Disney has had quite the week. On the one hand, Thor: Ragnarok is champagne-toasting success, but on the other hand, they stumbled into an incredibly stupid and ill-timed power play with the LA Times. As Lainey mentioned briefly yesterday, it all started with an investigative report about Disney’s dealings which Disney did not like (Disney said LAT showed a “complete disregard for basic journalistic standards”, but I think they just highlighted Disney’s one-sided tax deals with the city). This led to Disney blackballing the LA Times from advanced screenings of their movies, starting with Thor: Ragnarok. LA Times critic Glenn Whipp explained it on Twitter, which you can read here. LAT television critics were also said to have had their access to Disney’s online screener site stripped.
It’s all a little inside baseball, and there is always some agenda somewhere being exercised in regards to critics and advanced screenings. But this situation is a little different as it blacked out the coverage of an entire paper’s staff, film and television, and Disney did so because they didn’t like a specific story. The blackout looked punitive from the start, and was clearly meant to bring the LAT to heel by leveraging Disney’s slate of massively popular films. Reviews of their movies drive traffic, and surely that will be enough to guarantee corporate cooperation in this click-happy culture.
Sorry, Disney, no. Not this time. Not right now, when this very power structure is being investigated for how it allows, even encourages abuse. And Disney’s blackout looks like an abuse of power, especially when you consider the ramifications to free speech and the freedom of the press. It’s not about movie reviews, it’s about a corporation pressuring a newspaper for better coverage, OR ELSE. Or else what? This time it was movie reviews. What will it be next time? The whole thing takes on an extra layer of creepy when you consider Disney chief Bob Iger apparently has presidential ambitions after he exits Disney in 2019 (which is much more feasible today than it was one year ago).
But the blackout did not go Disney’s way, at all. Film critic Alyssa Rosenberg wrote she would not review Disney films in advance until the LAT could, too. And then Ava DuVernay added her voice to the fray, backing up the critics lining up with the LA Times:
Saluting the film journalists standing up for one another. Standing with you. https://t.co/M9Fs22vv4L— Ava DuVernay (@ava) November 7, 2017
DuVernay is the director of Disney’s 2018 spring tent pole, A Wrinkle In Time. She’s not just showing solidarity, she is actually in a position to bend Disney’s ear. And she did so publicly, and I bet other filmmakers were doing it privately, too. A number of critical bodies, including the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, had announced they would not consider Disney movies for year-end award voting. Disney is a few weeks away from launching Coco, future winner of Pixar’s Annual Oscar. If you think John Lasseter wasn’t expressing unhappiness with Coco getting caught up in Iger’s pissing match, think again. Disney’s own people weren’t on their side in this fight, and they backed down.
At no point in this news cycle did Disney look good. First, Iger looks like a bully, then, Disney looks foolish for underestimating the potential backlash, and then they look dumb for having to back down so fast. They’re still barring LAT reporters from accessing the theme parks with other press outlets—so no coverage on the upcoming Star Wars Land, I guess—but the film critics are back on the invite list. And, accordingly, Disney films will be back in consideration for critics’ award voting, which in turn feeds into Oscar campaigning (particularly for Coco).
This might all seem very petty, but this is exactly the kind of power play that probably would have worked not too long ago. Now, though, there is no incentive in maintaining the status quo, not when it’s been exposed as SO toxic, and the complicity of the press is in question, too. Access, after all, is how order was maintained before, and this week the message is that access is no longer the leverage it once was. (Although it should be noted how carefully controlled the press tour is for Justice League.)
Here's Ava DuVernay at an event to support Queen Sugar last night in LA.