As Disney Prepares to Release “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the Studio Appears All Too Eager to Embrace the Dark Side



Here’s one for you: Studios and theater owners typically split ticket sales down the middle, but Disney has reportedly decided that it’s going to take more money than usual from The Last Jedi‘s box office purse, simply because it can. Because it’s the biggest movie of the year, it’s going to make an absurd amount of money, and even though both studios and theaters are suffering, it’s going to take what it can get and damn the consequences.

This somewhat villainous approach to what should be a partnership overlaps with the news that broke this morning — Disney has banned the Times from covering its movies, because of a piece the newspaper printed in September that suggests Disneyland isn’t paying its fair share in Anaheim. Because fighting the press and, by extension, fostering censorship, is always a good idea.

Let’s address the theater thing, though. Disney has demanded certain terms from theater owners wishing to screen The Last Jedi — the movie must play in the theater’s largest auditorium for a minimum of four weeks, and after the film hits the $500 million mark in domestic grosses (which it obviously will), Disney will go from an even 50/50 split of ticket sales to 65/35. There is no wiggle room here. No negotiation. That’s the deal, take it or leave it. Theater owners had to agree to these terms before they could put tickets on sale for the movie, which opens Thursday night, Dec. 14, in what will be a series of full houses across the land.

This is not the first time Disney has tried something like this. Just two years ago, the studio made an effort to take a 60 percent split for some of its bigger movies, like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tomorrowland, Ant-Man, and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This, after all the studios crammed a larger cut down the theater owners’ throats back around the turn of the century, demanding a 70/30 split in the first week of a film’s release, then 60/40 the second week, and down to 50/50 in week three. The National Association of Theater Owners (yes, NATO) eventually ironed that whole thing out with the studios and made it a straight split down the middle, but Disney’s new encroachment on this concept is interesting for a couple different reasons.

For starters, as mentioned above, the theater business isn’t exactly thriving these days. The studios need the theaters to show their product, but more and more, they are also looking for other avenues to do that. Thus, the theaters owners’ need for the studios’ product is greater than the studios’ need for the theaters. Disney’s decision feels like another strike against the mutually-dependent relationship, and it comes at a time when (you’d think) the two sides should be trying to work together to fend off the growing threat from streaming services that deliver content straight to your living room.

On top of that, this move opens a door through which other studios have not yet walked, but have to be contemplating for one of their own can’t-miss tentpoles. Obviously, at this moment in time, few projects are going to rival any Star Wars film, but you could place a sizable bet on the next Fast & Furious flick, or next summer’s Deadpool and Jurassic World sequels, or the Batman movie that Matt Reeves will eventually get around to making for Warner Bros. Perhaps none of those are going to be as big as a Star Wars movie, but they’re all going to be pretty gargantuan, nonetheless. At what point do the makers of those movies look at each other and say, “Well, jeez, there’s no reason why we can’t do this too, right?”

The fact that Disney has a sure fire winner in Jedi makes this a slightly different kind of fruit, I know, because how often can your project be pretty much guaranteed to make a number as lofty as a half-billion bucks in the U.S. alone? That list is very short, which means that Disney is unique in its ability to pull a stunt like this.

But should they? Yes, I know it’s a business and you have to take every bit you can wherever you can get it, but does that mean it’s the right call? Remember that earlier attempts at this didn’t go over so well a couple years back, so is the move to only have the 50-50 split change to 65-35 after a certain enormous threshold less onerous as a result?

Honestly, I think it’s easier to defend that part of the deal than it is the part that demands a monopoly on a given theater’s largest screen. Something about that item on the agenda feels particularly egregious, especially when you consider that not every theater showing the movie is going to be in a large metropolitan area, where there are a lot of options for moviegoers. Some places might find their audiences hankering for a taste of The Force tuckering out after a couple weeks, but thanks to this deal, the theater in question is stuck with the picture, even after people might not be coming to see it anymore.

The timing on all this is really interesting. It’s pretty clear that Disney barred the Times from any press screenings of its movies some time ago, since Disney’s films were not included in the paper’s holiday movie preview, even though the news of it just broke today, hot on the heels of this shady ticket split business. Why the paper decided not to talk about this is anyone’s guess, but the fact that it’s happening at all is terribly dispiriting, especially in the current climate. It’s nice to see other journalistic enterprises and outlets rallying around their Times colleagues and decrying Disney’s decision, though that doesn’t make up for its occurrence. Either way, anyone who said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity didn’t count on a one-two punch like this. I don’t care how you spin it, there is no way to describe any part of the Disney orbit as “the Happiest Place on Earth,” since theater owners, journalists and the city of Anaheim don’t appear to be too happy right now.

Back to that question, though, of whether or not Disney (or any other studio for that matter) should be doing this ticket split thing, even if it clearly can. There is something scorched earth about this plan, something bordering on sinister. I’m a firm believer in capitalism, but if you’re actively damaging your own industry while you’re raking in profits, especially if it’s an industry on which your product and profits depend, that starts to get a bit dicey. As the saying goes, don’t poop where you eat.

Speaking of which, the argument could be made that NATO is not in the movie business, but rather in the concession business, hence all the culinary additions major theaters have been busy making to their menus. No longer are we stuck with just popcorn and Raisinettes. Now we can get nachos and individual pizzas and pretzel dippers and any number of fatty foods, for the very reason that theater owners know the studios are trying to stick it to them, and engorging audiences is the best way to keep the dollars rolling in. Thus, while losing what would average out to a relatively small amount of money per theater probably won’t mean much, that extra $65 million isn’t exactly chump change if The Last
Jedi does The Force Awakens business, even for a corporation as large as the Mouse House.

Ultimately, there’s no law against this, and Disney is well within its rights to insist on its own terms, especially when it has such a box office slam dunk as The Last Jedi. Doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, though, and coupled with an attempt to silence a major news outlet? It’s fair to wonder whether Disney is embracing the dark side and becoming the new Evil Empire.

Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.


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