Why Disney has had an awful centenary year

Instead, it became known as the year when the studio’s magic faded. At the time of writing, the year’s top three global hits are Barbie, The Super Mario Bros Movie, and Oppenheimer, all of them made by Disney’s rivals. The so-called Mouse House is represented by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 in fourth place, and the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid at number nine, but the hits were outnumbered by the misses. The Marvels was the lowest grossing release ever to come from Marvel Studios. It was, Gant tells BBC Culture, “a flat-out calamity, and a reminder to studio heads that just because a film grosses more than $1bn worldwide (as Captain Marvel did in 2019), that does not mean audiences are eager for a sequel”.

This year’s other Marvel offering, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, was a disappointment. The Haunted Mansion was a bona fide flop. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny made half the money that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did back in 2008. A Pixar cartoon, Elemental, had a dismal opening weekend, and although its fortunes improved, Pixar’s president, Jim Morris, was hardly gushing when he told Variety’s Rebecca Rubin in August: “At the box office we’re looking at now, it should do better than break even theatrically… This will certainly be a profitable film for the Disney Company.”

The underwhelming year was rounded off by Wish, a cartoon that was made specifically to commemorate a century of Disney animation. Audiences didn’t feel like joining the party, and it was beaten on its opening weekend by Napoleon and The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. “It’s a far, far cry from Disney’s pre-pandemic Thanksgiving releases,” said Rubin in Variety.

Gant points out that “it’s possible to exaggerate” its recent misfortunes. and that some of the numbers were “not so bad”. But this was the first year since 2014 (if you don’t count the pandemic interlude) that none of Disney’s films broke the billion-dollar barrier. It turns out that when you wish upon a star, your dreams don’t always come true.

The possible reasons for its woes

How did 2023 go so wrong? Pundits have been puzzling over the Mouse House’s annus horribilis for weeks, identifying several factors. A key one being that the Covid-19 pandemic got people into the habit of watching films at home rather than in cinemas, and as Disney has its own streaming service, everyone knows where they can find the studio’s output. If you were are a Disney+ subscriber, the logic goes, why would you buy a ticket for a film you could see for no extra charge a month or two later? 

Then there is “superhero fatigue”, ie, the public’s “enough already” response to a wave of second-string comic-book characters – and this phenomenon hit DC / Warner’s films, such as Blue Beetle, The Flash and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, just as hard as it hit Marvel’s.

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