Post-Modern Studio System? What Overturning the Paramount Decision Means for Film Business

While the official announcement was unaccompanied with fanfare, the overturning of the landmark ruling in “U.S. v Paramount Pictures, Inc., et al” (1948) on Friday, August 7, 2020 marks a turning point in the business of modern cinema. Also known as The Paramount Decision and The Hollywood Antitrust Case, this ruling marked the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the decline of the Studio System that upheld it. What exactly does this mean for the business moving forward? Short answer: nobody knows, and anyone claiming to know what IS going to happen is incredibly presumptuous. However, by looking at the history of the 1948 ruling and the current events surrounding the August 7th ruling, we can explore this watershed moment in the film business, both past and present. Furthermore, we can extrapolate from past precedent what may happen or even could happen today. One thing is certain, we are in rapidly ranging and even uncertain times due to the direct and indirect impacts of the response to COVID-19. Although the federal court began reevaluating this case in late 2019, it is undeniable that the impact of the response to the effects of the virus may have played a latent role in the final decision. From a massive increase in streaming content options to premium paid video-on-demand (PVOD) to continued (at the time of this writing) delays in returning “big ticket” first-run movies to theatrical exhibition, there are many factors at play here. Not to mention questions such as “if I am an indie filmmaker, will I be able to get my movies in theatrical chains,” “does this mean that Amazon or Apple will buy up struggling chains like AMC,” or “if I am a screenwriter, will I still be able to submit my screenplays to studios if they are completely vertically integrated?” Perhaps this exploration of the past, present, and future of the film business in light of the overturn of the Paramount Decision won’t be able to provide definitive answers, but it will provide historical, empirical, and observational evidences to suggest what may or could happen moving forward. 

In short, the Paramount Decision (1948) was a landmark case in which the US Government forced the eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking, divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (although, this practice would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization. But before we can even begin to understand the significance of the August 7, 2020 decision that overturned the landmark ruling, we have to jump in the wayback machine and head to Hollywood’s Golden Age (recently seen on Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, a 2020 limited-run series on Netflix). 

What was the studio system anyway? It was the arrangement of film production and distribution dominated by a small number of studios in Hollywood. Historically, the term refers to the practice of large motion picture studios, between the 1920s-60s, of producing movies primarily on their own backlots with creative personnel often under long-term contracts, and which dominated exhibition through the vertical integration of company-owned movie theatres. Block booking was also a common practice at this time. This process forced theatres to accept a block of movies from a studio. If an independent theatre wanted to show Movie A, then the studio would require the theatre to also accept and show Movies B, C, D, and E too.

Years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the once powerful Paramount Pictures, the biggest studio in Hollywood at the time, there were constant legal and ethical issues plaguing the storied studio system that produced some of the most foundational films in cinema history. Back during the height of the studio system, there were eight principle players: the Big Five and the Little Three. The Big Five was comprised of: Paramount, MGM, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and RKO; the Little Three included Universal, Columbia, and United Artists. You may (1) recognize some of those names today and (2) notice that there is a famous studio conspicuously missing. The latter is due to Walt Disney Studios being in its infancy during this time. Ironically, it would become nearly completely vertically integrated in the 20th and 21st centuries, minus owning a chain of movie theatres. In a manner of speaking the Walt Disney Company operates in a very similar fashion to that of its older brothers and sisters.

When I took a tour of Paramount Pictures back in 2015, I asked how many full-time staff worked on the lot. And the tour guide responded with 30-40 people. That’s right, only 30-40 people at the time. While that number may have fluctuated in the last five years, it leads me into one of the practices that came to a close when the Studio System fell. Prior to the Paramount Decision and the development of professional unions, studios held movie stars, directors, writers, and others to longterm contracts (with few, if any, options). Contracts were so tightly managed, that studios would loan stars to other studios, for example Paramount may choose to loan out Mae West to M-G-M in exchange for Judy Garland. The on screen talent wasn’t the only area treated as a commodity, virtually every role in front or or behind the camera was under contract to a studio, including directors and writers. 

While this looks like an infringement upon civil liberties through our 2020 eyes, and there are many reasons it should, there was something positive regarding employment during the Studio System: job security. When you worked for the studio, you worked for the studio and made all its pictures. Meaning, you knew you had regular employment until your contract was satisfied, you quit, or were fired. Employees didn’t have to worry about when and where the next gig was; employees went to work, Monday through Friday if you will, just like other working professionals. Furthermore, this centralized human resources system also made it possible to apply for vacant positions as a director, writer, craftsman, or any other position. There were also a great number of formal apprenticeships for those who were trying to break into the system. Sounds great, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, for reasons of streamlining the hiring process and providing stable employment in the field; and no, because the studio (that also likely controlled movie theatres) would not produce or distribute your picture unless you worked for the studio. It was a closed corporate system, so independents were largely kept out of it. From submitting screenplays to theatrical distribution, aspiring filmmakers either had to join the corporate ranks of the studio system or exhibit their pictures in small independent movie houses, IF they could even get the film developed and edited. 

Even before the 1948 decision, the studio system and studio-theatre relationships were under attack, but the studios were able to find loop-holes and political alliances in order to avoid the breakup of the vertical integration that was expensive to maintain but highly lucrative. As the movie studios regrouped for continued legal battles in the court system and Justice Department, media mogul Howard Hughes of storied RKO Pictures made the decision to sell off his movie theatres. When The Justice Department made it clear that there were to be no more deals between the government and the movie studios, Paramount sold its movies theaters in an attempt to buy into television. However, after the legacy studio’s continued involvement in all the antitrust cases leading to the final decision in 1948, the government did not permit Paramount to maintain any semblance of a monopoly in the frontier of television.The battle to keep the studio system was finally over. In the end, the Paramount case influenced the growth of television because, among other reasons, RKO and other studios sold their film libraries to television stations to offset the losses from the Paramount Decision. The studios also released actors from those longterm contracts, and many became television stars.

