Unless you've had your head under a particularly large rock for a particularly long time, it's very likely you've experienced a Disney product first hand. Perhaps you've cried when Mufassa get's all circle-of-life'd by his own brother in the Lion King. Maybe you've been whacked round the face by your son wielding a plastic Buzz Lightyear toy. Perhaps you've had some measure of revenge by throwing up on that same son on Space Mountain. Whatever your exposure, it's probably no secret to you that Disney are big, but you may not have realised just how big....
Founded 95 years ago as an animation studio, it wasn't long before the brainchild of Walter Elias Disney left its first indelible mark on popular culture. In 1928's black and white short Steamboat Willie, a tune-whistling, rump-shaking, parrot-bothering rodent named Mickey first captured the public's imagination, alongside his mouse-missus Minnie. Followed shortly thereafter by Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy and co., Disney's popularity grew year on year, truly crystalizing in 1937 with the worldwide smash Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Unlike 7/8ths of its core cast, the animated film was full length (Disney's first) and became the highest-earning sound film of all time. Using profits from Snow White, Walt and his partner/brother Roy expanded the Californian animation studios onto a huge lot, in-housing all elements of production in a truly creative hub.
The 40's and 50's saw them releasing such cartoon classics as Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, Fantasia, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Between 1942 and 1945 they were even commissioned by the U.S. Government, Army and Navy to produce war propaganda. This generally took the form of instructional graphics, training shorts and pro-America films.... It seems someone beat them to their original plan to simply draw a stupid moustache on any and all images of Hitler.
The following decades may have seen a few less animated benchmarks (The Jungle Book and Aristocats notwithstanding), but Treasure Island, Mary Poppins and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were indicative of their newfound live-action clout and in 1955 Walt made his first foray into the world of theme parks. To this day, they don't get much bigger or better than California's Disneyland (they do get much bigger and better than Paris's Disneyland....). The most popular theme park in the world (the U.S. one), with more than 700 million attendees to date, Disneyland is a place where the imagination can truly soar.... Honestly, you can't imagine how much it bloody well costs for three hot dogs and two large Pepsis! Though Walt died in 1966, plans were already afoot for something new, and in October 1971, under the stewardship and continued investment of his brother, Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida. Roy himself barely had time to enjoy its golf courses, luxury accommodation, shopping villages and amusement rides, unfortunately shuffling off a mere two months later – nevertheless, it soon became the world's premier vacation destination.
Meanwhile however, Disney experienced a string of critical misfires and commercial duds, their relevance in cinema beginning to erode.
Salvation came in the 80's with a raft of popular live action films including Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Three Men and a Baby, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Pretty Woman - the original idea for a single film where Richard Gere competes against three men and a shrunken (already small) baby for the affections of an animated prostitute rabbit was wisely split amongst several distinct screenplays...
The 90's produced yet more animated classics in the shape of The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, but it was 1995's Toy Story which really changed the game for both Disney and the filmgoing public. Produced by tech company Pixar, the world's first computer animated feature film's vibrant visuals turned what would otherwise have been your typical, everyday story of a cowboy-toy-and-spaceman-toy-coming-to-life-when-humans-aren't-watching-to-ride-on-dinosaurs-and-radio-controlled-cars-and-go-on-adventures.... into a true crowd-pleasing classic and innovative leap forward in animation. Whilst Pixar produced, Disney partnered on the film, announcing their intention to co-create five more such digitally animated films over the next decade. A true hit factory was born, with Pixar's brand soon synonymous with both stunning animation and impeccable storytelling. In 2006, under the stewardship of recent CEO Robert “Bob” Iger, Disney bought Pixar outright for $7.4 billion. Clearly feeling there was still too much loose change rattling around his pockets, Iger then steered Disney to acquire Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for $4 billion. The latter company had recently secured its first bona-fide commercial slam dunk in 2008's Iron Man and Iger rightly anticipated the huge franchise-building potential for the superhero brand and its vast roster of spandex-clad characters. Today, Disney-owned Marvel Studios is about the safest bet in the entertainment industry, pumping out enormous hit after enormous hit whilst rival studios play catch up.
Not content with owning almost anyone in a cape, Disney then looked to a galaxy far, far away and in 2012, purchased Lucasfilm and with it the rights to Star Wars. Whilst some initially scoffed at the eye-watering $4 billion price-tag for a stagnating property, business analysts tipped their hats at Disney, who soon recovered half that amount in ticket sales for The Force Awakens alone. Factor in the subsequent success of Rogue One and The Last Jedi and the near-limitless potential of the brand, and Iger had once more proved his unswerving savvy in the art of creative content acquisition.
Meanwhile, Disney's homegrown animation division has been reinvigorated with a bevy of monster hits including Frozen, Tangled, Zootopia and Moana. Not one to rest on his laurels, Iger has just landed a real whopper, with the ink still wet on a $71 billion (you read that right... unless you read it as something other than seventy-one billion f@*k!ng dollars) deal to buy Fox, home of money-spinning movie and TV properties such as Avatar, The Simpsons, X-Men and errr... Deadpool – How the home of Mickey Mouse plans to incorporate a crass, foul-mouthed, albeit extremely succesful sociopath into their family-friendly brand remains to be seen ….. although they managed to do business with Rupert Murdoch to acquire the rights, soooo.... In the age of recognisable IP and “shared universe” franchises, the potential Disney now has for combining formerly disparate properties and exploiting those that work is obscene. Not only that, but their capacity for cross-platform promotion (TV shows, comics, movies, news sites, theme parks, theatre productions...) means their ever-growing roster of family favourites are becoming ever more ubiquitous. The last decade has seen a raft of incredibly popular live action remakes of their animated favourites and Pixar sequels with surprisingly non-diminishing returns, both financially and critically. Provided the bar remains high, audiences and shareholders alike appear to be benefitting - Under Iger's watch, the company's market cap has quadrupled to £175 billion, with 150 million attendees to its various theme parks last year alone. No small part of their value comes from merchandise, a huge side-industry to their multiplying silver and small screen offerings - The more characters under the Mouse House's roof, the more of their plastic counterparts are likely strewn under yours … either because you've got kids or you're a MASSIVE Star Wars nerd.
Next up, Iger's got no less than Netflix and Amazon in his crosshairs, with Disney's own streaming service pencilled for a 2019 launch. Utilizing Fox's considerable catalogue of content and 30% stake in streaming giant Hulu alongside their own huge portfolio, Disney plan to muscle right in against the big cheeses for the holy grail of content delivery. At this stage, only a fool would bet against their ability to succeed.
And just to think, one cartoon prostitute rabbit, three blokes and a shrunken baby and it could all have been such a different story.....
By Ian Greenland