Disney will confirm its utter dominance of the global box office this week as the final Star Wars film looks set to pass $1bn (£767m) in ticket sales, capping a year at the movies that will be hard to beat.
A decade-long strategy to reinvigorate Disney’s film division has reached its zenith as the all-conquering Avengers: Endgame, which passed Avatar to become the biggest grossing film of all time at $2.8bn, paved the way earlier this year for the best performance by a Hollywood studio in box office history.
When the final ticket stubs are counted, Disney will have made over $11bn in 2019, having smashed its own record for annual global box office sales of $7.6bn way back in July. And that is without adding more than $2bn from films released by 20th Century Fox, which Disney bought as part of a $71bn deal to take control of Rupert Murdoch’s global entertainment assets.
“It is like a perfect storm for Disney that is the equivalent of a 100-year flood at the box office,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore.
Disney’s dominance of Hollywood is complete. Seven of the record nine films released this year that will end their run taking in $1bn-plus are Disney titles: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Captain Marvel, Toy Story 4, Aladdin, Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, starring Daisy Ridley. The company’s success is the fruit of a well-planned strategy to buy up franchises and characters across a wide range of genres that it embarked upon over a decade ago.
In 2006, Disney spent $7.4bn buying Apple founder Steve Jobs’s Pixar, the hit factory behind Finding Nemo, its sequel Finding Dory, Toy Story and The Incredibles, to help revive its once proud tradition of producing hit animated films. This was followed in 2009 by the surprise $4bn purchase of Marvel Comics’ superhero universe, bringing in thousands of characters including Iron Man and Captain America, which took Disney into new live-action territory.
The third transformational deal was snapping up George Lucas’s Lucasfilm, maker of Star Wars and the Indiana Jones franchises, in a $4bn deal in 2012. In each case the deals were criticised by City investors but it is Disney that has been laughing all the way to the bank.
In 2008, just before the launch of its first Marvel film – Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr – Disney’s share price was about $15, valuing the business at $26bn. A little over a decade on and Disney is a stock market behemoth 10 times the size with a share price of almost $150, valuing it at well over $260bn.
“The spectacular year that Disney has had in 2019 is a testament to the decision-making process over the course of many years that resulted in their assembling of some of the biggest brands in film, and then creating content that is appealing to all demographics of people around the world,” said Dergarabedian.
Next year the steam will come out of the Disney machine with a weaker release slate, partly due to the end of the current cycle of the Marvel and Star Wars franchises. While dominance at the cinema remains crucial, the company is also increasingly setting its sights on a streaming future, taking on Netflix globally with its Disney+ service.
Alongside plans to make Disney+ the first place viewers will be able to watch blockbusters such as Frozen II after a theatre release, the company is also shifting some focus to making original content specifically for the streaming service. These include the $100m Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian, and Tom Hiddleston reprising his role as Loki from the Thor films in an exclusive TV series.
“Disney is on the cusp of a new era with Disney+,” said Dergarabedian. “Surely we will see more of these cross-promotional strategies between the big screen and the small screen in the future.”
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