Although there are many side-effects and tangential reasons why the studio system (1) was lucrative and (2) hard to dismantle, there is one root reason from which everything else radiated: control. Everything gets back to control. Control of movie stars, control of writers and directors, control of the distribution and exhibition process. With all this control, the Studio System was able to craft its own narrative and success story. While the system was lucrative, it also racked up a lot of debt. Debt that came from borrowing from banks, exorbitant movie star salaries, and fighting legal battles. Even though the system had a lot of problems, it still gave us some of the best movies of all time, motion pictures that are larger than life, and those that typified the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, this system also protected its own when scrutiny or accusations arose, which is reprehensible. The Hollywood Studio System was truly its own self-contained world that outsiders were only let into through the movies and publicity. 

The film business landscape looks much different than it was during and just after the Golden Age of Hollywood. But over time, we have seen a migration back towards the ol’ system of doing things. The most recent examples of borderline antitrust infringement are Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, AT&T’s acquisition of Warner Bros. Pictures, and Comcast’s acquisition of NBC-Universal. What makes the latter two particularly interesting cases is the simple fact that both AT&T and Comcast own and operate the literal hardware in the ground and air that brings you your connection to the internet. One could read this as a form of distribution. The Disney example is more or less one of reducing the ability to equitably compete for audience dollars and the ability to create jobs. You can read more on the Disney-Fox deal in my article Out-Foxed. While block booking and price-fixing are still illegal, the overturn of the Paramount Decision does create a greater pathway to acquiring movie theatres and the ability to be more greatly vertically integrated than was possible since 1948. Interestingly, movie studios have been legally able to buy movie theatres since 1948, but because of the scrutiny and bureaucratic red tape that would come with it, it was not a practice except in the case of Disney purchasing the historic El Capitan theatre and Netflix purchasing the iconic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre (sister theatre to the world-famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Disney uses the El Capitan for most of its own premieres, but the movie theatre also shows a variety of other programming. But with this overturning, Disney could choose to only show its movies in the El Capitan, likewise with Netflix and the Egyptian Theatre. 

But, so what if Netflix and Disney want to exclusively exhibit their own films in their movie palaces? And you’re right, those two locations do not significantly make a difference in the grand scheme of things; but, what this represents is a microcosm of what could happen more nationally. And that’s why many of us are fascinated by this ruling; we are both anxious and eager to see what happens in this new frontier. Maybe nothing, maybe something. But film academics have a duty to analyze the situation to inform the public of the possible outcomes.

At the time of writing this article, Disney has made no claim regarding any real interest in purchasing the struggling AMC movie theatre chain nor Regal (owned by CineWorld). That said, there is more to explore that isn’t quite as in the face of the public as purchasing theatre chains. While control is the root cause for the machine that was the studio system, the reason the government went after the big studios was in-part because the studios made it nearly impossible for independent filmmakers to get their films into theatres or land distribution deals. If the studio did not produce your film, then it would not distribute it. The inequitable competition field led the US Government to bring about the landmark antitrust case. Lack of competition or lack of an opportunity to compete is what many independent producers, directors, and other creative and technical personnel fear most moving forward. It is highly unlikely that anything major is going to happen overnight; however, the studios now have the latitude, or horizontal if you will, to test the boundaries of their vertical integration and ability to strong-arm the marketplace. Suffice it to say, the studios will be “testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically…they remember” (Robert Muldoon, Jurassic Park). 

While Disney may not be presently interested in purchasing a movie theatre chain (according to the August earnings call), the three companies to watch out for are: AT&T, Amazon, and Apple. The AAA threat. Interestingly, AT&T is no stranger to monopolies or even oligopolies (like a monopoly, but when a market is controlled by a few big companies instead of one). Without going into too much detail on the U.S. v American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) case, the antitrust case was brought against the telecom giant, owner and operator of Bell Systems. Bell Systems held a monopoly over American and Canadian phone systems, a monopoly that was held since the dawn of the telephone. The end result of the 1982 ruling brought about the breakup of the Bell Systems company into seven regional “Bell” markets. From this breakup we got seven telecom companies, each operating a particular geographic region. Interestingly, four out of the seven companies are now back under the control of AT&T. The remaining three former Bell markets are owned by Verizon and CenturyLink.

If we use the AT&T case study as a parallel model for understanding studios and the film business, we can posit ideas of what may happen in light of the recent overturn. The AT&T model bares many similarities to the Studio System model. We have a monopoly (or oligopoly) that was broken up by the US Government. Then there was a time of division; but slowly those once divested companies were bought up by the big company again, and in AT&T’s case, the original company. Full circle. What’s funny is that this parallel case study involves one of the likely players in this post-Paramount Decision world. By using the AT&T model, reason stands that a big company or two (maybe three) can and will buy up smaller companies to have a larger footprint, thus reducing competition. It happened the telephone world, it can happen in the film world. After being broken up, AT&T made many smart, seemingly benign moves in order to essentially become a phoenix that is greater than it was before its empire was broken up. 

What does this mean for studios and movie theatres? It simply means that it is very likely that a major company with deep pockets will purchase movie theatre chains. Simple as that. We have seen this before in the AT&T case study. But it won’t be Disney, Universal, or even Netflix buying the theatres, it will be AT&T, Amazon, Apple, or and/or Sony. Inarguably, the first three are some of the largest, wealthiest, and most influential companies in the world, with the latter having an incredibly diversified portfolio that includes technology and more; what better way to showcase your audiovisual technology than in movie theatres??? Each of these companies has the assets necessary to acquire AMC, CineWorld (Regal), Cobb, and even Cinemark. Interestingly, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, and Sony all have investments in film and tv production. AT&T owns WarnerMedia et al., Amazon operates Amazon Studios, Apple creates original content for Apple TV+, and Sony operates Sony Entertainment et al. It is unlikely that the US Government would permit any of these companies to buy up more than one of the major movie theatre chains, but we could easily see each of the four major movie theatre players getting bought up by corporate conglomerates. While there isn’t evidence to suggest that these four corporate giants would force audiences to go to one of their theatres to see one of their movies, it is entirely possible that those corporate giants would offer additional programming (maybe certain movies primarily released on streaming services) at their company owned movie theatres. Between original and licensed/distributed content, these movie theates, tied to media conglomerates that have major studio investments, may pack the theatres with so many movies that independent filmmakers will have to see alternate means of securing distribution, be that through streaming services, independent movie theatres, or or smaller specialized chains like Studio Movie Grill and Alamo Draft House, both of which are known for catering to cinephiles, including horror fans.

