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Disney: The MCU Controversy and The 20th Century Fox Films In The Disney Vault

Long-time followers of this blog will know that I’ve talked about Disney a lot. The main reason for this is that Disney has pretty much engulfed the film industry over the last couple of years. They acquired Marvel and not only built up the biggest cinematic franchise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but also spearheaded a renaissance of superhero films and cinematic universes that has had a massive impact on the industry. They acquired Lucasfilm and made a new trilogy of Star Wars films that were commercially successful. And now, their recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox means they have a major film studio as a subsidiary. They are also subject to a fair bit of scrutiny, some of it justified because they threaten the film industry’s current balance.

For a couple of weeks, the film world has been ablaze with an argument over one question: does the MCU count as cinema? It seems like an odd question for such a ferocious squabble, but it has triggered a tonne of discourses. It first came about when Martin Scorsese was asked if he had seen any of the MCU films. In response, Scorsese said that the films aren’t cinema, going on to say:

“Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

In the aftermath, Francis Ford Coppola called these films “despicable”, whilst MCU directors James Gunn and Taika Waititi defended them. Then the floodgates opened, and everyone had to have an opinion on it. Journalists felt that they had to ask Ken Loach, the famously socialist director, what he made of the MCU. Unsurprisingly, he called them “boring” and said that:

“They’re made as commodities like hamburgers, and it’s not about communicating and it’s not about sharing our imagination. It’s about making a commodity which will make a profit for a big corporation- they’re a cynical exercise.”

Now, I generally enjoy MCU films, and I think that Scorsese is somewhat incorrect in his assumptions about them. However, I’m not going to argue that he shouldn’t have an opinion on it, considering he is one of the most celebrated and decorated directors of all time. In fact, I can see the point he’s trying to get across in a number of aspects. So let’s just make a couple of things clear:

  1. I believe there is a small difference between the terms ‘movies’ and cinema’. They may be the same in terms of definition, but ‘movies’ is a more zeitgeist, Hollywood term. This is important for this discussion because:
  2. Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are films. To see some people argue that they’re not is maddening because MCU films are literally made for the cinema. They have big budgets and big stars and Disney knows a lot of people will treat them as big releases. So the movies in the MCU are films.
  3. However, the opinion I think Scorsese and co hold is that the MCU films don’t represent what they want to make films about. They view cinema as a tool to express characters, experiences, emotions and in Loach’s case, political opinions. MCU films sometimes express these things (Black Panther’s main theme is one of isolationism), but if Scorsese doesn’t gravitate towards this new particular breed of blockbuster, that’s fine because it’s his opinion, and he has carved enough of a legacy in cinema to hold one.

Overall, I feel that this whole debate is reactionary, another example of how Twitter storms these days can magnify any opinion and multiply its ferocity. And anyway, this controversy is not the Disney story we should be talking about…

On Thursday, Matt Zoller Seitz broke a story on Vulture about how Disney was very quietly removing the 20th Century Fox library of classic films from distribution to cinemas, effectively placing them in the Disney Vault. For those who don’t know, the Disney Vault is when Disney decides to withdraw a film from circulation and place it away before re-releasing the film many years later. The Vulture article states that Disney is now doing this for its wide range of Fox films and denying theatres the chance to perform repertory showings.

The article itself is an eye-opening read, made even worse by the fact that Disney is doing this with one of the most wide-ranging filmographies you can possibly have. Some of the films the article mentions include The Fly, Alien, Aliens, The Princess Bride, Fight Club, All About Eve and Deadpool: all of them are classic Fox films now owned by Disney, and all of them are films that Disney are now shutting off after years of theatres showing them in repertory showings. In fact, the article says that the one film Disney is surprisingly lenient on is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but even then you can argue that it’s only because of the die-hard cult fanbase the film has procured since its release. But what makes Disney think that the other films I mentioned are less important? Nothing, but I bet someone at Disney realised they can make a lot of money from re-releasing The Rocky Horror Picture Show in midnight screenings because that’s exactly the kind of classic film that would sell out cinemas.

The reason why Disney is doing so is so far unclear; perhaps Disney will put the films on Disney+ (which still doesn’t have a UK launch date), or perhaps they are trying to claim as many screens in a theatre for their newer films. As the piece damningly states:

“Disney considers any screen that’s taken up by an older movie, even one that’s owned by Disney, to be a screen that could be showing the new Marvel or Star Wars title instead. Or showing Orangutans 4 to an audience of three.”

All we know is that the biggest impact will clearly be felt by theatres that rely on these repertory showings. In the aftermath of the Vulture article, a community cinema in the Champaign-Urbana area of Illinois announced that it would be closing its doors at the end of the month.

This Vulture article sets out the worrying practices that Disney are engaging in, something that has probably flown underneath your radar. It certainly has for me, since I’ve barely seen any discussion on this aside from a couple of Tweets. Instead, this massive story, amongst a number of other big topics about how the face of cinema could be fundamentally changed, is being swept away because one director says he doesn’t watch today’s blockbusters, and his comments get turned into an unholy storm of competing fandoms and self-righteousness.

I care more about the Fox films removed from circulation than I do about this Marvel ‘controversy’, but the latter is what everyone is talking about. And that’s exactly how Disney would like it. After all, if you were a major head at Disney, what would you be more damaging: the news that you are endangering many small cinemas for greedy corporate practices or a debate about how Martin Scorsese doesn’t like Marvel films?

So that was my take on the Disney stories; comment below this post if you have an opinion and subscribe on the front page if you want new content delivered to your e-mail inbox. You can follow me on Twitter @CinematicSense, and if you want to suggest a film or topic for me to cover, comment on any one of my posts or Tweets. Thank you for reading, and in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night…

References

  1. ‘Martin Scorsese says Marvel movies are ‘not cinema’’ from The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/oct/04/martin-scorsese-says-marvel-movies-are-not-cinema)
  2. ‘Ken Loach: Marvel superhero films ‘boring’ and ‘nothing to do with art of cinema’ from Sky News (https://news.sky.com/story/ken-loach-marvel-superhero-films-boring-and-nothing-to-do-with-art-of-cinema-11841486)
  3. ‘Martin Scorsese versus the Marvel Cinematic Universe’ from The Escapist (https://www.escapistmagazine.com/v2/martin-scorsese-versus-the-marvel-cinematic-universe-the-big-picture/)
  4. ‘Disney Is Quietly Placing Classic Fox Movies Into Its Vault, and That’s Worrying’ from Vulture (https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/disney-is-quietly-placing-classic-fox-movies-into-its-vault.html)

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