Et Tu, Disne? Or: Why Disney Can’t Quit Theatrical Just Yet

Plus: 'The Wolf of Snow Hollow' reviewed, and a 'Remedial' recommendation

Et Tu, Disne? Or: Why Disney Can’t Quit Theatrical Just Yet

Another week, another round of panicking about the fate of theaters. This week’s worries are tied to news that Disney is looking to pivot further from theatrical releases and more toward streaming, as news of a corporate reorganization came down.

I was happy to have James Emanuel Shapiro, former COO of Neon and Drafthouse Films as well as the founder of the analytics department at the Alamo Drafthouse, on The Bulwark’s website today writing about what a world without theaters would look like. (He and I also had a chat about the issue on a Bulwark+ members-only podcast; sign up today to give it a listen!) Spoiler: It’d be very different.

And that difference will come all the more quickly if Disney exited the theatrical stage altogether. After all, Disney accounted for nearly 40 percent of the box office last year, if you include films produced by the Disney-acquired 20th Century Fox. By way of comparison, the next-closest competitor, Warner Bros., brought in roughly a third of that figure, just 13.8 percent of the total box office.

Disney’s reorganization news came on the heels of hedge funder/activist investor Dan Loeb comparing theaters to buggy whips and demanding Disney focus more on its streaming service. And, last week, Disney announced that the new Pixar picture, Soul, would be skipping theaters in America and Europe and heading straight to Disney+.

There’s a certain logic to all this, of course: Disney’s empire is broad but uniquely damaged by the coronavirus epidemic. Its box office dominance does it little good in a world where patrons are too scared to attend movie theaters. Its theme parks sit either unused or underused, as governments and patrons balance entertainment and safety. The less said about the floating petri dishes that comprise the cruise ship business, the better. Streaming is the one sure revenue source and, as it happens, everyone’s best guess as to where the industry was headed anyway. 

Still: Disney can’t quit theaters. Not just yet. Not with the business model they’ve built. As the Entertainment Strategy Guy noted earlier this week, Disney is in the hits business: it relies on products like Hamilton and Mulan to drive interest, boosting subs as it does. Disney has to skate from hit to hit to keep growing its piece of the streaming pie. The next hit on the horizon is the second season of The Mandalorian. And, at the risk of being overly obvious, Disney’s theatrical business is arranged much the same way: Its dominance is a result of huge hits from the MCU and Star Wars and Pixar and Disney animation. 

But those big hits require big budgets, and big budgets simply aren’t going to come from the world of streaming. As Shapiro noted on Twitter, even a modestly budgeted movie like Bill & Ted Face the Music, which has largely bypassed theaters and been feted as a success, can’t break even on PVOD. Trolls World Tour probably had the greatest circumstances a movie could have for breakout PVOD success—a captive audience and high awareness thanks to a theatrical-based ad campaign—and the numbers it put up couldn’t come close to replacing what a brand like Disney does in theaters. 

All of which is to say that Disney still needs theatrical, at least for the moment. Disney needs those billion-dollar-booms several times a year to keep their bottom line intact. The actors who work for Disney need those billion-dollar-booms to keep their paychecks robust. The directors need those billion-dollar-booms to ensure their vision is fully realized. 

And, of course, the flipside of this is true: Theaters need Disney and its tentpoles. Without them, the roof caves in on every element of the business, from ticket sales to concession earnings.  The conscientious consumer and the critical corps may resent the dominance of the big-budget blockbuster. But they probably aren’t ready for a world in which their disappearance rejiggers the entire filmmaking industry. 

Review: The Wolf of Snow Hollow (VOD, limited theatrical)

The Wolf of Snow Hollow is a strange beast, one of those weird genre-bending oddities that isn’t quite one thing or another, and thus might be slightly annoying to large portions of the audience. Both a too-dark-for-laughs comedy and a scary-but-not-quite-terrifying horror film, wrapped around a family drama and a portrait of a man in the midst of a breakdown, The Wolf of Snow Hollow feels designed to alienate large chunks of its potential audience.

I’ll be honest: I kind of loved it.