In a manner of speaking, what we are looking at here is a post-modern Studio System. You’d once again have the BIG FIVE (AT&T, Apple, Amazon, Disney, and Comcast) and the LITTLE THREE (Sony, Viacom/Paramount, and Netflix). These eight companies would control the media landscape. And there will be just enough competition that it avoids any antitrust lawsuits (until it doesn’t; that’s how this goes, if you haven’t figured it out), until history repeats itself again. This new studio system will flourish for decades, but then something will happen and the government will step in and break up the companies again, most likely resulting in selling of movie theatre chains or even more sobering, movie theatres become a shadow of their former selves. It is unlikely that movie theatres will completely go away, but their purpose and role in show business may be relegated to little more than a novelty. These studios may reimagine the movie star star system, film/tv/production related unions could lose their power because of the increasing number of employees (not contractors) at movie studios, and/or there could even be more theme parks as a means to generate quick revenue to funnel back into the studio model, much like Disney and Universal Parks and Resorts do for their parent companies. Lots of job creation may happen, but these will lack in the creative latitude that many filmmakers crave.

For many independent filmmakers, the fear of the fallout from the overturn of the Paramount Decision is reduced opportunities to secure distribution deals. But it’s not only the production talent that is concerned. Writers could be greatly impacted; because, in a more heavily vertically integrated system, writers will have far fewer outlets for purchasing or licensure of their screenplays. Disney is a good example of this. Disney rarely purchases screenplays from screenwriters; their common practice is to use in-house screenwriters or commission a writer to pen a screenplay. So, if you are not IN the Disney studio system, then your chances of selling or optioning your screenplay are minimal. Since Disney owns 20th Century Fox, then this same practice carries over into that branch as well. That said, Searchlight Pictures is still a production and distribution company to which independent filmmakers and screenwriters can submit work for purchase, licensing, etc. While Disney is the easy example here, this same practice could be said of any major studio. 

More vertical integration means larger companies in a world that is shrinking. This shrinking world could mean trouble for the aspiring filmmaker or screenwriter because of the lack of opportunities to make the transition from page to set to distribution. While this new world may make it more difficult for a screenwriter to sell a screenplay to a studio that is vertically integrated, the director will also face new challenges. Independent filmmakers will have to get their films bought or licensed by a major company in order to get the exposure needed to be able to develop a substantive career. Netflix has a history of being friendly to independent filmmakers (although it has more and more original programming), so an advantage to getting Netflix to buy or option your movie is that you may just be able to screen it at the Egyptian Theatre, which would greatly aid in qualifying for the Oscars or Golden Globes. 

While independent filmmakers may face increasing odds against them for theatrical distribution, this post-modern Studio System could create thousands of jobs in the industry. But you will create what the studio wants you to create, which may not necessarily be the stories that you want to tell. And amidst this possible creation of jobs may be a world with far less opportunity for equitable competition for that golden statue and audience eyes.

Ryan teaches film studies and screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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Christmas at Gaylord Palms 2018 review

Christmas has arrived at Gaylord Palms in Kissimmee near Disney World! The Gaylord resorts are well-known for their world class dining, entertainment, and luxurious rooms, Gaylord Palms presents its annual ICE event featuring the endearing Christmas classic A Christmas Story. In addition to the life-size exquisitely designed ice sculptures, Christmas at Gaylord Palms also offers guests fantastic shows, games, food, Christmas-themed drinks at the bar, a Cirque show, and gorgeous dancing lights display in the main atrium. There is no shortage of events and offerings to uplift your holiday spirits! Fortunately, I had the privilege of attending the media event for this highly anticipated celebration, and I am looking forward to sharing my experience with you in hopes that you make time for this most festive event to brighten all your holidays this season.

When attending an event at the Gaylord Palms, the best way to begin your evening is with a dining reservation at one of the award-winning restaurants. My friend Paula and I made reservations at Old Hickory Steakhouse to start Christmas at Gaylord Palms. I cannot recommend this restaurant enough. From the exemplary service to the steak grilled to medium rare perfection, this dining experience will enhance your Christmas at Gaylord Palms exponentially. Our server recommended bold pinot noir to pair with our center cut fillets along with creamy mashed potatoes and grilled mushrooms. With three atrium designs at the resort, you will get the sensation of dining outdoors in the cool air without the bugs and humidity. Some tips for planning you dining experience at Old Hickory: the meat and seafood sections are sold without accompanying side dishes, but you have the option to select family-style sides including many options from potatoes to mushrooms to vegetables and more. Whether you select a boldly seasoned steak or mouthwatering seafood, you will greatly enjoy and vividly remember your time at Old Hickory.

After dinner, we headed for the St. Augustine atrium to take in the Cirque show and dancing lights! Unfortunately, I misread the schedule and thought that checkin was from 7-8pm, so we missed Cirque. But on the plus side, that gives me incentive to return this season to enjoy the show. Ever since Disney pulled the plug on the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights in exchange for shallow map projection shows at Hollywood Studios, I make sure to visit all the dancing light shows in the area because that feeling of being looking at or being surrounded by choreographed displays of thousands or millions of lights cannot be replaced. There is a high degree of immersion, dimension that cannot be replicated by the projection of light onto a building. There are several different musical numbers for the lights, and each one takes full advantage of the space and creates Christmas splendor with each and every twinkle of each and every light dancing during the show.

