(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The latest buzz in Hollywood is that the U.S. Justice Department wants to abolish an outdated rule known as the Paramount consent decree, which would allow studio giants to own movie theaters — something that hasn’t been permitted since the 1940s. My first thought was that it's a bit of a nothingburger. Studios like Warner Bros. and Universal probably aren’t eager to scoop up debt-laden cinema operators when their top priority is investing in streaming-TV content and services. And while mom-and-pop theaters may fear the change will breed anti-competitive behavior, that’s not as big of a concern for the big multiplex chains, nor does it signal an end to antitrust oversight.
But that doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory in the industry.
Take a look at the U.S. box office this year. The content uniformity aside — four of the top seven movies descended from comic books, and the other three from cartoon franchises — most of the year’s leading films are Walt Disney Co. productions. There are more to come, with “Frozen 2” set to hits theaters on Friday, followed by the December release of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” It has me wondering, is this healthy?
Disney films account for nearly a third of the $9.5 billion of cinema tickets sold so far in 2019. Warner Bros., owned by AT&T Inc., lags far behind with a 16% share, trailed by Comcast Corp.’s Universal and Sony Corp.’s namesake distribution business; 20th Century Fox would normally be high in the ranking, too, but Disney acquired it earlier this year as part of an $85 billion deal with Rupert Murdoch.
Look, I get it. Lots of people love Disney’s Marvel and animated features, and the box office is simply reflecting that. The situation is more complicated than just looking at the data and determining that the company has too much power; there’s nothing about the industry structurally that would give it an unfair advantage. Disney has just done a really good job of consistently giving fans what they want, and CEO Bob Iger made a series of smart acquisitions that continue to pay off: Pixar in 2006; Marvel in 2009; and Lucasfilm (home of “Star Wars”) in 2012. They’ve all absolutely flourished within Disney, with each bringing with it beloved franchises and story lines just waiting to be further developed and amplified for the big screen.
It’s not like Warner Bros., Universal and Sony haven’t had the same opportunities. Warner Bros. has DC Comics, “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings,” and the studio shares a home with HBO and “Game of Thrones.” Sony owns the rights to Spider-Man; it even had the chance to buy the entire Marvel roster in the late 1990s (for pennies compared to what Disney paid). It's hard, though, to imagine Marvel would have become what it is today had it landed at Sony instead of Disney. And that’s kind of my point.
Matthew Ball, the former Amazon Studios executive, made a similar argument recently: “Disney isn’t a monopoly,” he tweeted Nov. 5. “Its competitors just need to do better. ... You make success. No one believed in comics being huge 20 years ago.”
It's conceivable that Disney may end up atop the streaming world, too. Apple TV+ hasn't lived up to the hype, while AT&T’s HBO Max may suffer for its delayed arrival to the market (in May 2020). In very Comcast fashion, the cable giant isn’t so much plunging into streaming as it is dipping a toe into the waters with its Peacock app next year. And Sony’s PlayStation Vue service has already thrown in the towel. Meanwhile, Disney+ had a wildly successful launch on Nov. 12, signing up 10 million subscribers on the first day, despite widespread technological glitches and shortcomings in app functionality. Disney is also the first to experiment with bundles, a relic of the cable-TV market that I’ve argued will help ease one of the worst consumer pain points of streaming: the inability to access all your favorite content through a single subscription.
But when people are rooting for Disney to be the “Netflix killer,” they’re rooting against themselves. Netflix Inc.’s innovation brought us affordable TV entertainment that didn't require a cable subscription or patience for commercial breaks. Its success forced other more complacent companies to rethink their businesses. By contrast, the box office shows what happens when a single company winds up with outsize influence.
The Justice Department’s move to terminate the Paramount consent decree may not mean much (Disney wasn’t even one of the studios bound by it). But Disney doesn’t need to buy a theater anyway — it already owns the box office. Other media and tech giants should take that as a warning to step up their streaming game. Healthy competition ensures better content, more choice and further Netflix-like advances. Plus, the world needs only so many superhero flicks.
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Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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