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Disney Has an ‘Avatar’ Problem

In 2010, the Walt Disney Company released “Alice in Wonderland” starring Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowski, Anne Hathaway, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, and Stephen Fry. With an estimated budget of $200 million, Alice went on to make over $1 billion worldwide. It was a hit that many attributed to Depp’s lovable Mad Hatter and the newness of the 3D technology.

Six years later, Disney released “Alice through the Looking Glass” as a sequel focusing on Depp’s Hatter and his family. With an estimated $170 million budget and the addition of Sacha Baron Cohen, the film flopped, making less than $300 million worldwide.  Whether this was due to the allegations leveled at Depp by Amanda Heard the week of the film’s opening, Depp’s inability to be a main character when playing an eccentric (see “Mortdecai” and possibly “The Lone Ranger,” which was more about Depp’s Tonto than Armie Hammer’s titular character), or the mundanity of 3D technology that was novel when the first film released, the six years between the two films, or the meandering story line of the film itself, “Through the Looking Glass” couldn’t hold a candle to the original.

Now, in a “hold my (non-alcoholic) beer” moment, Disney’s going to commit the same mistake with four films and a theme park at stake. “Avatar” was released the winter of 2009 and became the biggest grossing movie of all time with $2.8 billion worldwide. (As of this writing, “Avengers: Endgame” may or may not take the top spot.) Disney collaborated with Cameron and added an Avatar-themed land to its Animal Kingdom. It has purchased 20th Century Fox and now owns the rights to the Avatar intellectual properties.

In 2009, 3D was a true novelty, and “Avatar” capitalized on the effect with its beautiful scenery and amazing alien landscape. The movie faced scant competition from “The Princess and the Frog” and “The Blind Side” its first weekend. The next weekend, it faced Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes”, and after that it dominated the film competition until February’s “Dear John.” The story itself is a retelling of the story of Native Americans if they had actually decided to destroy the explorers that came to the New World. It’s not exceptionally original with its quasi-back to nature message and its ignoring of real history.

“Avatar 2” is scheduled to be released in 2021, 12 years after the first film. While “Avatar” made a lot of money, it’s not a beloved film. Its main appeal was in the new world’s Cameron was able to bring to life. The story was trite and untrue. “Avatar 2” won’t be able to capitalize on a pent-up desire for its characters or world (like Star Wars), and it won’t be able to rely on a stable of characters people have to come to love (like Marvel). Instead, it’s a risk with almost no reward. Even if “Avatar 2” scores a billion dollars, it will be a comparative flop. If it does less than that, it could sink the three sequels that are to come after it and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Whether or not these films are successful will depend on what Disney expects from them. If the company is okay with decaying box office totals in the hundreds of millions with the understanding that the films are keeping its Animal Kingdom in the public eye, maybe box office won’t matter so much. But an outright flop of the first sequel will create shockwaves that will reverberate throughout the company without being limited to the movie division.

For more Disney related content, order “Penguinate! The Disney Company.” Get “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.

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Marvel Fans Shouldn’t Care about Final Box Office of ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Patch Penguin and the Avengers

The biggest debate in the movie community is where will “Avengers: Endgame” end its box office run. Will it finish in the top spot worldwide and domestic, or will it finish second? Some movie writers have gone so far to call out the manipulations of misleading articles saying that the box office for “Avengers: Endgame” could never reach the domestic gross of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” or the global box office of “Avatar” if the numbers are adjusted for inflation. Comparing today’s box office with 2015’s take for “Force Awakens” and 2009’s gross for “Avatar” is a bit of mathematical chicanery according to critics. “Endgame” is only ranked #36 domestically when adjusted for inflation.

However, whatever ranking “Endgame” finishes with shouldn’t matter. In fact, true Marvel and movie fans shouldn’t be concerned about the final numbers. These movies are so huge, even if they don’t look that great when compared to the adjusted for inflation numbers, because they are currently making money hand over fist for the company that owns their creative rights: Disney. People who love Marvel films have nothing to worry about, even if one of the films underperforms. Instead, Marvel fans need to worry about the other movie properties that aren’t going to rake in the types of numbers these tentpoles do. Those are the films that Marvel fans should rally behind.

I’m not talking DC films or the other big budget releases that may fall into the Box Office hole never to recover (i.e. “Solo”). I’m talking about genuinely small budget films that are amazing. Films like “Hidden Figures,” “BlackKklansman,” or “The Imitation Game” have something to say about our world and are great entertainment to boot. They may get recognition at the Awards ceremonies, but they need box office recognition in order for movie goers to see more films like them on the big screen.

Rather than seeing the next big tent pole five times, or even three time, put that third movie ticket behind a film that isn’t getting much love from the advertisers or from the movie industry. Check out an indie film, a documentary, or even a film that was just overlooked because of the hype behind the big tent pole films. This will help bring more diversity to the movie screen. Creatives will have more opportunity to step away from the ordinary that big budgets have become, and you’ll have a richer life experience. Every time, you see a film, you vote with your dollars showing what you want more of. Don’t let superheroes be the only films we have an opportunity to watch.

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Disney Fox Merger Sounds Death Knell for Creatives

Book cover for Penguinate! The Disney Company

The official merger of Disney and Fox has sounded the death knell for creativity. While scooping up Fox’s assets is the right business decision for Disney, it is one that writers, movie makers, ad executives and other creatives should fear.

With Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Fox, and its own studio, Disney will own an estimated 40% of the box office. The merger allows Disney to exercise economies of scale and negotiating power not seen this side of Wal-Mart.

Writers already face enormous competition to get their stories read. Every indie writer out there who wants to see their stories on the big screen has just had their chances reduced by one major player. Making a living as a writer is difficult enough without having Fox’s ability to seek out new storylines withdrawn from the market.

Looking at Disney’s upcoming movie slate, Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King are remakes of animated films. Dumbo will have to lose the crows. Will Smith will have to do his own genie thing because it would be ridiculous to copy Robin Williams. Other than that, these three films look to be Xerox photo copies of their animated counterparts. We’ve already seen them and we’re going to see them again.

The sequels list is longer. With Avengers: Endgame, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far from Home (though not as far as you might think), Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Frozen II and Star Wars Episode IX on the slate, there is hardly any room for an original idea. While sequels can bring something new to franchise, they don’t require as much risk taking or creativity to make.

Which leaves Disney with Artemis Fowl and with DisneyNature’s Penguins as its only non-sequel, non-remake movies coming out in 2019. With 11 films left on the slate, Disney has one new story that will probably flop and a documentary to offer. Take a moment to ponder that.

Even if Disney remains true to form and let’s Fox operate the way Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm have, Fox was depending on its Avatar sequels and X-Men films to keep it in the black. Films Disney was already on board with.

Creativity will have to come from film makers with smaller budgets who, despite lacking marketing savvy and budgets for said marketing, have a film hit big. Like writers, these smaller film makers will have to find a way to cut through the noise of modern media and its giants to harness the power of going viral, and they’re going to need you to help. It’s going to be an uphill battle for creative people to get out there, but it always has been.

(Full disclosure: I own Disney Stock ad will go see all the Disney/Marvel/Pixar branded movies they make.)

For more thoughts on the Disney company, preorder “Penguinate! The Disney Company.” For more on creativity, buy “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”