Almost in the exact same hour on Jan 9, two big pieces of Disney news broke: the project departures of Doctor Strange 2 director Scott Derrickson and creator-showrunner Terri Minsky from the Disney Plus revival of Lizzie McGuire.
Both exits were said to be based on creative conflict, with both Marvel and Derrickson citing “creative differences” and Disney attributing Minsky’s departure to a “need to move in a different creative direction”.
Now, it’s a widely known fact that entertainment and media is a flighty business. Directors, writers, showrunners, producers and actors — creatives join and leave projects all the time. So what is it about Disney’s personnel rearrangements that should be paid attention to?
The most scrutinized of Disney’s swap-outs are probably those within the Star Wars franchise. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s mid-production firing from Solo (2018) was widely speculated about. J.J. Abrams was famously brought back on to Episode IX (2019) upon Colin Trevorrow’s dismissal. Even the critically praised Rogue One (2016) failed to escape unscathed, with Tony Gilroy brought on to rework the movie and conduct reshoots after director Gareth Edwards’s cut was deemed unacceptable by the studio.
With Lord and Miller, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy cited “different creative visions”. With Trevorrow, Lucasfilm claimed that their “visions for the project differ”.The studio stayed mum on the changes to the Rogue One team, but it’s been anonymously suggested that Edwards was bitterly disappointed about Disney tampering with his original pitch of a darker-toned “war film”.
It’s not unusual to change the line-up at the eleventh hour, or even after the game’s already started. What is significant is just how freely and frequently the line-up seems to be changed whenever Disney’s in the game — which is, frankly speaking, most of the time.
As a company, Disney wields practically unparalleled purchasing power. Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and, most recently, 21st Century Fox — the House of Mouse has been spending billions of dollars collecting studios like they’re playing Monopoly, and that’s exactly what they’re building in the process: an entertainment and media monopoly.
With that, they now wield not only a dangerous amount of purchasing power but creative power as well. They’re now responsible for, to varying extents, an estimated 80% of what we see at our local theatres.
Prolific filmmaker Martin Scorsese published a widely-discussed critique of Disney’s ballooning growth and the subsequent implications of their continued dominance. He hit the nail on the head in pointing out the impact of Disney’s behemothic establishment on art and creativity: “Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”
Scorsese’s critiques explain in great detail all the reasons why a monolithic monopoly like Disney’s poses an alarming danger to creative freedom and growth. The phrase “creative differences” takes on something far more insidious when you zoom out of individual incidents to realize that a single company can remove anybody and everybody who doesn’t agree to play by their rules.
Look past the played-up tones of scandal over Lord and Miller’s firing to the whispers of the duo’s unwillingness to be micromanaged by Kennedy and Solo writer Lawrence Kasdan (an established Star Wars creative already trusted by Lucasfilm for his work on 2015’s The Force Awakens).
Look past Derrickson’s departure from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to Marvel chief Kevin Feige’s so-called clarification of the director’s initial voiced intentions to make the Benedict Cumberbatch-led sequel a horror film, in which Feige explicitly said: “I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a horror film.”
Look past the lukewarm reception to high-stakes saga closer Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), to star Oscar Isaac’s express disappointment over the lack of a Finn/Poe romance because “the Disney overlords were not ready to do that.”
Look past all of these things, to the visible pattern beneath that testifies to an absolute, inescapable control that is repeatedly and relentlessly exercised at whim.
Close oversight could be explained by the mere size and scale of the projects mentioned above—all of which are planned blockbuster releases part of globally established franchises—but now, with Minsky’s exit from the revival of her own original series, it seems that even small screen works aren’t safe from Disney’s watchful eye and interfering hand.
If this is the process for white male filmmakers, and for creatives whose prior successes have already made valuable contributions to building Disney’s empire as it is today, what does the process look like for others who aren’t as fortunate or privileged? What does it look like for a young Black woman director? What does it look like for a trans writer? What does it look like for anyone who brings with them a vision that runs counter to anything that sits squarely within Disney’s conservative, white-cishet-dominated and -controlled comfort zone?
What levels do marginalized creatives have to go to seek the approvals and freedoms that, it seems, are barely even granted to the un-marginalized ones? Forget the levels — do they even have a shot at getting in the door?
“For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art.”
– Martin Scorsese