The American Prospect: How the Disney Monopoly Influences What You Can See

Alien has gone missing. As a classic of the horror and sci-fi genres, it’s traditional around Halloween for repertory theaters to hold showings of the film. This year, however, is different. Alien is among hundreds of 21st Century Fox movies now owned by Disney that are apparently no longer available for local theaters to get the rights to play, due to a change in ownership.

The Walt Disney Company has long maintained a “Disney Vault” policy: They virtually never allow screenings or physical re-releases (VHS, DVD, Blu-ray) for popular older films unless the company decides to do specific highly publicized events for them, thus creating a degree of artificial scarcity for their beloved classics. But Disney’s growth into an emerging monopoly and acquisition of Fox properties means that the company suddenly has a wide variety of new films in their archives. According to reports by local theaters around the country, many of which have been screening showings of Fox films for years, Disney has decided they are retroactively putting these films into their vault.

That means no Alien, no The Fly, and no The Omen this Halloween. And no Miracle on 34th Street or Home Alone for Christmas. And no The Princess Bride, Moulin Rouge, The Sound of Music, or hundreds of other films, any time.

To understand the effects of this move, it’s important to realize how much of Hollywood the company now owns. Fox was the number one producer of Best Picture winners at the Oscars, with 60 movies nominated over its history. In combination with Disney and Pixar’s own films, the acquisition of Fox means that the Walt Disney Company now owns one in seven of all films to ever receive a Best Picture nod. With this impressive library in stock, the company now seems to be preventing many of the best movies of all time from seeing daylight in public until they decide it’s profitable to do otherwise.

I recently argued that “[w]hen theaters rely on a handful of films from the same companies to stay afloat, it gives those companies enormous leverage.” Just one month later, we now know that Disney has already begun taking advantage of this in a new way, by denying repertory theaters access to what one film programmer called “‘steady earners’… You show them, and people turn up.”

The effects of consolidation are especially profound in industries like film, which rely heavily on intellectual-property rights. Giving a film a copyright is essentially giving them monopoly rights over use of the copyright in question. But unlike for many everyday products, competitors can’t simply produce a near-identical alternative to creative works like films for consumers to choose between, because every film is unique by nature. A cheap re-creation of The Sound of Music simply won’t draw in consumers the same way that, say, a generic competitor to headache medicine will. In this way, media giants like Disney function as a monopoly on monopolies-a uniquely powerful arrangement.

In what is itself a sign of the company’s outsize power, the film programmer quoted above “asked not to be named … for fear of angering Disney.” Others working in the struggling independent-theater industry are less shy: The owner of Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre estimates Disney’s move may cost the institution 10 to 12 percent of its yearly income. It’s hard to come up with a more salient example of “restraint of trade”: curbing the flow of commerce to control a market. Even in our hands-off antitrust environment, this is supposed to be illegal.

Read the rest at The American Prospect.

Originally published at https://prospect.org on October 30, 2019.

Writer on politics, public policy, and current events. All opinions here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of employers past or present.

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