Disney Has a Weakness in the Streaming Wars

Beauty and the Beast
Photo by Mike Marsland
Matthew Belloni
February 24, 2022

I met a big talent lawyer for a drink on Tuesday, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Man, can you believe how much money people are making?” That’s a common refrain around Hollywood, and it’s a shift, in my experience, from the usual tone among representatives. Agents, managers, and especially lawyers like to bitch about cheap buyers, about who is totally screwing their clients, and about how hard it is for talented people to get a fair deal in this town. In some ways, being upset is kinda their job.  

But these days, it’s harder to complain. Sure, there are anxieties over things like the long-term viability of the streaming business, the vanishing profit participations, the wounded theatrical box office. Yet big picture, through a confluence of economic and societal forces, Hollywood finds itself with more deep-pocketed purchasers of premium content than at perhaps any time in its history. It may not feel this way to a struggling creative person, but it’s the buyers, not the sellers, who are under the most pressure today.  

Cheap money and the digital revolution have helped debt-fueled innovators like Netflix upend the studio oligopoly of film and TV distribution. The incumbents have finally responded with their own digital platforms that, like the upstarts, must constantly be fed expensive new content. There’s a war not just for supremacy but for survival, and two major tech players—Apple and Amazon—have decided, for some reason, that they should be combatants in this war, even though they really don’t need to be. Add in the investment in entertainment by private equity firms like Blackstone, Silver Lake, and Apollo; the fact that the linear TV business, while shrinking, is still far from dead yet; and those teetering movie theaters, which are so challenged by shifting consumer habits that they are demanding more expensive product to lure people off their couches, and you have a perfect storm of cash, desperation, and the messy transition from one era of entertainment to another. “People don’t realize that these are the good old days,” I said to the lawyer.    

This will all end at some point, or at least scale back dramatically. And perhaps soon, given Wall Street’s recent interest in business fundamentals, and leaders like incoming Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav saying things like, “Our goal is to compete with the leading streaming services, not to win the spending war.” As the new digital oligopoly establishes itself, the also-rans will either be consolidated or fall away. 

That’s the scary future, and the lawyer and I agreed that no one really knows what the impact on creative people will be when that happens. But until then, it’s the Roaring ‘20s, where Disney will spend $33 billion this year, according to Wells Fargo analysts, where Paramount Global (née ViacomCBS) is still pretending it can compete with Disney, and where the talent community seems to have decided that taking huge sums of money up front is preferable to fighting to save the back-end compensation system that defined the linear era. As a result, the total amount spent on content worldwide this year will hit a record $230 billion, according to Ampere. That’s including sports rights, of course, but ten years ago, the spend was about half that.  

It’s now totally normal when Apple—a hardware company—snatches a $200 million Brad Pitt film package from rival bidders, or throws a $40 million check at George Clooney. Given the market, NBC Universal was forced to commit $400 million—without a single script—to three films based on The Exorcist, which came out 50 years ago. When Netflix stole the two Knives Out sequels from Lionsgate with nearly half a billion dollars, it meant that Daniel Craig will likely make more money from his work in a small-budget mystery series than from playing James Bond. The pressure is on the platforms to compete, and compete now, and, in the aggregate, at least, the talent community is reaping the benefit.

I thought of that pressure when I saw that Disney recently pulled the plug on its big-budget TV prequel to Beauty and the Beast, which had already been delayed several times and was supposed to shoot this summer in order to air on Disney+ in 2023. There was a time, not that long ago actually, when it would be major news that a studio poured almost three years and tens of millions of dollars into a TV project that never shot a day of film. We’d all debate what went wrong and speculate about the fallout for the talent and executives involved. But in this overheated market, where similar $150 million projects are routinely greenlit and rushed to streaming to juice those quarterly subscriber numbers, the Beast implosion kinda came and went—just an expensive vase that fell off a packed conveyor belt. Breakage.

I’m not too interested in who’s at fault here. Some projects work, some don’t. After talking with all sides, it seems that Disney was just disappointed with the second and third scripts from Josh Gad, Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, and the original music from Alan Menken. It happens, though the talent seems to think the executives didn’t have a good handle on the project, and they didn’t love being told by relatively inexperienced execs that the project wasn’t ready. (Everyone declined to comment.) 

