We Need to Talk About Marvel

I wish this image was satirical…

You know the routine. Every few months, Disney releases a new Marvel product. Hardcore adult fans clap and cheer because they know what Marvel is. Mildly interested fans get dragged along by the hardcore fans. And audiences turn out in droves to give Disney their hard-earned money (except during Covid – #ThoughtsAndPrayers #AllInThisToge- oh look! Spiderman!)

This has been going on for about 10 years now. And Disney’s hunger for profits is so brazen, it seems futile for me to try to prove it. Not because it’s hard to prove, but because it’s so obvious. For every Disney shill on the internet, there’s an anti-Disney shill – everyone from RLM to YMS knows that Disney is a big greedy corporation.

Remember Harry Potter? Go see Dumbledore and the Fantastic Franchise Part 23

Unfortunately, they’re not the only big studio raking it in year after year. Marvel movies are symptomatic of a larger trend in the economics of Hollywood. 

And as tempting as it is to blame you, the audience, for routinely handing over your cash to big studios… Ultimately, you’re not the problem. The studios have built their entire business around taking your money, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it. 

Instead, I’m gonna give you a crash course in Hollywood history. Partly to explain why things are so franchise-driven today. And partly to give you hope that things aren’t as bad as they seem.

(quick disclaimer: Disney wasn’t a big studio back then like it is today, and obviously they didn’t have Marvel movies in the 1900s. But I’ll be using them as the example for explaining the trends, because I find it’s easier to understand that way).

The Golden Age of Hollywood?

For the first few decades of the 1900s, Hollywood was so good at making money, they didn’t need to be desperate – life for the big studios was comfortable, and all around the world, American movies established themselves as the dominant form of modern entertainment.

However, big studios in this era had a lot of power. In fact, they owned their own movie theaters. Imagine if you could only see Disney movies at an official Disney theater (like a brick-and-mortar version of Disney Plus). From an audience’s perspective, this isn’t terrible. And from Disney’s perspective, it allows them much more control and a much steadier source of income.

But from the perspective of an independent theater owner, this was a nightmare. Suppose you wanted to play the latest Marvel movie, knowing that it would make your theater a lot of money. Disney, rather than selling you the movie, would sell you a bundle of movies: a Marvel movie, an animated movie, and three mediocre comedy-dramas. This was called block booking – you had to buy a whole ‘block’ of films, because Disney said so.

Oh, this was also called blind booking, because usually Disney wouldn’t let you screen the movies before you played them. You just had to trust that they were good.

Are you kidding me? That’s insane! That’s extortion!

Yes it is. But what could you do? The alternative was that Disney would show the movie at the Disney theater, regardless of whether the small independent theaters showed them. Disney would make money no matter what. The small theaters were at the mercy of the big studios – they literally had no other option.

So, big studios had total control. In addition to owning theaters, they owned pretty much every other part of the movie production process. If you were a small producer, and wanted to make your own movies outside the studio system, too bad.

Even if you could find a local theater, the cameras alone would have been prohibitively expensive. If a movie wasn’t made through the Hollywood system, then it didn’t get made at all. That is, until 1948…

The Paramount Case and the Birth of Modern Hollywood

These were the ‘Big Five’ studios of the era, which were impacted by the Paramount ruling. Any look familiar?

Despite how involved Hollywood was in the WWII effort, the government had been on their case for years, claiming that they had too much power. In 1948, the Supreme Court passed the Paramount Decree in the case of United States v. Paramount Pictures. It was an antitrust ruling that broke up Hollywood’s monopoly, and it fundamentally changed the way Hollywood did business even to this day.

One of the most immediate changes was that big studios could no longer operate their own movie theaters. And they were restricted from block/blind booking. So, if you were a small movie theater owner, this was a great time! Before, a studio like Disney could strong-arm you into buying the movies they wanted you to buy. Now, you could strong-arm Disney.

Let’s say you wanted to show the new Marvel movie. First of all, Disney couldn’t sell you four other movies along with it. You were allowed to just buy the Marvel movie if you wanted. But here’s the real kicker: Disney also had to let you screen it first, if you wanted to. 