In the lower level of the convention center, the Alpine Village awaits you! While the Cirque and dancing light shows are complimentary with your evening, the majority of the offerings for Christmas at Gaylord Palms are located in the Alpine Village, which requires additional admission. In this wintery village, you’ll find snow tubing, Santa’s snow throw, Mrs. Claus, the Sweet Shoppe, Christmas market, and the flagship attraction ICE featuring A Christmas Story. Because this was the media event, Gaylord Palms provided us with quite the spread of handcrafted sweets from the artisan chefs at the resort. After sampling the delicious treats that the resort so magnanimously provided for our enjoyment, we decided to try our hand at the snowball throwing midway game! Until I held a snowball in my hand, I would not have believed that was possible given the village is not kept below freezing. But sure enough, I received a bucket of snowballs to throw at the targets. I didn’t hit a’one. Perhaps you will have better luck!

Next to Santa’s Snow Throw is the snow tubing attraction. Up until now, no one had ventured down the slope. So, I decided to break the ice, snow to speak ;). Here’s a tip, in case the ride greeter neglects to tell you to pick up a tube on your way through the queue, pick up one! I literally walked past the greeter twice and they never told me to pickup a tube and neither did they hand one to me. So, thank you ride attendants at the top of the slope for accommodating me by giving me one. Once I slid down the snowy slope, then many more guests flocked over to the snow tubes! For those of us who live in Florida, this is a rare opportunity to have some snowy fun indoors! It is so much fun! So don’t miss out on the slopes in Alpine Village.

Next to the slopes is the Italian ice stand, but my friend Paula and I were still stuffed from dinner and the holiday treats that we had to turn down that offering. I will make it a point to get one when I return. Near the entrance to ICE and close to the Marketplace are Mrs. Claus house and the Sweet Shoppe. Both of these houses offer shows! With Mrs. Claus show being an hour long, we did not have time to enjoy that one, so it’s another offering I want to experience when I return. The show in the Sweet Shoppe wasn’t starting again for over a half hour, so we took this time to experience that movie that plays for 24-48hrs every year on a TV channel. A Christmas Story!.

Bring gloves! I always encourage guests to bring gloves because it is incredibly cold. However, as much as I preached to my friend to bring gloves, guess what I didn’t do? Bring gloves. Haha. Pretty much, my hands were completely numb by the time we passed THE END. When I say A Christmas Story, you likely have several individual scenes that instantly come to mind. Fortunately for you, each of those scenes are captured by the artisan ice sculptors. Only Hemingway could find the words to describe the beauty of the experience. Prior to entering the frigid exhibit, you get to learn about how the history of ice sculpting and how the team of sculptors create the amazing sculptures that successfully translate the iconic movie to live experience. Just before walking down the ramp into the arctic temperatures, you will be given a parka; however, I also encourage long pants and warm socks. From the moment you walk into the first room, you will be awestruck by the sheer size and beauty of the ice-tastic creations.  These are not just your average ice sculptures that you may find at weddings, galas, or even theme parks; these are quite literally life size representations of entire scenes (characters, setting props, and all) from A Christmas Story. And not just white or clear ice, these sculptures are in living color! As I walked through the flagship attraction at ICE, I was amazed at how effectively the movie was captured. I really did feel that I was watching the movie from start to finish. Since it’s a movie that also has some memorable lines of dialogue, there are signs with those quotable moments. Returning as the final display on the tour during the experience is the absolutely stunning ice nativity. I’ve seen a lot of still nativities in my day, but this one is always the most beautiful! You may even find yourself singing O Holy Night along with the background music.

Closing out our evening, Paula and I took our seats in the Sweets Shoppe for the live comedy show featuring a hilarious crossover between Babes in Toyland and The Nutcracker as told by two incredibly funny performers as the Sugarplum Fairy and Nutcracker. Highly interactive, I was reminded of the line from a Rocky Horror Picture Show live shadow cast when the live cast yells “this movie sucks without audience partici–” and Dr. Frank responds with “–pation.” Because the show itself is funny, but the entertainment factor is increased ten fold by engaging the performers and playing along. Although you can sometimes tell that an actor is or isn’t having fun in a movie, picking up on how much an actor in a live production is far more noticeable. And these two were having a blast! The Sugarplum Fairy and Nutcracker were genuinely interested in my enjoyment and truly displayed enthusiasm for their show. Do not miss this show. It’s only 20mins, and I imagine it will have multiple showings each evening. I love the addition of a comedy show to Christmas at Gaylord Palms! So much is stunning, inspirational, heartwarming, and more; but you know what, sometimes you just want to laugh too! And you will laugh a lot during this performance! The actors even asked me if I wanted to take a pic with them on stage. How incredibly nice of them! Do yourself a favor, and make time for the show. Oh yeah, don’t forget to say hi to the gingerbread man out front too.

Opening Friday, November 16th, Christmas at Gaylord Palms featuring ICE should definitely be on your list of events to attend this year. If you dine at one of the restaurants, your parking will be validated (and parking is not cheap). You may be familiar with A Christmas Story but you’ve never seen it like this.

Merry Christmas!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Theme Park or IP Park?

With all the recent, present, and future changes coming to the legacy theme parks of Central Florida and Southern California, are we witnessing the next evolution in theme parks? I’ve been tossing around the idea of exploring this trend, and those same feelings were echoed recently on the No Midnight Podcast (a Disney-centric podcast that unpacks history and discusses current happenings in the parks). After listening to the episode, it’s become clear that this anecdotal observation I’ve made is shared by others. As I love exploring the history of the parks from a scholarly perspective (as evident in my past articles and book), this is a topic that deserves consideration.

In order to truly explore this trend that some of us in the theme park blog and podcast communities have observed, it’s important to take a brief look at the development of the very concept of a theme park. And before you think that Disneyland was the first theme park concept, think again. Contrary to popular belief, Universal Studios Hollywood was the first to pioneer the idea of a theme park. More than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25. More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse guests into the magic behind the screen. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures. The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers through the still world famous studio tram tour.