Sets were being built in London, the cast had been secured, and Disney’s film group had already pushed Gad’s start date on the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids sequel to accommodate Beauty. So Peter Rice, who oversees the Disney Branded Television unit charged with exploiting its I.P., and Dana Walden, whose purview includes the ABC Signature studio, were forced to either swallow a chunk of money now or risk wasting a lot more on a potentially inferior product that would generate negative headlines because of the Beauty legacy. Making that call is their job, even if the creators were super upset (lots of screaming matches behind the scenes on this one, I’m told, especially since this trio’s other Disney+ TV project, based on the Muppets, was also scrapped in 2019). At least Gad and co-star Luke Evans are pay-or-play, according to sources, meaning they are owed for six guaranteed episodes, a rarity in TV.

What is interesting about this situation, however, is how it evidences the pressure on Disney and other legacy studios to bring massive shows to streaming—to do it now, to do it smoothly, and to leverage their I.P. to distinguish themselves from Netflix. The Disney brand and library provides a huge advantage with consumers, but it also brings big expectations and unique creative risks for shows like Beauty and the Beast, just like HBO Max is dealing with on the Game of Thrones spinoff, House of the Dragon, and Amazon has with its The Lord of the Rings show. Great expectations in a pressure-cooker, high-volume environment can expose weaknesses.  

Think about it: Thanks to Kevin Feige at Marvel Studios and Kathy Kennedy, Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni at Lucasfilm, Disney has done a good job establishing what tentpole Marvel and Star Wars shows look and feel like on Disney+. But Disney Branded TV, despite having access to 90 years of the world’s most recognized characters, hasn’t really created the template for a live-action Disney+ success. There have been some moderate family hits, like the Mighty Ducks show, and adaptations are in the works of Percy Jackson and Spiderwick Chronicles, among others. The unit’s current leader, Ayo Davis, was just promoted in September, taking over from Gary Marsh, and insiders say to expect bigger and better output from her team.

But with Disney+ desperate to grow subs, there’s been zero breakouts so far from Davis’ unit, and nothing with the scale or potential impact of what Beauty and the Beast was supposed to be—the kind of show that convinces people to subscribe or prevents churn. Why is that?  

Disney has been busy over the past few years absorbing Fox and reorganizing itself for streaming under new C.E.O. Bob Chapek, and insiders say the various re-orgs and divvying of responsibilities have made the development process more challenging, especially on the TV side. For instance, the decisions on financial approvals and where shows will appear were separated from the development executives and centralized under Kareem Daniel’s distribution team. It manifests in some of the creative decisions, but this is a broader issue than just those moves.

Disney is known among dealmakers to be cheaper than its rivals, and it generally treats talent much worse on projects based on its own I.P. than it does on so-called “originals.” As I first wrote last summer, nearly all Disney TV deals for originals have shifted from the backend profit definitions that dominated the linear TV landscape (and made hit showrunners extremely rich) to the streaming-era’s “Series Bonus Exhibit,” a made-up concept that creates a pool of S.B.E. points that translate into cash payments. The goal for Disney is to come closer to Netflix’s fixed compensation system and move away from the sliding profit participation that results in huge payouts and potential litigation.

But it also dissuades a certain class of creator from wanting to work with Disney, say several reps, especially on an I.P.-driven project. Disney’s Walden will shell out to win a project she wants for Hulu, for instance, and that outlet has had recent hits with adult-oriented shows like Only Murders in the Building and Nine Perfect Strangers. But if a writer, producer, or actor is hired to work on an adaptation of a Disney property, there’s often no backend, no buyout, no bonuses. It’s a fee-for-service situation, which, don’t get me wrong, isn’t insignificant for top talent. But Disney usually doesn’t share in the upside, and many of its rivals either do, or they “buy out” that upside. “They’re just not competitive,” one lawyer griped when I asked about Disney.   

Sure, there are exceptions. Favreau originally signed on to do just one season of The Mandalorian, so when it became Disney+’s signature series, he extracted an insane deal to continue, with all kinds of bonuses and incentives for writing or directing individual episodes. But I’m betting even Favreau doesn’t get a cut of the show’s merchandise revenue, meaning Disney likely doesn’t share the windfall from my kid’s many Baby Yoda T-shirts and PJs with the guy who, along with Filoni, actually created the character. (Favreau’s rep declined to comment.)  

Disney insists it does pay market value, and that it has no trouble recruiting top talents for I.P.-driven shows. And after all, it would argue, it should pay less to creators when the property itself is the star. Maybe, but if Disney really wants to supercharge the output from, say, its Branded TV unit—which, in this market, it kinda needs to do, and do it now—it might be worth shelling out to pair more top-level creators with the studio’s trove of characters and stories.  After all, it’s a seller’s market these days. As my lawyer friend noted, there’s just so much money to be made. The pressure is on Disney to grow, and it needs not just the best I.P. but the best talent to do that.