bob Iger is busy rolling back some of the changes Bob Chapek had put in place to restructure it more like a Silicon Valley tech company rather than what it still remains at its core, a Hollywood studio/entertainment conglomerate,” Mittermeier says.
Crucial to the company’s development will be the evolving state of theaters and streaming. “I think they will never fully abandon theatrical exhibition, not as long as awards still require theatrical releases,” says Mittermeier. “I think that’s a larger question for the future of Hollywood, really, and I think Disney will go with the flow rather than set new standards here. But Disney+/streaming is definitely central for TV series and for mid-budget films—of which we have too few currently overall.”
Disney also has a reliably evergreen business in its theme parks, which are seeing ever-greater integration of new attractions derived from success stories at its multimedia brands. “A lot of creative capital will go towards parks, as they are major cash cows and have survived the repeated closures and setbacks of the pandemic well,” Mittermeier says.
First and foremost, Disney will continue to refine its crucial entertainment brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, its animation wings and a slew of properties acquired with its purchase of 20th Century Fox. A look into the crystal ball provides a glimpse at how Disney might maintain its position at the summit of entertainment in coming years.
Star Wars: Rethinking the films and leaning into the series
In the case of Star Wars, Disney seems to have learned valuable lessons from its moves following the acquisition of George Lucas’ phenomenal space franchise: while there was an appetite for more cinematic adventures from the galaxy far far away, Disney overplayed its hand with a too-packed slate of releases, an inconsistent creative vision for its three Skywalker Saga sequels, and one release after another of saga-adjacent experiments.
The company wisely scaled back its Star Wars ambitions just as the audience began to show a sense of oversaturation. Instead, the company pivoted to its ongoing Disney+ strategy, which used a team of savvy Star Wars storytellers and relaxed the all-or-nothing release schedule while delivering both new ground and nostalgic doses for fans.
“TV seems to fare better critically, as films keep changing directors and not surfacing and the last installment of the Abrams trilogy was negatively received by many fans,” says Mittermeier. “But tides might turn again. TV is definitely going to be a big focus, as are theme parks.”
Indeed, the franchise has been kept vital while simultaneously giving Disney+ a compelling original lure, and now Star Wars is experimenting with steps into slightly different storytelling approaches, like Andor, an evolution that seemed riskier in big-screen form but in the streaming format has injected new blood into the venerable property.
Still, expect Disney to keep a cautious foot on the gas with its Disney+ Star Wars content: expect just the right amount to keep subscriber numbers healthy and the creative fresh, without overheating the franchise. And we can look for an eventual, inevitable cinematic turn with a new multi-episode saga (and, blessedly, not sagas) in a few years—this time powered by A-list filmmaking talents with a unifying vision for the entire series of films, and with a pre-planned period of dormancy.
Marvel: New phases and faces—and superhero-adjacent concepts
The company has utilized the Disney+ platform to further the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even as it takes some big swings on less celebrated or well-known characters as stalwarts like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America recede. Some of those films worked like gangbusters (Shang-Chi) while others were less effective (The Eternals).
“TV has done really well for them as the films of the MCU have started to decline slightly in quality and lack the focus/direction of the Infinity Saga,” says Mittermeier. “But they remain financial powerhouses nonetheless, so I don’t see them abandoning the MCU. Theme park expansions of the MCU have only just opened in California and Paris and continue to be built in Hong Kong, I see more of that in the future, too.” Indeed, with theaters in China now reopening to Marvel films, the global box office remains a potential goldmine in an era of spectacle-driven successes.
The MCU’s behind-the-scenes leadership is as canny a group of filmmakers as can be found, and they’re well schooled in the ways that the comic book company has, over the course of the decades, let its focus on characters ebb and flow along with both reader interest and creators’ inspiration.
Expect a subtle shift of MCU’s output as it enters its Phase Five and the multiversal Kang Wars play out. The movies need to remain singular, must-see events, and the streaming series must be doled out judiciously amid complaints of “superhero fatigue.” Marvel’s in the superhero business, after all, and needs to make keen moves to keep both its core and broader audiences engaged.