Combining inspiration from what Laemmle began 40 years prior, visionary Walt Disney made the decision to create an entire land that would immerse guests into the world (or land) of Disney. More than an amusement park, Walt Disney set out to create a multi-dimensional experience complete with continuous coherent storytelling from the architecture to the attractions and restaurants themselves. Even before the park would open its doors in 1955, Walt Disney produced a television special that sought to energize enthusiasm for the groundbreaking concept that took the stories, settings, and characters from the screen and translated them to exist in the real world. Disneyland was so popular that Walt began to develop an idea that would forever change the theme park business forever. The “Florida Project,” as it was called, would eventually become Walt Disney World. Sadly, Walt passed away before the park would open, but Walt Disney World is the manifestation of Walt’s ultimate dream. Disneyland was first and is the park that Walt built, but Disney World is truly what Walt envisioned when he dreamt his innovative idea inspired by his imagination.

In the mid 20th century, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Busch Gardens parks, SeaWorld parks, and later in the 20th century Universal Studios Florida were all opened to eager crowds! Each of these parks had a distinct theme, a specific story into which guests were immersed. With the cases of Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks, the storytelling was also accompanied by a conservation message. Attractions were built that matched well with the theme of the respective land. It’s important to note that, for the most part, there was significant thought put into an attraction fitting into the design (architecture) of the land in order to never take the park guest out of the overarching theme of the area FIRST and the whether or not a particular intellectual property (IP) works in that land second. Make the attraction fit the theme, not retheme the area to match the attraction. Whereas I am oversimplifying this practice or concept, the point is to get you thinking of how theme parks processed new attractions for the longest time; that is, until Universal Studios Islands of Adventure redefined themed entertainment.

Entire volumes of articles could be written on how Islands of Adventure (IOA) redefined themed entertainment; but for the sake of argument, the impact will be streamlined. Prior to IOA, theme parks, including Disney and Universal, were largely built with theme first and properties second. Now, themed entertainment designers are busy taking major IPs, placing them in the park, and then rethemeing around it. Each land or area is themed to the attraction versus the attraction designed to fit the theme of the park area. But in doing so, does this negate the very concept of a theme park, traditionally speaking? What happens when the movie is no longer relevant?

Unlike the other theme parks, at the time, Universal’s IoA was different in that it took popular IPs with entire universes (or worlds) if you will, and built vast lands in which there are attractions based on the movies/books represented. Prior to this, the closest examples were Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios. But even with the two aforementioned examples, they weren’t concerned with lands of the movies, but integrating the movie properties into the backlot look and feel of the park. With Disney-MGM (now Hollywood Studios, until it changes again) and Universal Studios Florida, the theme was a combination of Hollywood and the magic of motion pictures. So individual movie or TV properties were included as part of the them park experience, and guests were prevued to studio audience opportunities or the ability to audition to be on a show (think Nickelodeon Studios). The theme was “the movies” or “Hollywood.” From the architecture, to street names, to real-life locations, both of these parks that incorporated different movies or TV shows into the layout and design. The location was largely Hollywood, but could include New York City, San Francisco, a canyon in Arizona, or Amity Island. The attractions were built into the existing landscape versus selecting a property then changing the environment to match the IP. As these “movie parks” have been moving away from the magic of moviemaking to more immersive experiential environments, the “theme” has been changing rapidly. One could draw the conclusion that the “theme” of these parks is now an anti-theme. An anti-theme in that there are a variety of experiences that do not exist within a themed landscape that connects them together.

The theme of Islands of Adventure was just that, islands of adventure. Each island around the lagoon was a different land inspired by a different IP. Personally, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and Seuss Landing are my favorite islands! Arguably, Jurassic Park was the centerpiece of the then-innovative concept as it was the biggest fandom represented. Today, that crown rests on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (since 2010). Not only was IoA the first to pioneer this concept of individual themes within the park, it was the first to create an immersive world in extreme detail. And it was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that completely changed the theme park game, rewrote the rules, and began the trend away from “theme” parks to IP parks. Instead of a collection of attractions around a shared theme (or collection of themes), now parks are trending toward a park that is a collection of disconnected IPs. While Magic Kingdom has the different themed lands, the overall theme of magic kingdom was largely fantasy and adventure not connected to any specific singular IP. And in each of the lands, there were attractions that fit the theme of the lands, some of which had movie counterparts. But the focus was not on the individual movies as much as it was the idea of escaping to, being transported to a world of high flying adventure or whimsical fantasy.

Ever since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Disney and Universal parks (mainly) but also joined by Movie Park Germany and MotionGate Dubai are principally concerned with attaching movie and literary IPs to the park for the guests. Reminiscent of the space race between the US and Russia of the mid 20th century, the race for theme parks is for IPs for the parks. This pattern continues into the film distribution and production company interests for new content–content that will lend itself to successful translation from screen to park. It’s more important than ever for media conglomerates and umbrella companies that have theme park and distribution interests to know what movies or entire franchises make for viable theme park lands and attractions. I cover this very topic in my study and book On the Convergence of Cinema and Theme Parks, which you can buy an Amazon! Just because a movie or entire franchise is popular, does not mean that it is material for a theme park. For more on that topic, checkout the book.

While building entire lands based upon a popularly established IP to create an immersive environment looks and sounds like a great idea to draw the enthusiastic crowds and significantly increase revenue, there is a darker side to this that will not be realized or observed for years down the road. With the more traditional theme park design, attractions can be changed out of the show buildings far more easily than having to retheme and rebuild an entire land. But why would thinking about the ability to change a land be important? Because it is not unreasonable to arrive at the conclusion that a particular IP may not continue to be popular after an IP has had its run. Although not as big as Star Wars or Harry Potter, the former A Bug’s Life is an example of the lengths a park has to go to to remove and rebuild. Razing to the ground and rebuilding is always more costly than building a’fresh. But this does not seem to detour the parks from moving from the traditional theme park concept to an IP park. A collection of IPs that a company either owns or licenses. In the concept of a collection of IPs, is there actually an over all theme? There appears to be more evidence to suggest that theme, in the traditional sense, is lost when focusing on attaching IPs.

