Tough Times for Disney: The Fans' Anger Explained

Why the giant company finds itself in a crisis

by Tom Hartig on January 12, 2024

Hardly any other name in Hollywood history is as well-known as the one of Walt Disney. For 100 years, the company has enchanted innumerable hearts of all ages with its imaginative stories. But on the occasion of its big anniversary, the company seems to be facing a crisis: The costs are exploding, numerous movies and series are falling short of expectations and one shitstorm follows the next. Many people are asking themselves: what is going on with Disney?

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Management Chaos at Disney

The last few years have been beyond messy for the giant corporation. Let's jump back to 2019 for a moment. Things were still going quite well for the company: CEO Bob Iger had been in charge for 14 years. Under his leadership, Disney acquired huge brands such as Pixar, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox. Iger entered the streaming market in a big way and Disney+ was initially a great success with low subscription costs and a wide range of Disney classics.

However, things went downhill from here: Bob Iger stepped down as CEO and appointed his long-time partner Bob Chapek as the new CEO of Disney - a decision that he would later describe as the biggest mistake of his career. Unlike Iger, Chapek does not have a knack for the world of film: whereas his predecessor is a showman who can somehow get along with anyone, Chapek is a typical businessman who is more interested in figures rather than people.

Over the next three years, he basically fell out with all the big names in the industry and disregarded many of his colleagues' advice. However, he also had to deal with difficult circumstances: not only did he have to lead Disney through the times of the pandemic, but his former boss, Bob Iger, who still has a lot to say at Disney, is also continually sabotaging him behind the scenes and badmouthing his every decision in front of others.

This was followed by a number of smaller and larger scandals. Actress Scarlett Johansson, for example, sued her employer Disney for releasing her film "Black Widow" simultaneously in cinemas as well as on Disney+, in violation of all agreements. Chapek then issued a statement accusing the actress of being greedy and selfish in times of the pandemic - a move that many resented.

Content, Content, Content!

Chapek first invested a lot of money in content production in order to increase Disney+ subscription figures - the costs kept rising. According to many critics, however, the quality also declined. This is because more money does not automatically mean more creative resources. The existing amount of filmmakers was severely overworked - resulting in impossible deadlines, a lack of quality control and difficult working conditions. Behind the scenes, this led to an uprising among the effects artists at Marvel, who founded their first union.

Moreover, viewers were increasingly dissatisfied with the movies and series that were created under these conditions. Many experts agree that the Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel franchises have been damaged as a result. Unsurprisingly, Bob Iger shares this criticism and recently announced that he had always believed that quantity could damage quality. This is precisely what has happened and what has caused Disney to lose its focus.

One Flop Follows the Next

But has this approach at least paid off for Disney's streaming services? The aim was to reach at least 215 million subscribers for Disney+ by the end of 2023 - in fact, it only managed to reach 150 million. That's even 14 million subscribers less than a year earlier. Incidentally, over the course of a year, the difference between expectations and reality results in around 7 billion dollars less revenue than hoped for. In the past 4 years, Disney's streaming service has made losses of more than 10 billion dollars.

Indeed, Disney is facing financial difficulties: The overall success of streaming services, which the company itself has helped to boost, has also accelerated the demise of linear television - once a huge source of income for the company, which also owns TV channel ABC and sports network ESPN. Disney's share value has fallen by half in the last 3 years.

On top of this, a number of movies have flopped recently: "The Little Mermaid", "Indiana Jones 5" and "Haunted Mansion" all fell short of expectations in 2023. Even Disney's beloved Pixar initially struggled to make an impact with "Elemental" which only became a success as time went on. "The Marvels" was the weakest opening ever for a Marvel film and the animated movie "Wish" also failed to make a strong impression in December.

It is important to mention that it is by no means true that there is a lack of moviegoers. Disney movies are still enjoyed by many people. However, the productions are significantly more expensive than they used to be: both "The Little Mermaid" and Indy cost around 300 million dollars to produce - in addition to marketing, which easily doubles the budget. In theaters, they grossed 570 million and 380 million respectively - which is actually a decent figure, just not good enough considering the costs.

As head, at least, Chapek no longer had to experience these flops: At the end of 2022, it was decided to call it quits and Chapek was fired. His predecessor became his successor: Bob Iger returned to the company as the new, former CEO. As he had supposedly always known better anyway, he was now tasked with leading the company back to success.

