Disney: the biggest beast in Hollywood

Today, films are just a small part of Disney's empire

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This is the week when The Lion King, previously seen only on paid-for channels, is to be shown for the first time on Freeview and the Walt Disney Company celebrates the 61st birthday of Disneyland at Anaheim, California. At such a time, it’s possible to think of the organisation merely as rather warm, family-friendly purveyors of fun for the masses and gentle, charming animated movies for the young at heart.

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But it’s not quite like that. In fact, the Disney outfit is one of the most powerful, and probably richest, players in Hollywood, commercially ruthless in its acquisition of companies with a wide variety of interests. Nowadays, films are a comparatively small part of its empire.

Not that it’s been slow in expanding its film interests. It has pretty much cornered the youth market among cinemagoers by acquiring in recent years Pixar (makers of Toy Story, for instance), Marvel Entertainment (producers of all those comic-book movies), Lucasfilm and the lucrative Star Wars franchise, and even the Muppets. Along with that goes a domination of the children’s toy market with its merchandising spin-off of dolls, cuddly animals and the like.

But it doesn’t by any means stop there. Disney was the first company to set up a theme park, a concept eagerly seized upon by other studios such as Universal and now here, where we have a Harry Potter tour just off the M25.

Nobody, though, can rival Disney with its 14 theme parks across six locations, including Epcot at Disney World in Florida, and Disneylands not only in Anaheim but also in Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

You want more? OK, at one time or another Disney has owned or still owns TV networks including its own channel and ABC, a radio station, merchandising, children’s clothing, music, theatre and book publishing divisions, a cruise line, a couple of baseball teams, various internet sites and a company producing video games.

And at this point I shall stop because if I listed everything Disney has owned, controlled or had an interest in, there’d hardly be room for anything else in this magazine. The company has grown into the very epitome of globalisation; it’s like a giant commercial octopus whose tentacles stretch almost everywhere, from the USA to Europe, Asia, India and South America.

A touch pompously perhaps Disney has announced that its mission is “to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information”.

Give or take the information bit – whoever consults a Disney outfit for information on anything but its own activities? – I’d say it was pretty much there. Indeed, I’d go further and say it’s probably the world’s leading purveyor of entertainment already. Certainly I can’t think of any other organisation to compare with it. Mickey Mouse and company reign supreme.

Not that it has always been plain sailing. In the 1980s and for a variety of reasons, including the fact that some of its films played badly at the box office, the company found itself to be financially vulnerable, and then and later had to fight off hostile takeover bids.

It’s well over all that now but, however big it has grown, it’s for filmmaking that the public knows it best. The Lion King, for example, was one of its biggest hits.

Apparently influenced by Hamlet, it’s a rousing tale set in a kingdom of lions in Africa. There, the lion king has been murdered by his brother and the late monarch’s son and heir, thinking himself to be responsible for the death, flees temporarily into exile before returning to challenge his uncle for the kingdom. Cue plenty of action and cute animals with voices provided by such as Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons and Whoopi Goldberg.

These days the movies – including cunning spin-offs from its theme park rides like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – may not be the biggest providers of the company’s income but they are still vitally important not least for maintaining Disney’s international image.

This year and next, the studio is to make more than a dozen films, including another Pirates of the Caribbean adventure, Cars 3 and two more episodes in the Star Wars saga. Altogether, the company is believed to be the world’s second largest money-making mass media and entertainment conglomerate [the first being Comcast] and, my word, it’s a far cry from those days in 1923 when Walt and his brother Roy established the modest little Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio.

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When you consider what the outfit has achieved since then, you have to admire its ambition and initiative. But I imagine you’d also have to stay pretty alert if you were doing business with it.