With the continuing trend to focus on IP acquisition instead of original themes, it would appear that the traditional theme park may be dying in exchange for IP park. Take Disney’s Hollywood Studios for example. The theme was “Hollywood” or movie-making. What is the theme now? Well, to be honest, the answer that query is vague at best. You’ve Star Wars land on one side of the park, Toy Story in the middle, and a little bit of Hollywood in the front. No consistency in theme. With the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Aerosmith being licensed from CBS (Sony), and the facade of the Chinese Theatre licensed from TCL, the theme is NOT Disney IPs. Same with Universal Studios, the theme is not Universal IP because other than the first two installments, all others are Paramount. Not to mention that Simpsons is Fox. Even the headliner Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Warner Brothers (AT&T). Looking at the Disney and Universal parks, I am left in a state of confusion when attempting to understand the theme of the respective parks. So, since a consistent and coherent theme cannot be identified, I am left with the conclusion that there is no theme–just a collection of original and licensed IPs.

While many may not see the differences between the concepts of a theme and IP park because, on the surface, they both look indifferent from one another, the difference seems to be the story or the diegesis of the park, as a whole, from entry gate to back of the park. So, it’s not a matter of semantics. Going from IP to IP, the experience is disrupted, and reminds you that you have not actually been transported to any of these worlds. Part of what makes the traditional theme park a powerful conduit of creating an experiential continuous story is the ability for the park to consistently suspend your disbelief. To understand the difference a little better, think of it this way: the trending IP park concept is a series of “theme parks” joined together by a unifying gate. Instead of the overarching unifying theme that connects all the areas of the park together in one coherent, continuous story, the IP park is a concourse that takes you to different themed lands. So, the importance is not in the theming of the park as a whole, but in the individual lands within the gate. Think of it as a mall. A mall is a “single gate” structure (whether indoor or outdoor mall) that has many different stores. No two stores are the same (even if carrying similar products). The entryways and hallways/concourses are glorified conduits for transportation to and from the various anchor and supporting stores. That’s not unlike the IP park. Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, Toy Story, Pandora, and Star Wars lands are examples of your anchor stores with the other areas as supporting stores.

There is a magic that is lost in transitioning from the theme to IP park. Not that the newly emerging IP heavy lands are lacking in a great experiential factor–obviously, that is not the case–but the park as a whole demonstrates a perpetual identity confusion. If you cannot state the theme of a park in a single statement (much like the logline of a movie), then it is does not have a theme, but a collection of IPs with individual themes. Each of the IPs (whether original or licensed) are incredibly fun, immersive, and innovative, but just because you have a collection of IPs does not mean they make a theme park. More like a theme mall. Whatever the case, it appears that there is a trend away from the conventional theme park to the emerging IP park and any studio-based theme park is transitioning away from any connection to Hollywood or the magic of moviemaking. We are at a transitional stage in themed entertainment, and we will see an increasing number of separate IPs housed around a series of concourses to each experience.\

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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You’ve Got a Friend in Toy Story Land

Now you can hang with Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang from Andy’s toy chest at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Opening at the end of June, this is the newest expansion at Hollywood Studios located behind the former Pixar Place. This colorful land is sure to make you smile and wax nostalgic. Not only do you get to enjoy the company of Andy’s toys, but you’ll also find many toys, craft supplies, board games, and more from your childhood in and around the area. It was unfortunately raining when my friend and I went, but we still had a great time! The rain certainly didn’t put a damper on our fun. So many wonderful details in the atmospheric design of Toy Story Land. Incidentally, you also get some great views of the progress on Galaxy’s Edge!

When entering Toy Story Land, you are greeted by Woody! You’ll definitely want to stop by for a photo. When you pass through the gateway to this land of toys, you’ll be shrunk down to toy size in order to fully enjoy all that Andy’s toy box has to offer. The element that stands out to me more than anything is the colorful nature of everything. Even on the overcast, dreary day that we were having, the colors brightened up the land. Between the giant footprints and towering privacy fence, it truly feels like you are one of Andy’s toys.

Unlike when the land first opened at the end of June, the wait times in the queues for Alien Swirling Saucers and Slinky Dog Dash are considerably less. Fortunately, the rainy weather contributed to the even lower than typical wait times while I was there. The main attraction (or E Ticket attraction for Disney enthusiasts) is the family roller coaster Slinky Dog Dash. Just to put the experience into perspective, the coaster falls somewhere between Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom and Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa. My favorite part of the Slinky Dog coaster is the launch! Not nearly as intense as Cheetah Hunt, but quite enjoyable! In terms of duration, it lasts longer than typical family coasters. I was also impressed by the guest cycle time. The cast members were on their A game with loading and unloading park guests. Although we waited in queue for about one hour, the line was consistently moving. You’ll notice there are ceiling fans throughout the queue and plenty to look at. My friend Brittany and I both immensely enjoyed Slinky Dog and felt it was worth the hour we waited.

Woodys Lunch Box is a window (quick service) restaurant in Toy Story Land, and although the menu has changed since opening day, there is still a sufficient variety for a quick meal. Check out the menu here!

Slink Dog Dash isn’t the only new attraction in Toy Story Land. You can experience some swirling fun with the aliens from Pizza Planet at Alien Swirling Saucers. In this glorified “tea cup” attraction, you and your friend board a flying saucer to whirl through the universe. Unlike Alice’s Magic Tea Cups, you have no control over how fast you spin as your flying saucer is connected to the mother ship. Still, it’s a cute, fun ride that was a need for Hollywood Studios.

Make Toy Story Land a must-do on your next Disney trip! Now that the summer is winding down, you’ll probably benefit from shorter wait times in this brand new area. With the rain, I was unable to experience any of the character meet and greets, but I did see green army men walking about. Hopefully next time, I’ll get a chance to say hi to Woody and the gang.

