Welcome to the first installment of Have Tale, Will Tell: Aaron Kilgore’s new column for Salt & Iron on the art of storytelling.
Q: How do you lose a fan base?
A) You forego quality for quantity.
B) You mine every possible idea for sellable content regardless of demand.
C) You ignore fan-favorite stories that existed before, and replace them with new and allegedly more “diverse and inclusive” content.
D) You mock and insult the people who pay money for your content and cover your production costs.
E) All of the above.
Disney has demonstrated a peculiar tendency to choose option E over the last decade. This looks like marketing and financial suicide to any reasonable businessman or advertiser, but megacorporations occupy a curious place in the modern world. Because of generations of accumulated social and financial capital, they can afford to lose money by pushing The Message™ and their costly social agenda through lackluster entertainment and products for years.
Until they can’t.
Box Office Disaster
Disney’s Lightyear, a spin-off based on Toy Story’s much beloved Buzz Lightyear character, cost an estimated $200 million for the studio to produce. To cover all your bases, it is also a good rule of thumb to double the production costs for movies in order to account for their marketing, which gives us a ballpark figure of $400 million to make and push this film to the public. By week two of the box office, its revenue had dropped 74%. By week three, Lightyear had accumulated barely $105 million domestically, while Universal and Illumination’s Minions 2 earned $107 million—in three days.
Trade publications and news outlets offer a variety of reasons for this box office disaster. They say that Lightyear’s tone didn’t match its source material, and that it didn’t play to the same audience that Toy Story or Minions did. They also take pains to note that “Lightyear isn’t bombing because of right-wing handwringing over a same-sex kiss between two married grandmothers.”
Certainly, potential audience members (both here and abroad) voiced concern about this well-publicized element of the film. Notably absent is any comment on equally well-publicized remarks from Chris Evans (the voice of Lightyear in place of Tim Allen in this spin-off), who said, “The real truth is those people are idiots. Every time there’s been social advancement as we wake up, the American story, the human story is one of constant social awakening and growth and that’s what makes us good. There’s always going to be people who are afraid and unaware and trying to hold on to what was before. But those people die off like dinosaurs.”
In a significant irony, Jurassic World: Dominion earned more in its first two days than Lightyear did from its debut on June 17 to July 4.
The trade publications also don’t mention that Toy Story once had a popular cartoon depicting the adventures of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, which ran for 62 episodes in 2000-2001. The Lightyear movie’s title card notes that, “In 1995 Andy got a toy. That toy was based on a movie. This is that movie.” The contrast between this expensive, too-serious 2022 film and the child-friendly, turn-of-the-millennium cartoon is laughable when looking at the incongruity between their production, tone, and content. It’s obvious which one would better fit in 1995, and equally clear that the movie is outright lying. This historical revisionism and compromising of in-universe continuity (whether by the introduction of frustrating contradictions or outright erasure of what came before) is old-hat for media companies like Disney at this point. To let older, less socially enlightened products stand on their own is to miss an opportunity to color the whole property with contemporary, progressive messaging.
For these megacorporations, any possible chance to build on an existing foundation begs for bureaucratic media bloat. Spin-offs, prequels, and sequels have always been a strain of TV production and filmmaking, but it has become a particularly virulent strain in an era of declining creativity and a glut of previously profitable franchises. Why spend time and effort developing new and exciting worlds with the level of attention, dedication, and passion found in the likes of Tolkien, Lucas, Roddenberry, or Rowling when you can simply revisit their settings by churning out more tales? Regardless of what came before, the factory-fresh tales are considered most acceptable when they have new characters who better represent the quotas that the marketing department says will sell best, and a progressive message that fits the zeitgeist. Crafting the story without these points as its very foundation means risking the wrath of a militant online social police who demand as much.
To the minds behind many of these rundown franchises, “more content” equals “more dollars.” They seem to forget that mass-produced movies like these tend to lose what made the first-fruits of their creators special enough to inspire lasting dedication in fans.
Often, this was a timeless and universal truth that spoke to something every human being could understand: among them, the importance of rightly-ordered love, the rewarding weight of duty and responsibility, and the incomparable merit of self-sacrifice. Those who foment division often do not believe either in universals or in truth—or at least they don’t seem to believe that audiences want them. Instead we are served derivative and divisive drivel, with a side of contempt and condescension. Today’s media landscape is a world of caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.
This microcosm of modern entertainment is a double-edged sword to those who hold the reins at Disney., however We are seeing that those who sell what the audience wants make bank, and those who peddle a message that doesn’t resonate with their customers … don’t. Even Mickey has a credit limit. If Lightyear is any indication, losing hundreds of millions in one go is a fine way to approach that limit at lightspeed.
By the same token, caveat venditor: let the seller beware.