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Is Marvel Comics Deal the End of Walt’s Disney?

Disney Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Robert Iger, briefly profiled in Newsweek in this gushing piece, announced yesterday that the Walt Disney Studios is acquiring the lucrative new Hollywood mini-studio Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men) for $ 4 billion. Marvel’s a solid player with potential and Disney is one of the best studios and both have their own relatively consistent brands.

What does one add to the other in creative terms? Disney’s driving philosophy had been, until recently, an American, which is to say benign, sense of life expressed with positive characters in story-driven material, whether in a theme park (Disneyland or Disney’s California Adventure) or in a movie. Marvel’s brand of comic book characters is rooted in marginally heroic, or at least not completely anti-heroic, cartoon figures (The Incredible Hulk) with broad appeal. Both derive success from plots that seem to attract general audiences.

Unlike Pixar Animation Studios, which Disney also acquired under Mr. Iger, Marvel’s catalog does not possess a quality that can easily or identifiably be assimilated into Disney’s wholesome, family entertainment. Sure, the Marvel pictures are noticeably less cynical than the competition, but that’s not saying much. This move further dilutes the Disney brand and may make the studio more relevant in the short term at the expense of being markedly less original in the long term. It has been 15 years since The Lion King, 20 years since The Little Mermaid, and 65 years since Disney released the classic Dumbo in movie theaters. I doubt that the un-Disneylike Enchanted, Pixar’s middling Up, or anything with Hannah Montana will be remembered with as much affection. While Marvel makes good popcorn movies, their stories hardly express childlike wonder, adventure, and innocence, something Disney used to imagine and reimagine in timeless tales. Besides, with politically correct Disney’s ban on smoking in movies, it’s hard to imagine Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark, lighting up the occasional cigar, which raises the question of whether this hyped deal may end up as a lose-lose proposition that signals the end of the legendary Walt’s creative influence in an age of dying Americanism.

Pittsburgh, Television, and an Update

Blogger Aaron West’s first blog post is an excellent tribute to an historic city of capitalism, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the businessman once thrived. The post is a desperately needed reminder about what makes America great. Once a bustling boomtown, Pittsburgh is no longer at the center of American industry. But the metropolis evokes the best of our nation’s Industrial Revolution. Built into the rolling, green hills of western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh rises as a triangle of skyscrapers at the intersection of two rivers, which merge to become one, wide river, the Ohio, which flows into the West. Aaron’s post, citing industrialists Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan, pulls an excerpt from a book published in 1907, which captures the spirit of Pittsburgh: “Without a single exception, the steel kings and coal barons of to-day were the barefooted boys of yesterday. In this respect no other city is as genuinely republican, as thoroughly American, as Pittsburgh.”

Another byproduct of Pittsburgh capitalism, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), bearing the names of Andrew Carnegie and banker Andrew Mellon, recently sponsored a thoughtful discussion about making money in arts and entertainment, “The Future Business Model of Television” (Pittsburgh is also the site of the world’s first broadcasting station, KDKA). The event was hosted by Heinz College’s Master of Entertainment Industry Management program in Hollywood and included NBC Universal’s Chief Marketing Officer John Miller, Fox’s Marcy Ross, William Morris Agency’s Steven Selikoff, head of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences John Shaffner, and producer and former Warner Bros.’ executive vice-president for production, Judith Zaylor.

The event, held at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California, was moderated by Wayne Friedman. Miller recalled that, when Dallas aired on CBS, everyone freaked when they learned that Larry Hagman, who played the male lead, earned $ 50,000 per episode, and he observed that the government might invoke national security and take over local television programming, which is struggling. Zaylor explained how the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which imposes regulations on business, has seriously damaged the ability to produce TV content and everyone talked about the success of Fox’s American Idol, studio cost-cutting and so-called reality TV programming, which, as Shaffner reminded those in attendance, echoes the early days of TV, which was dominated by wrestling, boxing and talent competitions. TV is experiencing a tremendous business model change and the panel reflected the current state of the industry as a work in progress, ripe for new opportunity.

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