When I was a kid, I loved Walt Disney for its theme parks and cartoons. As an adult, I love Disney for its robust portfolio of media franchises and resorts. However, one thing has constantly frustrated me about the company -- its inability to learn from the costly mistakes of its film studio business.
Under CEO Bob Iger, who took the top post in 2005, Disney became a film-making giant, acquiring Pixar Studios in 2006, Marvel Entertainment in 2009, and Lucasfilm in 2012. With all of those studios combined under one umbrella, Disney was well-positioned to dominate summer blockbusters for years to come. Yet it still misfired with expensive bombs like Mars Needs Moms, John Carter, and The Lone Ranger.
For every step that Disney takes forward with its hugely profitable Pixar and Marvel films, it takes a step back with poorly planned attempts to launch original franchises. In my opinion, Disney has a habit of overestimating the appeal of its franchises, its actors, and its creative staff. Let's look at two major examples.
Johnny Depp is not the answer to everything
Pirates of the Caribbean, the 2003 film that grossed over $650 million worldwide on a budget of $140 million, was a surprising hit -- considering that it was loosely based on a classic ride at Disneyland. Its success convinced Disney that people loved Johnny Depp, and a franchise was born.
Pirates of the Caribbean. Source: Fanpop.com
The next two movies in the trilogy in 2006 and 2007 grossed over $2 billion. Although the trilogy reached a definitive conclusion in the third film, Disney produced a fourth film in the franchise, On Stranger Tides, with only a handful of the original cast returning. Although the film received mediocre reviews, it still grossed over $1 billion worldwide on a budget of $250 million.
So deep was Disney's faith in Johnny Depp that it expected his star power to carry The Lone Ranger, a dusty old franchise that many people weren't familiar with, to box-office success. To date, The Lone Ranger has only grossed $245 million worldwide, not enough to cover its production budget of $215 million, plus worldwide marketing costs. An unfamiliarity with the character, poor reviews, and the notion that Depp's Tonto was merely Jack Sparrow in war paint, all contributed to the film's poor box-office performance.
Disney was obviously shocked by The Lone Ranger's failure, pushing the next installment of the Pirates franchise, originally scheduled for a summer 2015 release, back into the summer of 2016 to rethink its budget and script.
Animated directors can't always direct live-action films
Just as Disney put too much faith in Johnny Depp, it also believed that Andrew Stanton [Editor's note: the original version of this article misreported the director], the acclaimed director of Toy Story, could do no wrong. The company believed in Stanton so much that it allowed him to pursue his dream project, a big-screen adaptation of John Carter, a lesser-known science fiction tale from Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs.
John Carter. Source: Cinemasquid.com
Although Stanton had no experience directing live-action films, Disney handed him a production budget of $250 million to make his vision a reality. The result was a box office bomb that only grossed $280 million worldwide -- not nearly enough to cover its global marketing costs.
The problem with John Carter was the same as The Lone Ranger -- it featured an arcane character unfamiliar to today's younger generation and naively expected audiences to flock to witness the big-screen spectacle.
Concentrating on the Marvel Universe, Star Wars, and Pixar instead
Rather than repeatedly trying to launch its own new franchises with dated and obscure characters; Disney should focus on expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, continuing the Star Wars series, and maintaining the quality of Pixar films.
The Avengers and Iron Man 3 -- the first two Marvel films wholly produced by Disney -- are only the start of a cinematic empire. Here is a schedule of Disney's upcoming potential blockbusters.
Upcoming Disney Movies
Thor: The Dark World (Marvel)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Marvel)
Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel)
Marvel's The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ant Man (Marvel)
Star Wars: Episode 7 (Lucasfilm)
Inside Out (Pixar)
The Good Dinosaur (Pixar)
Finding Dory (Pixar)
Unannounced Marvel film
Unannounced Marvel film
This schedule excludes films that have not yet been announced, as well as Spider-Man, X-Men, Wolverine, and Fantastic Four -- which are produced by Sony and 21st Century Fox. Regardless, Disney now has so many hot franchises that it doesn't need to take on risky, top-heavy projects like John Carter or The Lone Ranger.
Building a third pillar of growth
It's important to remember that films only accounted for 14% of Disney's top line last quarter. Its media networks and parks and resorts businesses are far more important, respectively accounting for 46% and 32% of its total revenue.
Although Disney's box office blunders won't sink the company, they should streamline their film studio operations to form a firm third pillar of growth. Diversifying its revenue would be wise, since its media networks are facing increasing competition from Fox Sports 1, and theme park attendance can be weighed down by macro headwinds.
If Disney finally learns from the mistakes of its box office bombs, I believe that there will be bright days ahead. Yet the Disney of the next decade will not be represented by Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck -- rather, they will be led by the Avengers and Jedi Knights.
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The article Upcoming Marvel, Star Wars Movies Should be Focus for Disney originally appeared on Fool.com.
Leo Sun owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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