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Brand strength helps Disney crush box office record

Regardless of who you ask, 2016 is considered to be a generally cruddy year across the board. Everyone appears to be ready for the New Year’s ball to drop and move on. Everyone, that is, except Disney.

While the rest of us were wallowing in this year’s troubles, Disney has been quietly sitting back, and having by far the best financial year in the history of cinema. The record is already broken with “Finding Dory” and there’s still one more film to go: a little flick that I think is called “Star Wars: Rogue One.”

Now, I have a hunch this movie will be successful, but you never know. The fact that the record was broken before a “Star Wars” film is a true testament to Disney’s strength though.

When looking at how Disney came to achieve this record, which is currently sitting at $2.49 billion — it could possibly hit 3 billion with “Star Wars” — you have to note the strength of brands.

Disney has five core brands: Disney Animation, Disney Live Action, Pixar, LucasFilm and Marvel. Naturally, when going down the list of their top five films for the year, you see one of each. We have, in order, Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War,” Disney Live Action’s “The Jungle Book,” Disney Animation’s “Zootopia” and Lucasfilms’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — which yes, made enough spillover in 2016 to actually be in Disney’s top five for the year.

When we look outside the top five, we continue to see equity with these brands, as Disney Animation has another hit with “Moana,” and Marvel is certainly not complaining about “Doctor Strange.”

By dividing their studios into these five subgroups, Disney is able to essentially divide and conquer. Instead of being a blanket studio which tries to do everything absolutely amazing, Disney has had the foresight to either acquire or internally develop groups that can specialize in a specific group. For example, Disney could probably make a great superhero movie by itself, but they instead let Marvel do what it does best, instead of serving as a host for resources and publicity.

When you look at Disney as a company, I think everything comes down to its essential mission statement, which is to make magic and dreams come true. This division allows the company to have something truly for everyone. They have found a way to allow anyone in the world associate with at least one of their brands, whether you want to be a princess or a superhero.

Now, there’s the argument that some of the movies are a little lazy. How many more superhero movies can we see, and do we need another remake of a classic Disney movie?

Well, Disney has responded to these criticisms with the best way possible: by making these movies too good to argue with. Was I skeptical of a live-action adaptation of “The Jungle Book?” Of course I was. But then I saw it, and was just absolutely blown away. How could I not want more of this? Disney not only realizes what audiences want to see, but they know that they will only see it if it’s worth seeing.

At the same time though, the strength of brands means the weakening of original, stand alone films. This year, Disney released “Queen of Katwe” and “The Finest Hours,” which combined to make about half of what “The Force Awakens” made by midnight. These two films though were smaller stories that, while maybe not mega hits, create a sort of legitimacy for Disney. They are demonstrating that they are still interested in creating original film, and these smaller projects can be a great test run for talent for future films.

Overall, Disney has found its magical formula, but just like the American economy, we have seen a collapse of the middle class. Now it’s blockbuster or bust, and this year, Disney did anything but bust. These brands are combining to create a cinematic one percent, where the money is so concentrated that we could see a shoveling out of smaller, intimate stories.

Lucky for us, there’s more media now than ever for these smaller stories to get told, as there are streaming services aplenty and smaller labels of studios that make independent films. Disney realizes that for its customers, going to the theater must be an event, and as long as they keep coming, hopefully they will one day buy a ticket to an independent film. In the meantime though, Disney is showing that theatrical exhibition is not only alive, but thriving.

Erik Benjamin is a sophomore television, radio and film major. You can email him at ebenjami@syr.edu or follow him @embenjamin14 on Twitter.

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