While some Marvel characters and projects soared on television (Moon Knight, She-Hulk) and appropriate sequels and follow-ups are being prepared, properties like Ms. Marvel, Captain America Sam Wilson, and Daredevil have proven ready for big-screen stardom, either as solo stars or members of freshly formed Avengers-style teams. As Marvel scales back on introducing brand new heroes in a bid to avoid a small-screen superhero pileup, look for more moves like we saw with Loki, where a popular cinematic supporting player is elevated to TV star to build anticipation for storylines fueling entire big-screen phases.
Those feature film adventures will increasingly be led by characters and performers who’ve bubbled to the top of fan favorite lists, including in new and possibly surprising combinations for its super teams. The evolution of Marvel Studios has consistently paralleled that of its comic book progenitor, in accelerated form. Having established and expanded its universe over four phases, the MCU is now roughly in line with late ’70s/early ’80s Marvel, when the focus was exploring that universe through its well-established cast of super-people. Combinations and re-combinations of those characters, along with occasional shifts in tone and mood, can provide fresh takes (i.e. Ant-Man gains scope and seriousness; Daredevil lightens up).
And like the classic comics of that same era, expect further toe-dips and full-on pivots into other genres, even as they’re kept superhero adjacent, like Werewolf By Night. Between that project and the big-screen Blade relaunch, look for the doors to the horror/supernatural territory to be flung open wider, especially given the seemingly ceaseless appeal of the horror genre. As Star Wars takes a break from multiplexes, the more self-contained cosmic corner of the Guardians of the Galaxy also poses opportunities for projects with a less superheroic, more sci-fi bent, while still offering connectivity to the MCU.
A few new faces, and some familiar ones, will continue to emerge, but expect those to arrive with major fanfare on the big screen rather than in waters-testing Disney+ series. The X-Men and the Fantastic Four, with their rich and expansive sub-universes, have long been sparkling jewels in the Marvel crown, as well as full-blown film franchises for Fox before that studio was acquired by Disney. After some crucial teasing, they’ll almost certainly be welcomed and integrated into the existing MCU in a major cinematic scale, pumping the universe full of fresh characters and story content while easing the burden on increasingly venerable heroes, filmmakers and performers—like, say, the Thor ensemble—that might benefit from an extended big-screen breather.
Animation: The balancing act between Pixar and Disney Animation
Mittermeier suggests that, especially since the 2018 ouster of animation revolutionary John Lasseter, who held leadership of Pixar and Disney Animation before being dismissed over allegations of sexual misconduct, both animation arms may be subject to the slings and arrows of the financial successes of their offerings following often confusing releases and platform choices prompted by the pandemic.
“I have been fearing for a long time...that Disney will fold Pixar into Disney Animation completely,” she says. “Lots of releases have gone straight to Disney+ and have not received theatrical releases, much to the ire of the animators, too. That being said, [former CEO Bob] Chapek would have been the more likely candidate to go through with this; Iger probably won’t do this in his two-year tenure now. It will hinge on his successor, I think.”
Pixar continues to maintain an astonishingly high standard of excellence—and ever-diversifying audience appeal—with recent entries in its filmography such as Soul, Luca, and Turning Red (and frankly, even box office disappointments like Lightyear demonstrate that even lesser Pixar has its charms). Its upcoming slate—including Elemental, Elio, and Inside Out 2—look just as promising, and its highly likely that Disney’s Hollywood leadership will continue its relatively hands-off, leaps-of-faith creative handling of the artists in seemingly faraway Emeryville, basically leaving the creators to find inspiration wherever and however they will.
As long as Pixar continues to be guided by its current leadership, its creative hot streak will be allowed to unfold without interference, and the creative leaders will be encouraged to take big creative swings, while the company leans on a handful of obligatory sequels to fill the financial coffers.
Walt Disney Animation, on the other hand, is coming off both the massive success of Encanto and the massive flop of Strange World, and will continue to need to prove itself at the box office if Jennifer Lee wants her fiefdom to be allowed to grow in exciting and unexpected ways. She’s currently writing Wish, a non-Frozen film to flex her own creative muscles. There will also be safer, nostalgia play bets like Mufasa: The Lion King with intriguing curveballs: Barry Jenkins is directing the prequel. The box office fate of both films will likely determine just how adventurous the animation wing can be on future projects.
