On the 20th of March, in a deal over a year in the making and costing over $70 billion – for context, more than Russia’s entire military budget in 2018 – Disney acquired all of 20th Century Fox’s film and TV assets in a package deal which also included major stakes in National Geographic, Endemol, and Hulu. Think about that for a moment. Every film and TV show you’ve watched which started with those searchlights and that horn section, every single one, that’s now all property of The Mouse.
Ironically, it wasn’t so long ago that it was the Fox empire attempting to hoover up the rest of the media landscape – most notably News Corporation’s attempt to get complete control of the British satellite TV conglomerate Sky plc, only scuppered due to the bad image resulting from the News International phone hacking scandal. Now the worm has turned, and, just as Disney has now snapped up 20th Century Fox, the less obviously evil Comcast took over Sky in its entirety last year.
Disney, of course, love little more than exercising draconian control over everything they own, especially if they can wring a buck out of it – which often manifests itself in coming down like a ton of bricks on daycares with bootleg Mickeys drawn on the walls. With this acquisition reducing the number of major Hollywood studios from six to five, they’ll now have plenty more opportunity to hound people to the ends of the earth for petty copyright infringement. Or to engage in another of their favourite hobbies: blacklisting newspapers who had the temerity to report on their ever-increasing political clout.
With this deal, Disney’s control of the film industry is now estimated at around a 40% market share. This falls well short of rubbing up against anti-trust laws, which only mandate the breakup of full monopolies, but – as mentioned earlier – the film industry is dominated by a handful of studios, and was already well within the definition of an oligopoly, where the market is dominated by a small number of entities rather than one alone. Disney is also credited as part of the oligopoly which dominates American television and high-speed internet – but its presence in film takes the prize, with its market share representing nearly half of that held by it, Universal, Paramount, Sony, and Warner Bros. combined. What this means, ultimately, is less competition, and the giants in the industry becoming complacent – at least, about every threat other than ‘also being eaten by Disney’.
Despite Disney’s supposedly family-friendly image, it’s incredibly unlikely that Fox’s output will end up sanitised in any way because of this. The same concern was raised when Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise – but, as many pointed out at the time, Miramax was owned by Disney when they released Pulp Fiction. Which, if my numbers are correct, makes Mia Wallace a Disney princess, but only after the point at which she overdoses on China white, in a sort of perverse Sleeping Beauty scenario. Sorry guys, I don’t make the rules.
Still, the way Star Wars changed hands does give a glimpse of how Disney tends to operate here. The universal consensus about the new trilogy – and The Force Awakens in particular – is that it’s retreading the originals. Which, really, shouldn’t be a surprise. When Disney adapted the Snow White fairytale, their method was not to say ‘alright, everyone knows and loves this story, where does it go next?’ – no, they remade it in their own style. Likewise Winnie the Pooh, Mulan, and basically everything they do that isn’t an original property.
With their acquisition of Fox, they have the advantage that a lot of the work of boiling once-fresh concepts down into a profitable and endlessly repeatable form has been done for them. Fox are of course the people responsible for Seth McFarlane’s animated oeuvre, but nowhere is this more evident than the show McFarlane’s spent the last twenty years leaning on like a drunkard with one leg – The Simpsons. Like their old pal Seth, The Simpsons has spent the last twenty years descending into a happy little rut of obvious jokes and not-so-hot takes on not-so-current affairs.
The franchise still makes a net profit, so, fine, it carries on. Though saying that Disney was unlikely to sanitise the property leaves out the very real possibility that – as in this case – the original owners will do that for them before getting snapped up by the Disney megalith. Time was, The Simpsons would happily take shots at Disney (small potatoes compared to the ire they directed at Fox), as in the immortal exchange “How were you a political prisoner?”/“I kicked a giant mouse in the butt! Do I have to draw you a diagram?”, something it’s simply impossible to imagine them doing at any time in the last decade.
In a way, this is the final stage of a transformation that’s been on the cards for a long time. An old post from the Dead Homer Society (whose manifesto I can heartily recommend to all Simpsons fans) relates how at about the turn of the millennium, they witnessed a Fox executive claiming they wanted to make The Simpsons into – their words – “our Mickey Mouse property”. An ambition which now seems to have been fulfilled beyond their wildest dreams. Just as recent years saw The Simpsons engage in cheap cartoon crossovers with Rick & Morty and Family Guy, which seemed more like public relations exercises, somewhere in the bowels of Disney somebody’s probably floating the idea of Mickey Mouse visiting Springfield.
It’s impossible to overstate how naked a betrayal of the spirit of The Simpsons this is. Even during their first flush of success, they were all too happy to kick against the pricks of their own merchandise, their own network (“Watch Fox and be damned for all eternity”) and certainly those of industry giants like Big Mouse. The exchange I quoted earlier was from the episode ‘Itchy & Scratchy Land’ (the violentest place on earth), a grand-scale mauling of Disney and their associated Land where beneath the tourist-friendly veneer is little more than robotic profiteering and strong-arm tactics – something the Disneyland workers who coined the name ‘Mauschwitz’ could probably confirm.