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Living the next decade in sequels

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on January 03, 2020 Published on January 03, 2020

Fairy-tale fortune: Disney today owns an alarming number of the most valuable film and TV franchises in the world   -  REUTERS

Streaming platforms may have broken the Big Studio’s hold in dictating what kind of shows are made and who watches them, but movie franchises look set to dominate the scene

The ’90s represented a bit of a crossroads for the entertainment industry. Having ridden the TV wave since the very beginning, it was finally confronted with a rival that forced its hand: The Internet. For the first time ever, the idea of being connected to avenues of entertainment (which also doubled as providers of news and a zillion other things) 24x7 was becoming mainstream. The point is simple: Out of that challenge, the seeds of the ongoing streaming era were sown.

So what does the future of entertainment look like right now, smack bang in the middle of the streaming era? Will streaming fulfil its early promise of industry democratisation and multiply the number of viable options for both artistes and audiences? Or will we see the market patterns of the Big Studio era (oligarchy, elitism, monopolisation and crony capitalism) replicated, only in a faster, bloodier way?

To be honest, at the moment the picture is not looking too rosy. Pre-existing studios are looking to cash in on the market that Netflix, Amazon Prime Video et al have built — NBC, for example, will start its own streaming service soon, which means no more binge-watching The Office on Netflix. This is, I believe, the next phase of the streaming wars — studio executives will build up war chests of films and shows they own or acquire, as much to deplete the rival’s coffers as to fill their own.

Just look at the speed and scale at which Disney is stockpiling entertainment caches, the latest being its July 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Disney now owns an alarming number of the most valuable film and TV franchises in the world — the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Star Wars, Avatar, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, everything ever made by Pixar or Fox, and so on.

All of these acquisitions will, no doubt, service Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+.

Over the next decade, we will see franchises dominating the entertainment business on an unprecedented scale. A slew of new Disney+ shows (like Loki, The Mandalorian, WandaVision and so on) will expand the Marvel and Star Wars universes. James Cameron has already announced four new Avatar sequels between now and 2025. Tom Cruise and Will Smith, two of Hollywood’s biggest-ever stars, return to their signature franchises in 2020 — Cruise has a new Top Gun film out while Smith will be seen in a sequel to Bad Boys. Disney will follow suit, adapting Bruce Willis’s Die Hard films into a TV show.

In 2020, there’ll also be live action Disney adaptations of animated films such as Mulan and popular YA or young adult books such as Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series (veteran director Kenneth Branagh is adapting the first book). Iconic non-movie franchises such as Sonic the Hedgehog (from the video game), or Jungle Cruise (a Disney theme park ride, like Pirates of the Caribbean; Dwayne Johnson will star in the movie), or the fashion doll Barbie (starring Margot Robbie) will receive large-screen adaptations.

The coming year will also give us the ninth Fast & Furious film, the third Conjuring film — and, believe it or not, a GI Joe spinoff film called Snake Eyes, starring Iko Uwais (The Raid, Netflix’s Wu Assassins), one of the biggest martial arts movie stars on the planet.

To be clear, more cutesy animated films for kids and more action/superhero movies for grown-up kids (like this writer) spell good news, broadly speaking. But an entertainment monopoly (or something close to it) goes so much beyond individuals or individual films/shows — what we look set to witness is the “Disney-fication” of the entire industry. And, unfortunately, that means a decade dominated by safe, middle-of-the-road art that ruffles no feathers, keeps you occupied for a couple of hours and escapes your brain almost immediately after, never to be heard from again.

An example from the recent past illustrates what I mean by this. In Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, there’s a brief, blink-and-you-miss-it onscreen kiss between two minor female characters. Apparently, in certain parts of the world (like Singapore and Dubai), even this lip service to diversity has been edited out.

This after the film’s makers spent years gleefully amplifying fan speculation about whether Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), one of the new trilogy’s protagonists, is gay. Of course, Disney wasn’t going to make one of the protagonists gay — after close to a decade of queerbaiting tactics employed through characters such as Valkyrie and Captain Marvel, what we eventually got in Avengers: Endgame was director Joe Russo playing an unnamed gay character for all of 41 seconds on-screen.

As an astute commentator pointed out on Twitter, you know your representation isn’t sincere when it can be conveniently edited out in global markets. Repeat after me: Corporations the size of Disney will never make art that truly challenges the status quo. Instead, they will keep playing both sides, so to speak. They will spend billions projecting an image that’s just earnest enough for young, liberal audiences — and just pro-establishment enough for its older, conservative shareholders.

A recent satirical Twitter thread summed it up neatly. Written like a long timeline of the Walt Disney Corporation, the thread begins conventionally enough (“2006: Disney buys Pixar. 2009: Disney buys Marvel. 2018: Disney buys Hulu”) but starts landing its blows soon. 2030? “Buys Apple. Apple Watch rebranded as the Mickey Watch.” 2031? “The Church of Baby Yoda becomes fastest growing religion in the world. Disney acquires private military, starts corporate espionage on a large scale.”

Worryingly for us all, one can’t decide if the thread’s endpoint, 2100, is more science than science fiction. Following the death of most of humanity due to Disney building a real-life Deathstar (a planet-destroying weapon from Star Wars), the tweet for 2100 simply says, “Disney announces new X-Men movie. Marvel fans excited.”

Aditya Mani Jha

Published on January 03, 2020
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