Though Disney will likely produce fewer live-action adaptations of its own properties—having already churned through the most promising properties—such films will continue to be reliably bankable curiosities. And, in an era where TikTok is the dominant social media platform for younger audiences looking for short-form entertainment, the time may be ripe for a renewed focus on Disney animation stalwarts including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. Look what an off-kilter take like the Emmy-winning Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers movie can do to boost the profile of 70-year-old characters. Disney+ certainly provides an ideal and relatively safe vehicle to revive and refresh their brands, but Disney might want to think more ambitiously about how to cement its corporate mascots into the hearts and minds of successive generations.
What about Spider-Man? Or those hyped Fox properties?
Bob Iger built much of Disney’s current bedrock on canny acquisitions, but what’s left on the Hollywood playing field for Disney to pick up? Not much. Once the company determines if it wants to take on sole ownership of Hulu (assuming the price isn’t too high), it’s doubtful that Disney will have its eye on any other major studio, network or streamer unless a truly unbeatable deal presents itself. But don’t bet against the Mouse picking up a vital, complementary property or two to strengthen its already deep bench, like perhaps a video game company with especially compelling pre-built worlds.
Or given a large audience’s still-ravenous appetite for top-quality fantasy fare, a well-established property in the realm of Game Of Thrones or Lord Of The Rings might make for an attractive buy—something in more of a tastefully mature-but-Disney-esque vein like Wendy Pini’s long-running independent comic series ElfQuest, perhaps (also, don’t count out Disney-owned Willow, which may get one more push forward to emerge from cult fandom to mainstream pop culture hit).
In terms of collaboration, if Sony’s Spider-Man-adjacent films continue to get critically and commercially dinged as hard as projects like Morbius, it would make sense for Sony to open itself up to guidance from the braintrust at the MCU. If there has to be a live-action cinematic Spider-Verse with characters like Kraven the Hunter, Spider-Woman, Silver Sable, etc., Sony would be wise to a) encourage the films to pivotally include, y’know, Spider-Man and something more than hints at the most popular movie universe of all time; and b) follow the lead of the Marvel execs who completely turned the Spidey-ship around with their own co-production with their deep understanding of the superhero and his enduring significance in the pop cultural pantheon. Lastly, expect Disney and Marvel to finally untangle the snarled rights issues with Universal Studios that have hamstrung making further MCU Hulk movies, whether as a co-production or in trade for another property that Universal desperately wants and/or needs.
Again, big-swing acquisitions don’t feel likely for the next Disney era. Rather, it could plumb the contents of its 20thCentury Fox library for more adult-skewing fare that feels a bit off-brand for Disney: There are, of course, big plans afoot in the wake of the global success of Avatar: The Way Of The Water—look for the Pandora universe to become a crucial hub in Disney’s future. On a smaller scale, the Hulu release of Prey proved that the seemingly moribund Predator franchise had surprising potential for a renaissance; other properties ripe for reinvention include Alien, Independence Day, Planet Of The Apes and maybe even Home Alone or a Die Hard concept no longer built around Bruce Willis.
Disney will also likely feel a need to develop a steady diet of modestly budgeted, star-powered fare for its streaming services, and its Fox library offers a treasure trove of stories, concepts and vehicles that could be developed into high-quality streamer fare, the kind of films Disney briefly excelled at under its now-defunct Touchstone banner.
“Despite some financial setbacks with streaming, Disney+ will also remain a major focus for TV and film production,” says Mittermeier. “I expect them to expand that to more markets and potentially consolidate some services in the U.S. that have already been consolidated overseas. For instance, Hulu content is available on Disney+ in Germany.”
The big picture: Still wishing upon a star
With Disney’s fingers in such a diverse array of pies, there are plenty of scenarios to consider when contemplating where the company will be in, say 2028, or even 2033. And there are going to be inevitable shocks and stunning moves along the way. But Disney is well positioned to maintain its status quo, with a series of well-considered adjustments, course changes and a constant monitoring of its audiences’ collective pulse. It also has the room and the raw material for some bold, ambitious and largely unexpected creative moves that could pay off handsomely.
But even though the Magic Kingdom currently stands atop the Hollywood mountain, everyone below is eager to push Disney off that pinnacle—by any means necessary. Disney’s success, built over 100 years, makes it a ripe target. But this is a company that has specialized in underdog stories where the wildest dreams come true. In other words, it’s still probably not wise to bet against the Mouse.