Writer/director Jim Cummings also stars as John Marshall, a police officer in a sleepy Utah ski town. He’s the nominal head of the town’s force, given that his father, Sheriff Hadley (Robert Forster), is suffering from ill health and unable to perform as anything other than a figurehead. John and his team of cops, including the competent and caring Officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome), have to solve a series of bloody murders perpetrated by what appears to be a werewolf.

Nominally a whodunit, The Wolf of Snow Hollow isn’t too concerned with figuring out who murdered the girlfriend of the annoying Angeleno who lectures a local about his use of the f-word. (Not that one, the other one.) All of this, the killings and spookiness and the bloody murder, is just window dressing to look at Cummings’s real concern: the breakdown of John Marshall. 

A recovering alcoholic (we first see him in an AA meeting) with obvious rage problems, Marshall’s difficulty juggling the unusual killing spree, his obligations to his wife and child, the nosy local media, and his management of a police force that doesn’t respect him is the true focus here. Cummings’s dialogue is snappy without being showy; this isn’t Tarantino-esque patter about some pop-culture phenomenon, just normal folks working their way through an abnormally stressful time. 

It’s also weirdly, deeply funny. Not in a laugh-out-loud sort of way; not in a finely honed-or-worded joke sort of way. But in the reactions and interactions of the cast. The look on Cummings’s face as he sorts through his competing emotions. 

I was so struck by The Wolf of Snow Hollow that, upon finishing the 80-or-so minute feature, I immediately threw on Cummings’s 90-minute debut, Thunder Road, which is streaming on PrimeThunder Road is a little leaner, a little sparer, but just as focused on Cummings and his portrait of male breakdown. Cummings also plays a cop with family problems in Thunder Road, but there’s no horror-movie catharsis. It’s just a guy on the edge as his family disintegrates and his world crumbles around him. Cummings does this thing with his face—a momentary tearing up, his sadness stifled into a dead-eyed rictus as he remembers he’s being watched—that will feel familiar to anyone whose had to wrestle with emotional problems on a public stage and the fear of judgment that accompanies such moments.

The last time I can remember being so struck by a new filmmaker that I immediately watched one of their previous pictures was when I checked out S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk and was so impressed that I instantly called up Brawl in Cell Block 99 on Amazon Prime. Zahler’s a stronger visual stylist than Cummings, a bit better at framing his shots and angling his camera. (Though Cummings deserves credit for the nerviness of the opening sequence in Thunder Road, a 12-minute slow push-in on a man engaging in a pathetic public breakdown at his mother’s funeral, the camera’s increasing tightness simulating the walls closing in as he loses it.) That said, both Zahler and Cummings are adept at mixing genres and adding humor—though not levity, exactly—to their dark portraits of masculinity in crisis.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow is an aggressive piece of work, one that doesn’t let the audience settle into a comfortable rhythm. It won’t be right for everyone. But I can’t wait to see what Cummings does next.

Assigned Viewing: Community, “Remedial Chaos Theory” (Netflix)

Nine years ago this week we saw the debut of arguably the best episode of arguably the best network sitcom in recent memory: Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory.” Written by Chris McKenna and directed by Jeff Melman, “Remedial Chaos Theory” isn’t necessarily the best introduction to the show—watch the whole thing from episode one, heathens, so you can understand what each of the characters is doing in this episode—but it is a useful entry point if you’re trying to figure out whether Community’s sensibilities will jibe with your own. 

The concept is simple enough: While attending a housewarming, the delightfully amoral Jeff (Joel McHale) rolls a die to see who has to go pick up pizza for Troy and Abed’s (Donald Glover and Danny Pudi, respectively) party. Tossing the die creates a series of parallel dimensions, each positing wildly different outcomes for our heroes. Kind of like Ian Malcolm’s water tracks in Jurassic Park, but with more comic violence and a better understanding of how little changes to the world can have huge impacts on our development as people.

Simple concept; excellent execution. It’s a fan-favorite for a reason. Plus: it’s always a treat, and a pleasure, to watch the legendary comedian Chevy Chase demonstrate the full range of his comedic abilities.