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Where Did All The Disney Channel Original Movies Go?

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The older we get, the easier it is to write off the younger generation as missing out on the things that make childhood wonderful. Gen Z has traded in Tamagotchis for finstas (which I’m pretty sure they don’t even call finstas) and Limited Too for Justice (but they’re really all wearing Brandy Melville). It’s easy to fall into the same dismissive patterns that we were subjected to by older siblings and the big kids at school because we literally have no idea what’s going on with teens under the age of fourteen. A nostalgia shared by many millennials is the longing for the classic Disney Channel Original Movies, the media that defined our generation. While we’ve been busying ourselves decrying the new DCOMs for being worse than the so-called “OGs” we look back on with rose-colored glasses, we’ve overlooked a troubling trend. It’s not that new DCOMs aren’t good, necessarily. At least, they’re not much worse than the ones we watched when we were twelve and actually supposed to like Disney Channel. The problem is that they just barely exist anymore. Between 1998 and 2008, Disney made seventy-three Disney Channel Original Movies. The following decade, while we were busy going to our Junior Prom and graduating from college, they only made thirty-four. The number of DCOMs made yearly is steadily declining, and Freeform’s original made-for-TV film content (which is also produced by Disney) has seen an even steeper decline, from 80 movies in the early 00s to only twenty-five in the past ten years. The decline really started in 2011, and no one has commented on it. Go ahead, search “Why did Disney Channel stop making movies?” and nothing pops up. Have we been so wrapped up in our own lives that we didn’t notice a children’s television channel that we no longer watch changed their programming priorities? Shame on us! It’s not a secret that the ~youth of today~ or whatever are operating on a completely different plane of existence that we did at their age, but the complete lack of answers led me to wonder: Where did all the DCOMs go?

Disney as a company has made some big changes in the past year that have likely been in the works for the better part of a decade themselves. Notably, they’re launching their own streaming service to compete with Netflix called Disney+ and acquiring FOX. Disney+, launching late 2019, comes on the heels of a major strategic reorganization by Disney as an organization, outlined in this press release from the Walt Disney Company, that shows a heavier emphasis on direct-to-consumer programming. With the company as a whole pivoting away from conventional content distribution in the wake of the decline of pay-television, it’s possible that Disney+ will usher in a new era of DCOM for the streaming generation. Still, the decline away from DCOMs started in 2011, at a time when nearly a million customers left Netflix because of price hikes and the streaming giant hadn’t redefined television yet. This was also around the time, in 2012, when Disney acquired LucasFilm for four billion dollars. This wasn’t Disney’s first high-profile buyout, with ABC in 1996, Pixar in 2006, and Marvel in 2009, but in hindsight, it’s clear that Disney’s larger plans for expansion have been a long-term priority. In 2018, their seventy-one billion dollar deal for FOX is the latest in what is starting to look like a plot for world domination. Disney now owns a majority stake in Hulu and all Fox-owned superheroes including Deadpool and the X-Men, in addition to their previous acquisitions of Star Wars and Pixar Animation. Many of these deals, LucasFilm in particular, have made more money for Disney than the Mouse bought them for, so it’s not tightening purse strings causing these relatively low-cost, potentially high-earning (in merchandising) DCOMs from being made, but there are clearly bigger fish to fry in the Disneysphere as they prepare for the next steps in a major priority shift.

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The big new DCOMs like Teen Beach Movie starring my future husband Ross Lynch and Descendants are still pulling in huge numbers RE: viewership, but now that pay-tv isn’t really important to younger consumers, it’s stuff like Hollywood Records deals and merchandising that could still be making big money for Disney as they slowly maintain their control over the minds of all Americans.

