- The Disneyfication of Authorship:Above-the-Line Creative Labor in the Franchise Era
in the 2010s, the film industry transitioned into a new historical period, the franchise era. Although Hollywood has been actively pursuing blockbusters since the late 1950s and sequels since the late 1970s, this latest industry-wide push into big-budget, transmedia story universes was new in its intensity and scope. By 2019, franchises accounted for more than 40 percent of the box office (Ball) and eighteen of the year's top twenty films. This shift was accompanied by several fundamental changes in the entertainment business: film and television "swapped places" (Fritz, Big Picture xxi), with TV gaining more cultural respect and film increasingly borrowing televisual practices; the international market became more essential; technology companies descended on Hollywood; and brands eclipsed both original ideas and A-list stars (Fleury et al. 18; Owczarski 675; Lomax; Fritz, Big Picture).
Disney, which has always been bullish on the value of legacy intellectual property (IP), led the charge throughout the decade, most visibly by financially prioritizing the branded content of newly acquired companies: Pixar in 2006, Marvel in 2009, Lucasfilm in 2012, and Fox in 2019. Capitalizing on its resulting box office dominance, the company reshaped the theatrical market, forcing changes onto exhibitors and competing studios (Schwartzel, "Disney Lays Down the Law"; Galloway; D'Alessandro). It also intensified the "streaming wars" by introducing Disney+, the first significant play in streaming video on demand by a major studio and a move that signaled Hollywood's willingness to pivot to nontheatrical delivery platforms. The other major studios spent the decade trying to catch up by cutting their number of releases and chasing potential franchises at the expense of low- and mid-budget original films (Ball). In short, Disney led Hollywood out of the blockbuster era of the 1990s and early 2000s and came to define how business was done in the franchise era and what the culture that arose out of it looked like.
One key facet of this Disney-led transition was a shift in Hollywood's balance of power away from people and toward brands; in the franchise era, value came from studio-owned intellectual property, not from the contributions of individual artists or workers (Fritz, Big Picture 84–86; Fleury et al. 10–12; Thompson 3). To support this value shift, Disney advanced a discourse around authorship that I refer to here as "corporate auteurism." This updated and corporatized version of classic auteur theory prioritized managerial expertise over creative vision. Promoted through a vast PR machine, it credited studio executives (specifically, Kevin Feige, John Lasseter, and Kathleen Kennedy) with masterminding the studio's biggest brands (Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars, respectively) and [End Page 3]
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bestowed on them a kind of creative genius once reserved only for directors. This narrative helped Disney build a kind of artistic prestige for its franchises that tentpole films often lacked during the blockbuster era.
President of Marvel Studios and chief creative officer of Marvel Entertainment Kevin Feige has been the most successful of these corporate auteurs. A representative of his company, Feige had no discernable individual style, and as such, he personified Hollywood's broader shift in power from charismatic individuals to established corporate brands. His much-touted creative control of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) helped discursively instill the sprawling franchise with narrative coherence as well as artistic aura and cultural legitimacy. And this sense of intention has, by and large, been embraced by fans, journalists, and scholars (see Fritz, Big Picture; Johnson, "Cinematic Destiny"; Flanagan et al.). The impact of this auteur discourse extends beyond audience engagement, though. It shaped the way work was organized in very material ways and helped explain these labor structures to the public, as well as to current employees and the many aspirants waiting for their jobs. This function of corporate auteurism has important real-world consequences; the ability...