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March 6, 2012


by Howard Suber

Future historians may write that this month the Walt Disney Company finally jumped the shark.

The phrase is increasingly used in the film and television industry to indicate that something has reached its creative peak and henceforth will inevitable go downhill from there. The phrase comes from a September, 1977, episode of the long-running tv series, Happy Days, when “The Fonz,” in his identifying leather jacket, performs a stunt in which he is pulled by a speedboat over a penned-in shark near the Southern California coast.

The series continued on for nearly five years, so “jumping the shark” doesn’t mean it’s the sign of the end; it means that something or someone has run out of creative ideas, and it’s going to be downhill from there on. Rush Limbaugh in September, 2011, said Michelle Bachmann had jumped the shark with her story of a woman (who could not be found) who told her after a presidential debate that her child suffered from “mental retardation” after taking a vaccine that was being hotly debated. While it would be five months more before Bachmann dropped out of the presidential race, it was clear even to Limbaugh that it would all be downhill from there.   

Disney’s shark appears to be John Carter, opening this Friday. Reportedly costing $250 million dollars to produce and who-knows-how-much to market, the film is based on a story written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1911.    Burroughs was a pulp novelist who was so successful that he could afford a large ranch in the San Fernando Valley that eventually became a town, but it was Tarzan who the town of Tarzana was named after, not John Carter.

If a novel that was very popular a hundred years ago has never been made into a film, it should tell you something. When Burroughs wrote his series, he was influenced by Percival Lowell’s “discovery” of canals of water on Mars, which he  interpreted as signs of an ancient civilization. But that idea died out many decades ago, and why a hundred-year-old story that at the time could be considered science fiction but could only be considered pure fantasy today needed to be turned into a $250 million dollar film this year will have to be explained by others.

But we’re not talking here about a single film. Disney now focuses on two kinds of films: (1) Pixar animation, Marvel comics, and remakes of pre-existing Disney projects and (2) “event” movies capable of producing lucrative merchandising, tv series or theme park attractions. If you want to make films about recognizable human beings, Disney is not your primary destination.

The fact is, aside perhaps from Pixar, the film operations of The Walt Disney Company produce a smaller and smaller percentage of the total revenues of the parent company – a statement that is true of most studios. Despite the enormous amount of attention they get, the Hollywood studios have for a long time now been a shadow of their former selves in terms of their importance to the companies that own them. Or, I think it’s safe to say, in terms of the audiences that view their movies.

Today, if you’re looking for films about recognizable human beings – which is what the vast majority of the world’s memorable dramatic stories are about – don’t look to the six Hollywood studios. They’re not in that business anymore.

Copyright (c) 2012 Howard Suber

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