For some reason, though, Disney just hasn’t been able to make stars like it used to. Sabrina Carpenter from Girl Meets World has a huge Instagram following, but her albums just don’t really chart. Her highest album peak is #28 and TBH can we even call that a peak? It’s more like a slight incline. The Disney stars ~back in my day~ like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato all had debuts that peaked in the top five and most of their albums went to number one, and they’re still relevant today. Sure, none of the new Disney stars have had major mental breakdowns and grinded on old dudes while dressed like a slutty teddy bear, but…

Rowan Blanchard is a fashion darling and an activist, but no one over eighteen actually knows who she is. Dove Cameron is doing musical theatre, which might be a personal choice but it isn’t helping. Ross never had a number one album with his band R5 and only got hot once he left Disney for Netflix. Zendaya is legit the only star that was born from what I’m decreeing the New Disney Era — and her co-star Bella Thorne went straight to the walking-disaster part of the Disney fame machine and just kind of stayed there. Disney also isn’t making a lot of sequels. HSM, The Cheetah Girls, and Halloweentown, all had at least two sequels, and that’s why we still talk about them and not Read It and Weep, which is just as good. Where is Lemonade Mouth 2? The movies themselves aren’t that different from the DCOM classics, but the network isn’t investing in individuals and franchises the way it once did. This is a bit of a chicken-egg situation, but it does reinforce the idea that the parent company’s shifting priorities could be affecting the content roll-out. How can there be eleven new films in a year if none of them are three-quels? (Okay, at this time I do have to admit that Descendents 3 is coming out next year but it’s one of only TWO — and the other is a live-action remake of Kim Possible.) There aren’t that many new ideas left (which is how we got the movie Mother’s Day and that Charmed reboot no one asked for), so Disney really can’t produce the same number of films if they aren’t doing sequels, they can’t do sequels without regular stars that can reliably return to a franchise over time, and they can’t have regular stars if they don’t actually have any stars in the first place.

There are stars in the terrifying world of Snapchat Tweens, but they’re just all YouTubers. Even though Disney makes about forty percent of its total revenue from television (which also includes ESPN because Disney is buying the world), live television viewership in twelve to twenty-four-year-old Americans has fallen fifty-one percent since 2010 aka roughly when the DCOMs started fading away. TBM and Descendents were two of the top eleven movie premieres in Disney history, but that means most of the best performing DCOMs are hella old. This doesn’t mean that tweens aren’t still majorly bankable, with spending by families with grade-school kids rising to the dozens of billions of dollars yearly. This money is going to back-to-school and whatever trendy food replaced Lunchables and Kid Cuisine, but it’s also going to massive amounts of YouTube merch. Disney did dabble in hiring YouTubers like Jake Paul, and we all saw how that went. YouTubers are wildcards, with livelihoods that are completely dependent on capturing people’s attention and creating a personal brand. Because they’re individuals, they could be seen as high-risk by Disney, who wouldn’t be able to carefully control the public image and social output of its stars if they were making just as much (or more) money making videos for YouTube as they were starring on Bizzardvark or Dog With A Blog (both real show names that I didn’t have to make up). These YouTubers also give their fans more intimate access to their lives than any Disney stars, making their fans feel like they know them personally and then craving even more access to their lives.

Robin Frank, who helped launch Pharell‘s YouTube channel, spoke to FastCompany about these changing spending habits in the Tween demo, saying, “Tweens are going to pop concerts, but they’re also going to see Miranda Sings and paying a premium to get a selfie backstage with their YouTube star of choice. So much of where entertainment, in general, is going is about accessing the artist in a way that you never could before. It’s all about live interactive experiences.”

Social currency for youths (ew, what am I, 90?) used to be who had been allowed to stay up until 10PM to watch the latest HSM movie. Now that tweens are generally wild people and probably set their own bedtimes or something like that, gaining a following on Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube has become the new way to prove social dominance (I think… but as I said, I’m ancient). Aging more quickly than we did changed how they relate to each other, and now they want to meet Jake Paul (God help us all) and post about it instead of sitting at home and watching TV live as it airs. Literally, even eleven-year-olds don’t have time for that. Now that Disney isn’t social currency for Gen Z and it isn’t the weird, pseudo-intellectual sh*t it was originally envisioned as, Disney Channel is still waiting to find its third form. With their streaming service launching soon, it’s only a matter of time before Disney Channel rediscovers its niche market and moves away from what worked for millennials. If that means the DCOM is dying, that really sucks. More likely, the next generation will be looking back fondly on their holographic Disney Channel Original choose-your-own-adventure live movie experiences and lamenting the death of the DCOCLME when they’re twenty-five and Disney has started to pivot to just directly invading your subconsciousness instead. These are the Good Old Days.

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