This Is to Change

But how exactly does Iger intend to achieve this? His first step: a harsh austerity program. Over 8,000 employees have been dismissed and Disney+ subscription prices have been massively increased. The company is also considering selling the ABC TV channel and bringing in financial partners for the ESPN sports empire. At times, there were rumors that Apple could buy Disney's entire TV division or that the entire group would even be sold off - which seems an unlikely radical step. Nevertheless, such massive changes are not entirely impossible: for example, the big movie distributors Warner Bros. and Paramount are currently looking into merging to create a new gigantic corporation - an action that would put further pressure on competitor Disney.

In terms of production, Bob Iger is also pursuing a new approach: making fewer films and focusing on high quality instead. In the coming business year, Disney aims to spend 25 billion dollars on its productions. That is 2 billion dollars less than the year before.

Disney's financial situation gradually began to improve in the last quarter. According to CNBC, the streaming services only made a loss of 387 million dollars, compared to almost 1.5 billion a year earlier.

Are Disney Movies Getting Progressively Worse?

Pandemic, internal disputes, working conditions: The audience probably couldn't care less about all these problems as long as Disney continues to produce great movies and series. However, both the box office results and the comments columns convey the impression that Disney can no longer win over audiences the way they used to. But why is that? Let's take a look together at the big movies of recent years and what has changed!

Is Disney Only Making Remakes and Sequels?

Reproach number one: "Disney is only producing remakes and sequels! There are hardly any original stories these days!"

Is the number of remakes really as high as it seems? Let's ignore the Star Wars and MCU franchise universes for a moment and focus on the movies from the classic Disney Studios: Since 2010, almost 30 movies have been made for the big screen - including 19 remakes or sequels. In comparison: in the same period from 1997 to 2009, there were only 2 sequels among almost 20 films by Disney.

Please note that we are only talking about cinema releases here. Disney has been producing sequels and prequels to its well-known films since the 90s, be it "Peter Pan", "The Little Mermaid" or "The Lion King" - between 1997 and 2010, there were over 28 more movies!

However, these small productions did not receive as much public attention as their theatrical counterparts and were also produced significantly cheaper. Things are different these days: Regardless of whether it's a theatrical release or a first release on Disney+, we come across continuations of older stories everywhere, whether we like it or not. A vast range of content that is expensively promoted - and accordingly hotly debated. Especially when viewers are dissatisfied.

How Much Politics Should Be in Children's Stories?

Reproach number two: "Disney is too woke! Political messages are more of a priority to them than credible stories!"

This is certainly one of the biggest criticisms of modern Disney movies. The main issue here is the way in which characters are written and cast.

Let's take "The Little Mermaid" as an example: in the 1989 animated film, she is portrayed as having white skin and red hair; in the 2023 live-action remake, she is played by the African-American Halle Bailey. The issues focus primarily on 3 points:

On the one hand, it's about supposed realism: mermaids couldn't be black. It wouldn't make sense for her father to be played by the light-skinned Spaniard Javier Bardem and so on and so forth. Of course, depending on the movie, you can argue about how important such points are in fictional fantasy stories. However, it obviously disrupts the story for many viewers when familiar settings are changed - especially if they are based on historical origins, such as European stories in the case of Ariel.

On the other hand, the portrayal challenges what viewers know from the old films: Why does Ariel suddenly have a different skin color? Many perceive this striking change, which has no justification within the story, as a political influence from the outside: beloved characters are superficially changed to allow for a diverse cast. It's not just about changing white characters, as there would be just as much outrage if Mulan were to suddenly be played by a white actress, for example.

Fun fact: There were similar discussions about the first animated film when Disney gave the mermaid bright red hair. At the time, this was also a deviation from the original fairy tale, but without the internet, the shitstorm was of course considerably smaller.

Many people wonder: when it comes to telling modern stories with a diverse cast, why not tell new stories instead of changing the popular old ones? Although this is no guarantee of success - see flops such as "Wish" or "Strange World" - it is obviously not an obstacle in view of great hits such as "Encanto".

In its long history, Disney has covered every possible cultural sphere and has repeatedly enjoyed success - both with European settings such as "Beauty and the Beast" or "Frozen" and with stories like "Mulan" or "Moana". So it is not at all the case that audiences automatically reject movies that are not "white" enough. Anyone who assumes that every critic is racist is therefore making things too easy for themselves.

The Dilemma: Same - But Different!

Disney seems to be torn between two goals: On one side, they are opting to take a low risk by revisiting old hits. The idea behind this is that those who already know the predecessor are more likely to go to the movies to watch the remake as well. And remakes in particular appeal to both nostalgic adults and their children. New technical possibilities offer the ideal justification for the company to present the old stories in a fresh new look.