OutFoxed: Exploring the Effects of the Disney-Fox Acquisition

The Simpsons predicted it nearly twenty years ago, but it’s now a reality. Last week Comcast (parent company to NBC Universal) conceded victory to The Walt Disney Company for the acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox. This bidding war has been closely followed over the months, however, the war has ended and to the victor go the spoils. Today, shareholders approved the acquisition. While the broadcast channel, news, and sports will be absorbed by NewsCorp, most of the Cable/TV, Hulu, and cinema IPs will now be owned by Mickey Mouse including American Horror StoryX-MenFamily Guy, Alien, Halloween, and Deadpool, several cable/satellite channels, and more. While Disney theme park enthusiasts and MCU fanboys and girls out there are, by in large, celebrating this news, there is a lot more at stake that may alter the landscape of cinema and theme parks. Furthermore, the recent AT&T-TimeWarner and Disney-Fox deals may affect the rate at which independent filmmakers can secure distribution for their films or sell/option screenplays to producers. The world of media and entertainment is rapidly changing, but all these changes may not be for the betterment of society.

It’s not everyday that a major news story falls within my niche area of expertise on media conglomerates with major investments in themed entertainment and cinema, but this is definitely one that does. During graduate school at the preeminent University of South Florida, I studied the convergence of cinema and theme parks. This empirical study (available on Amazon) analyzed the relationship between motion pictures and theme parks/attractions as it pertained to the media holdings companies that make decisions that affect both their theme park and cinema divisions. A predictable model for creative design was produced for companies that have investments in both, are the licenser, or the licensee. Although my areas of expertise on theme park and cinema studies can be pulled on often when talking about one and/or the other, this story gets to the heart of my thesis because we are dealing with not only two, but three companies. Three? Yes. Disney and Fox are obvious, but NBC Universal may also be effected since it licenses Marvel (X-Men and Fantastic 4) and Fox (American Horror Story, Simpsons, and more) IPs for its parks. Spiderman belongs to Sony, but we won’t get that deep into this issue. With lots of IPs moving ownership and with a mostly vertically integrated company absorbing a more horizontally integrated company, there are positive and negative effects that concern producers, screenwriters, attraction designers, and others in motion picture, “television,” live entertainment, and theme parks. And not only those of us who work in showbusiness (live themed/family entertainment, here), but the fans too.

Corporate monopoly is the enemy of creativity and variety. This deal, which is one of the biggest film/media deals ever, has far reaching effects upon the industry. Some may even argue that it has danger written all over it. If there wasn’t already a rigid oligopoly amongst the studio/distribution companies, there will be now. The lion’s share of the cinematic marketplace is now controlled by Disney, TimeWarner (Warner Bros.), and Comcast (Universal), with Sony (Columbia) and Viacom (Paramount) bringing up the rear. Five. That’s right. Five companies essentially determine the future of the industry, and control the majority of the motion pictures released in theaters and the content on cable television (and the streaming services that access it). It’s a mirror image of the 1940s. Instead of The Big Five and The Little Three, we have The BIG Three and the Little Two. In the mid-20th century when the U.S. government cited anti-trust issues with the vertically structured Hollywood entertainment business model, the forced the studios to divest themselves of movie theatres, longterm talent contracts, and more in order to level the playing field for competition and creativity to thrive. The decision to end the process of being vertically integrated is known as The Paramount Decision (U.S. vs Paramount Pictures, 1948). From the big screen to the small screen, from screen to theme park, you will notice the effects of this merger. When one company controls the majority of any marketplace, it usually spells disaster for the consumer; furthermore, it means that there will be a primary gatekeeper in future artists getting his or her work out there.

Let’s explore The Paramount Decision [(U.S. V. PARAMOUNT PICTURES, INC., 334 U.S. 131 (1948)] a little more. Firstly, prior to the Paramount Decision, the motion picture industry was controlled by a few companies. Secondly, the studio owned the facilities, production companies, staff (under long-term contracts), the films themselves, distribution channels, and the movie theaters. When the studios were growing so large that they began infringing upon the free marketplace, the US Government forced the (then) eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking (meaning, films would now be sold on an individual basis), divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (though, this would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization. There are many similarities between the situation in the late 1940s and today. In fact, it’s a little worse today because the industry is mostly controlled by five (instead of eight) companies, and these companies have heavy investments in streaming and television programming.

Essentially, the number of gatekeepers is shrinking. The streaming service landscape is also changing because Disney’s acquisition of Fox means that Disney now has the controlling share of the streaming giant Hulu. It’s entirely probable that independent production companies and filmmakers will find it more difficult to get their content out to the public on a well-known platform. Fortunately, Amazon still allows for self-publication but Disney’s control of Hulu will probably see fewer indie films added in the future. The media conglomerates are growing so large that if you’re not in their circle, it will be increasingly difficult to secure a distribution deal for theatrical or streaming. For many, it will feel like there are only 2-3 primary companies controlling the majority of programming on TV and a few more companies controlling a large portion of the movies that get released in movie theaters. Independent filmmakers will have to hustle and work exponentially smarter to navigate the film marketplace. It may get to the point that theatrical releases are no longer realistic or viable for small to medium sized companies because of the stiff competition for the few massive media giants pumping out blockbuster after blockbuster. Conventions like the American Film Market and companies like Distribber will become even more important for indie filmmakers.

The problem with the current state of capitalism in the United States isn’t worries of monopolies but oligopolies (monopolistic practices between a few firms that essentially control a market). Certainly the state of the film industry already lends itself to an oligopoly because of the few companies; but the buyout of 21st Century Fox by The Walt Disney Company greatly increases this issue of a blatant oligopoly. If a monopolist (in many other industries) did what Disney has done, neither the public nor the government would stand for it; but because it’s Disney, and because it’s the film industry, most of the general public is unaware of the negative consequences of such a buyout and therefore only focus on the X-Men being added to the MCU and the trademark trumpet fanfare preceding the opening title sequence of the Star Wars movies once again. Technically speaking, oligopolies are not illegal nor is monopolistic competition; however, this can be a slippery slope towards stifling creativity or making it increasingly difficult to break into any given industry as a newly emerging competitor. Incidentally, monopolistic competition causes the variety or level of differentiation of similar products (i.e. moves and TV shows) to become less heterogeneous and nearly come across as homogenous.