So what you’re saying is, if the theater doesn’t like the movie, they don’t have to buy it. And the studio is screwed, because they don’t have their own theaters anymore.

Exactly. For the first time, the studios had to make consistently high-quality movies. Because if their movies sucked, then movie theaters wouldn’t show them.

I know, I know, it’s horrible. But such is the price of playing in a free market. Gone were the days where the studios could mass-produce mediocre content, and still have a rock-solid revenue stream. Now, the studios had to play in the free market (which is typically the intended side effect of an antitrust case).

Prioritizing Profit over Quality

While Jaws is technically the first blockbuster, it’s part of a much larger trend.

Ideally, this would mean that the studios would start producing good content. If Disney realizes that theaters will only buy good Marvel movies, then their solution is: make good Marvel movies. And trust that the audience will buy tickets.

Unfortunately, they had two things going against them. One was television. After WWII, many Americans got TV sets, so they just stayed at home instead of going to the movies.

Hollywood assumed that most people are extroverts who just love the thrill of seeing a movie in a crowded room with total strangers… Who would possibly want to watch content in the comfort of their home, where you can drink, eat, talk as loud as you want, change the volume, change the channel, cook dinner in the other room… Go figure…

The other thing going against the studios was creativity. Creativity is hard work. It takes effort to come up with new ideas. It’s much easier to just use a formula that already works. Or just wait for somebody else to be creative, then copy them.

Quick tangent: in a sense, the Netflix model borrows from the old studio system. With a steady revenue stream, they can churn out just about anything, and as long as it’s occasionally good, they’re financially stable.

So, with no financial safety net, a dwindling audience, and no real desire to actually write new, original, creative stories… The big studios decided to settle. They would churn out safe, predictable, high-return content. Their movies would have big names, big effects, but nothing too edgy or provocative. They increasingly viewed each individual movie as an investment, not as a piece of art or culture. And the underlying question was always: how profitable will it be?

In their defense, the banks forced their hands too. No bank would drop millions of dollars on a movie that might flop. The studios certainly weren’t off the hook – it was their monopoly that got them in this mess in the first place. But the banks solidified their strategy to one of making profit instead of making art.

Where Are We Now?

This corporate alliance came as no surprise, but I still hate it

Honestly, not much has changed in the last 70 years. Most modern cinematic trends are fueled by the quest for profit. Product placement, blockbusters, sequels, prequels, merchandising, movies based on books, movies based on past events, movies with A-list actors, movies with big-name directors… The MCU… They’re all designed to make the movie ‘safe’. To assure a hesitant bank that they’re justified in dropping millions of dollars on the movie.

This trend is neither new nor particularly surprising, but it bears repeating the unspoken truth about Hollywood. They only care about money. Profits are the priority, and profitability, not the love of film, drives the big studios.

If the movies happen to be good, that’s even better. Some studios, like Disney, have found a formula for producing consistently ‘okay’ content – nothing that’ll stand the test of time, but at least it’ll be ‘Certified Fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes by being just good enough, if not incredible. As long as it makes money, that’s what matters. As long as devoted fans show up for that dopamine hit of seeing characters they know, the studio’s job is done.

Fun fact: what happens to box office bombs? Do the studios try to make a better movie next time? Heck no! That would require effort! Instead, they target international audiences. Specifically China. The Chinese audiences aren’t as discerning as Americans, so anything the Americans don’t like (usually because it’s trash), the studios just dump on the Chinese. And they make sure to edit out all the black people first. Isn’t Hollywood great?

So, you’re saying the system is fundamentally broken?

Yes and no. The big studios are broken, but the entertainment industry is not. The Paramount case did open the door for competition. Whether it was TV in the 1960s, HBO in the 1980s, Netflix and YouTube in the modern era, VR in the future… Hollywood has competitors now. If anything, their brazen hunger for profit is proof that they’re playing in a free market, rather than an industry that they control outright.

Interestingly, the Paramount ruling was overturned in 2020, under that exact same reasoning. The court found that there’s no conceivable way that Hollywood could dominate the industry again. I for one agree. There’s never been a better market for entertainment. Even if the MCU drags on longer than I’d like, at least I can watch something else. And so can you.