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Willow Disney plus.jpg

The Disney Vault Is Back for the Streaming Age and It’s Worse Than Ever

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | May 24, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | May 24, 2023 |

Willow Disney plus.jpg

With the advent of the streaming age, audiences were given a radical promise: You would never have to worry about your favourite films or series being unavailable. Gone were the days of limited releases and inaccessibility. Now, we were told, you would be able to access unlimited entertainment with a click of your remote. Over a century of artistic output, the very history of the medium of cinema, would be open to you. Just pay your subscription fee and you’ll have it all. Even in an industry defined by lies, this was an egregiously major one.

This obviously didn’t happen. Indeed, it feels as though our options are more limited than ever. The cable package model has been recreated beat for beat with multiple streaming platform subscriptions, except it’s more expensive. Corporate giants who previously offered decades’ worth of films and series and oddities are now ‘streamlining’ their content, which is a buzzword for ‘giving you less for more.’ HBO Max already stripped away various series, many of which are not available to watch elsewhere. Netflix has dropped a number of its own original shows, including one of its first series, Hemlock Grove. Last week, Disney+ announced that a glut of its original films and shows, such as Willow, Y: The Last Man, and The Mysterious Benedict Society, would soon be pulled from its service.

This decision from Disney in particular felt like a slap in the face. Doing this during a writers’ strike, where the dismal residuals offered from streaming is a major issue at play, seemed pointed. Various showrunners and writers noted the pain of this decision, which notably seemed to sideline a hell of a lot of diverse projects on the platform.

The Disney Vault didn’t exist, obviously. It was a marketing tactic, one of the most successful in the company’s history. The company had long offered regular theatrical re-releases of its classic animated films, which kept the brand strong and brought in reliable grosses even when newer stuff wasn’t cutting it. Starting with the reissue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1944, which raised crucial revenue for the company during World War II, Disney made this a tradition well into the 1980s. By that point, the home video market had dominated the landscape. Many studios worried that putting their films on VHS would cheapen their brand or cut into cinema profits, but then E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial sold over 15 million copies in America. Disney saw good times with its home release of Cinderella in 1988, breaking sales records and becoming, at the time, the best-selling VHS title ever. But, like their cinematic re-releases, they couldn’t allow this product to remain available forever. Thus, they went back in the vault after a limited time on shelves.

The company has always claimed that the vault was a way for them to control their market but also keep the films fresh for new generations. That’s never rang true. I remember watching Disney videos as a kid and seeing ads for new releases with the warning that, if we didn’t get them soon, they’d go back in the vault forever. It sure puts the fear in a child to pressure their parents into buying up these films as soon as possible, right? This forced limited availability led to not only a market for bootleg VHS and DVDs, but a major increase in the collectibles world. Say what you want about the ruthless efficiency of Disney, but they’re the kings of this business for a reason.

Disney+ was supposed to be the end of the vault. Finally, you could watch not only those iconic classics but literally everything under the banner of the House of Mouse. A monthly fee allowed you to watch their historic filmography, on top of a mountain of options that covered nearly every area of the company’s output. And that’s a lot, given how much they’ve made, acquired, and remade. Disney’s CEO Bob Iger even noted in 2019 that the opening of this vault would mean the entire concept was all but retired. So, why are they suddenly dropping so many things from their slate? Why spend all that money on a beautiful TV series like Willow or a sensitive teen drama like Stargirl, only to toss them aside like a used tissue?

It’s not simply that the industry is bringing back its old format of false exclusivity: they’ve made it far crueler towards the storytellers and workers who made those works in the first place. It takes years, sometimes longer, to get a movie made. You have to go through so many levels of bureaucratic bullshit, check so many boxes, just to get your script seen. It’s a miracle when a film is completed and distributed. Imagine dealing with that, making something you’re incredibly proud of, only to have the studio hit ‘delete’ with barely a second glance. Not only is your art gone, it’s unavailable to the world forever now, unless you pirated it. Then, to rub salt in the wound, the trivial residuals you would have earned have been erased. Disney is seeing major profits. In March 2023, it was reported that the company made $28.739 billion over the previous twelve months, an 11.01% increase year-over-year. Yet they’ve no money for the people who helped to stuff their pockets? They don’t even have the decency to acknowledge said work. The vault has been reopened, but now there’s an incinerator on the other side of the door.

It’s long been obvious that Hollywood has little interest in its own historic preservation. The reason that the vast majority of silent films are missing is because the studios just discarded or intentionally destroyed them because they were seen as worthless. There are so many films, including ones of immense historical and cultural importance, that have either never received an at-home release or haven’t been given one since the days of VHS. The 2008 fire at Universal Studios Hollywood was said to have destroyed between 180 and 175,000 master tapes of some of the best-selling musicians in the world. The digital era promised us that those days were over, but history does have a habit of repeating itself.

Capitalism has never prioritized the preservation of art for its own sake, or celebration of a medium’s cultural import. Disney is but one culprit of this crime, endlessly recycling its biggest works for a ceaseless assembly line of content that views basic watchability as an unnecessary quirk. In 2019, Matt Zoller Seitz noted in a piece for Vulture that Disney was quietly removing classic Fox movies they’d acquired from their theatrical rotation and placing them in that dang vault. They didn’t suddenly decide to put legendary titles from that studio on Disney+ or invest in at-home releases. They’re just languishing in a metaphorical box, another pile of #content to be left to rot unless it becomes wildly profitable for them to do otherwise.

Hollywood is driven by venture capitalists’ fetish for infinite growth, a faulty business model that was always doomed to fail and has left a trail of broken companies at its feet. ‘Pivot to Video’ was built on a lie that killed entire industries. Buzzfeed is replacing its journalists with AI. The WGA is having to plead with studios to not replace writers with plagiarism machines. Tens of billions of dollars of profit is not enough for these studios. Disney spent decades lobbying for changes to public domain, fiddling with a wider system of distribution to ensure audiences begged for the scraps they were generous enough to dole out. Now, they’re taking away even that, and they expect people to fall in line. It’s times like this when you wonder if piracy has full artistic and financial justification. What else are you supposed to do when the big conglomerate makes it literally impossible to watch something legally? When you slam the doors shut on the vault, don’t be surprised when someone brings dynamite to the table.