Only Thrice Upon a Dream?

Having netted a half-billion dollars and counting for Disney, Maleficent is the latest proof of just how lucrative successively building upon established properties can be in today’s economy.

The film benefited from being uniquely able to draw on all the elements of Disney’s perennially popular animated feature version of Sleeping Beauty, which in turn overtly incorporated both the melodies of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet score and the plot of Charles Perrault’s retelling of innumerable folk versions of the tale. Like Disney’s Thor films, rather than being emblematic of “market competition,” such one-way commercial appropriation of folk culture epitomizes “intellectual monopoly.” It is impossible to know how much of Maleficent‘s half-billion would have been earned if it had faced real “market competition” from non-Disney-made, non-Angelina Jolie-starring versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale that could have made as much use of the additions of the Disney animated version as that one did of the folk tradition. (Disney’s Winnie the Pooh director confided to his Soviet counterpart that “your Winnie is better than mine.”)

But — to play devil’s advocate — without monopoly revenue, could a work like Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty get made in the first place? After all, current popular culture is dominated by intricately complex filmed works, from Marvel’s The Avengers to cable’s Game of Thrones and Mad Men to Netflix’s House of Cards, financed by businesses with oligopoly dominance of their fields. Such a financial cushion allows not only lavish production values, but the leeway to back creative risks, stylistic experimentation and extended, unhurried development spans. All were necessary in droves during Sleeping Beauty‘s protracted path to the screen.

To the contrary, the dominance — and necessity — of monopoly in the production of even the most complex cultural works should be at its high-water mark. While they will always take time and care, the necessary technological and administrative overhead will steadily diminish, making formal organizational structures increasingly hollow and leaving human capital as the main resource and with increasingly-stronger bargaining power. To the degree that Disney as a company retains any real continuity with its golden age of animation this long after the personal involvement of Walt Disney himself, it is not in its corporate structure or ownership of its classic properties, but the animation artists who have passed on the knowledge of the craft among themselves, expertise that cannot be contained within the castle walls.

In 1979, a sizable portion of Disney’s key animation talent literally walked out and remade themselves into a rival independent studio, Don Bluth Productions, that played a crucial role in spearheading the 1980s animation renaissance. Such successes will increasingly become the rule, rather than an anomaly, as a multitude of robust methods for independent financing of even large-scale work are given the space to emerge — the lack of which perennially stymied such independent efforts as Richard Williams’s three-decades-long failure to fund the completion of his ambitious The Thief and the Cobbler.

In a post-monopoly society, countless things dreamed more than once are sure to come true.

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