When a strong oligopoly exists within a specialized industry (for our purposes, media & entertainment), one of the side effects is a concept known as parallel exclusion. This concept can be described as the collective efforts of the few industry leaders who essentially act as the main gatekeepers to prevent or make it difficult for would-be newcomers to enter the arena. Parallel exclusion is nothing new, and has been in the news as recently as the last 2-3 decades within the airline and credit card industries. Throughout the eighties and nineties, Visa and MasterCard essentially blacklisted any bank that set out to do business with AmEx. Thankfully, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in when the manner in which the exclusionary rules were written crossed legal, fair trade boundaries. There were similar issues within the airline industry as well. When a few companies control the content or services in the marketplace, antitrust issues are raised

Although we are not technically facing a monopoly with the Disney-Fox acquisition, we are looking at an abuse of power that may lead to anticompetitive conduct. If nothing else, the consumer should be worried about having fewer options for programming. Not that the number of programs or movies will shrink, but there will be little difference between what is released under the Disney banner and the Fox name (if it’s still even called that). In a deal like this, it’s the consumer who gets the short end of the stick. Examples of this may be found in future Simpsons and Family Guy episodes. One of the consistently running lines of jokes are at the expense of The Walt Disney Company. Jabs at Disney can also be found in Deadpool. It will not surprise me that the humor of Simpsons, Family Guy, and Deadpool will change to no longer include jokes at the expense of the hand that now feeds them. If, through contract negotiations, shows and movies like these moved to a different company, then the humor that we have come to know and love may largely be unaffected. As it stands, we will likely see fewer (if any at all) Disney jokes in the aforementioned. These are just examples of the larger problem a few companies controlling the majority of media and entertainment content. The consumer would be wise to the possibility of a lack of competition between brands thus mitigating innovation, variety, and creativity. Innovation is often the product of healthy competition in a free marketplace just as necessity is the mother of invention.

Because the Walt Disney Company is primarily focussed on producing the biggest movies possible (after all, they made the majority of the highest grossing films last year and this), the mid-budget dramas and comedies that used to thrive in Hollywood–you know, the ones that cause you to cry and laugh–could dwindle in number–there now may be little room for them to make their respective ways into theaters with Disney controlling a significant percentage of the industry. Of course, Disney is not alone. With the recent acquisition of TimeWarner by AT&T, both Disney and AT&T are now at the top of the food chain, followed closely by Comcast and then the rest of the media companies who are small in comparison. What we are essentially talking about here are entertainment corporate monoliths, the likes of which, have never been seen before. There is one key difference in the Disney-Fox and AT&T-TimeWarner deals, and one that gives AT&T a slight advantage over Disney and deeper pockets. Disney does not own the hardware in the ground that serves as the conduit for your internet service provider (or ISP) but AT&T does. Not only does AT&T control a huge share of the media/entertainment marketplace, but it also owns a significant share of the technology that brings entertainment content to your home and mobile devices including cable, satellite services, and wireless services. Issues of net neutrality are more important now than ever because the pool of competition is shrinking in number but growing in sheer size.

Cinema and TV are not the only arms of the media and entertainment industry that will feel the effects. Major theme parks, the cash cows of media conglomerates, will change as well. How exactly is this deal going to effect the theme park industry? The short answer is, it is too early to tell; however, we can explore this topic nevertheless. If you’ve been to Universal Orlando resort, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that Marvel and the X-Men have an entire island AND the Simpsons is a land in and of itself. While I am not aware of the license agreement details with both IPs, I can tell you that typically if the ownership of an IP changes hands during the lifetime of license agreement, the agreement is grandfathered in for the length of time that is left in the contract. There are sometimes caveats to that. Often a company that holds the license (for purposes of our example)–a license that belongs to someone different than the original licenser–for a theme park attraction, the licensee cannot make any significant modifications to the look, add to the established attractions, or allow the image to fall into disrepair. If significant changes are made to the look or if the attraction falls into disrepair or if additions are made under the old agreement without consent from the new licenser, the agreement could be nullified. There is a lot more to copyright and IP law than what I’ve outlined, but I wanted to hit some main points on this issue but keep it as simplified as possible. Universal Parks may have to rebrand existing Marvel and Fox attractions as another IP within its library or license an IP from Paramount, MGM, Sony, or another media conglomerate. Presently, the licensing agreement between Universal and now Disney-Fox (Marvel, etc), should stand for now. Regarding the addition of new IPs as replacements, fortunately, DreamWorks and Nintendo give NBC-Universal plenty of latitude for creativity.

Suffice it to say, it is reasonable to conclude that Universal Parks will have to eventually remove the Marvel and Fox properties from the parks because not being able to significantly modify or add to the offerings will become too burdensome. Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights will likely also see some changes in the future because it may become more difficult to license Fox properties for houses and scare zones as Universal and Disney are direct competitors in themed entertainment. This includes American Horror Story, Alien, Predator, and Halloween. In terms of how Disney parks will benefit after this deal, the theme park division will save money on Pandora: the World of Avatar because it will no longer need to be licensed from Fox because Disney now owns the Avatar movies. Eventually, a significant Marvel presence will be felt at Disney World and any loose ends in the ownership of Star Wars will be nullified because Disney now owns the original trilogy, and not just the distribution rights. The ability to enjoy shadow casts of the iconic cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show may also be effected because it is not unrealistic to think that Disney may crack down on RHPS troops around the country or make the licensing fees so high that many troops may not be able to afford to continue with the live performances. These weekly or monthly performances of troops around the country are an important part of the visual and performing arts. Speaking of which, if you’re in the Orlando area, checkout the Rich Weirdos at Universal Studios CityWalk and if you’re in Tampa, checkout Hell on Heels at the Villagio Cinema and Bar.

While the full effects of the recent mega media deals won’t be felt for a while, it is important to be aware of how acquisitions can effect cinema, TV, theme parks, and independent filmmakers. Corporate oligopoly is a slippery slope that can lead to anticompetitive conduct, fewer options, and become the enemy of creativity and variety.