At the same time, though, they also want to adapt to current social trends and expectations. The problem with this is that if, for example, films used to use lots of clichés that are now outdated, how can you tell the same kind of stories without simply replicating these portrayals?

Disney's response so far has been to try and change the stories accordingly: Skin colors are changed and characters are generously rewritten. But regardless of how good, bad or believable the finished movie may be in itself, the audience is given a different movie to what they expected. The most recent shitstorm concerned the remake of "Snow White", in which the character known to have skin as white as snow is played by a Latina. And the seven dwarves, who are even part of the fairy tale title, were to be replaced by magical beings of all shapes and sizes. These blatant changes caused so much ridicule and outrage that Disney at least backtracked when it came to the dwarves: the movie was postponed and Snow White's companions were turned back into dwarves - albeit CGI-animated.

Anger Only Among Adults?

Traditionally, animated Disney movies are aimed at the whole family. Children don't really care whether there was a white Ariel 34 years ago. After all, there are all kinds of characters in all kinds of variations as movies, series or toys - it rarely detracts from the enjoyment as long as the story itself is entertaining.

Obviously, it is of little use to Disney if only children want to see the movies. The costs are simply too high nowadays and the target audience too broad - think of remakes and sequels. Disney is reliant on the money of grown-ups. And former Disney kids in particular have different demands when it comes to new films.

If we take a look at Disney's modern animated films, the question arises of how neutral older viewers can actually be. You've probably heard the saying "Everything was better in the old days" and how every generation in human history has claimed this time and time again. Most of us grew up with Disney movies, be it old classics or the latest movies that everyone talked about at school. And even many years later, we still like these films, probably even a bit more, partly because they have shaped our image of what a Disney film should be like.

Regardless of what modern movies do differently from their predecessors, Disney will always find it difficult to keep up with our wishes and expectations, and to repeat the magical feeling of the past. That doesn't mean that they can't succeed in doing so from time to time, but the last few years have shown that Disney isn't doing itself any favors by simply trying to please everyone with every single project.

Disney has of course long since stopped limiting itself to the production of family films. For example, just a few years ago, no one would have guessed that the brutal "Predator" film "Prey" would be released exclusively on Disney+. Such productions show that good and successful movies for adults are also possible under the Disney label - and at a fraction of the cost of blockbusters. Perhaps this is also the actual goal that Disney should be pursuing. A diversity of movies, instead of diversity in every movie.

Go Woke, Go Broke?

Despite all the accusations of political motivation, Disney as a global mega corporation is focused on one thing above all else: they want to make money. Critics love the popular phrase "Go Woke, Go Broke" - a mocking reference to the fact that efforts to promote more diversity and certain messages will result in financial damage. This applies to typical Disney animated films as well as Star Wars, the MCU and the like. So did Disney simply back the wrong horse? Did they perhaps want to increase their viewership but lost their core audience in the process? It's hard to figure that out, as there are simply too many factors that influence whether a movie is a success or not - not to mention that everyone understands the word "woke" differently anyway.

But no matter which of the aforementioned points of criticism you apply: If it were so clear that this seemingly new type of film is not worthwhile for Disney, shouldn't this be clearly reflected in the revenues? What is clear is that 17 of the 20 most successful Disney movies of all time in terms of box office takings were released in 2010 or later - inflation-adjusted. Incidentally, among these movies, "Frozen" is the only one that is not a sequel or part of a franchise.

But the truth is that, apart from "Avatar 2", not a single one of these movies was released after 2019 - the launch year of Disney+ and the takeover of CEO Bob Chapek. So even if the allegations against Disney have been around for many years: At least at the box office, things have only been doing so poorly for a relatively short time.

Where Is the Journey Taking You, Disney?

But what's the matter now with Disney? What should they do differently, so that they can make successful releases and the public will like them again? We wish there were simple answers. Irrespective of whether it's an original story, a sequel or a remake, whether it's a particularly diverse production or an old-fashioned adaptation: There are examples of successful movies and flops of all kinds.

Perhaps the answer ultimately lies less in superficial factors of what category a movie can be put into, but rather whether talented people have the opportunity to tell a beautiful story. And that without the extreme pressure of recent years to produce as much content as possible in the shortest possible time. If current CEO Bob Iger is to be believed, this is the way forward. Let's hope so for Disney - and for all of us.