Disney's Bullying Tactics Against the Press Failed

After the company barred Los Angeles Times journalists from its movie screenings, the film-critic community united to push back.

Fireworks over the main castle at Shanghai Disneyland Park

The Walt Disney Company is a juggernaut that delivers the kind of product people often (somewhat facetiously) call “critic-proof.” Star Wars, Marvel superhero movies, Pixar films, Frozen—these are projects that seem almost guaranteed to succeed whenever they hit theaters. But a recent clash between Disney and the Los Angeles Times, one that spilled over into a brief national critical boycott, proved that theory a little misguided. The bad publicity that came with Disney’s strong-arming of the press was something even one of the most powerful film companies in the world wanted to avoid.

Disney’s battle with the L.A. Times started over a series of investigative stories published in September about the company’s relationship with the city of Anaheim, which is home to Disneyland. The Times dug into Disney’s impact on local elections and the subsidies and tax rebates it had extracted from the city. Disney accused the paper of displaying a “complete disregard for basic journalistic standards” and decreed that L.A. Times journalists would be barred from seeing its movies at advance screenings—a fact that became public when the paper published an explanation last Friday. Within days, the company relented, announcing Tuesday in a statement to The New York Times that it would end the ban.

Private critics screenings are, of course, held at the pleasure of the company, but other journalists objected to Disney using that privilege as a cudgel against a newspaper simply for reporting a story. For days, though, the company held firm. “Despite our sharing numerous indisputable facts with the reporter, several editors, and the publisher over many months, the [L.A.] Times moved forward with a biased and inaccurate series,” Disney added in a follow-up to its original statement. The L.A. Times disputed this account, stating that Disney had never asked for a correction, and said its critics would continue to cover the studio’s films after viewing them at a public screening.

Disney’s approach to the issue seemed poorly planned from the beginning. By making such a pointed public statement, the company drew national attention to the L.A. Times’s Anaheim reporting—simply to keep a few critics from seeing its films early. There’s a general principle that critics should be able to see films with enough time to give them real consideration—and Disney was working to erode that principle. It’s no surprise that Disney immediately attracted the ire of film writers around the country, whose reviews often contribute to the buzz that has helped buoy the Marvel and Star Wars franchises in recent years.

On Monday, four of the country’s largest critics groups—the New York Film Critics Circle (of which, full disclosure, I am a member), the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics, and the Boston Society of Film Critics—issued a joint statement that they would exclude all Disney films from their end-of-year awards until the company lifted its screening ban on the L.A. Times. Though Disney films are not often lavished with such attention from critic groups, movies like Coco (coming out November 22) certainly would be in the running for their animated-feature honors.

Beyond that, the show of solidarity attracted support from major directors, including Ava DuVernay, who tweeted that she was “standing with” critics. DuVernay is helming of one of Disney’s biggest 2018 projects, the adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, due out in March. Her tweet signaled the company would face a growing problem if it did not address the issue, which could bubble back into the news throughout awards season (as each of these critics groups announced their honorees) and all the way into next year.

Though Disney’s action against the L.A. Times was an obvious show of force, it was an unsustainable one. The newspaper is among the most widely circulated in the country, and its relationship with Disney is two-way—the studio wants coverage, and the Times wants access for its entertainment journalists. Plus, in what appeared to be another show of solidarity, The New York Times said in a statement Tuesday that it would also boycott Disney screenings: “A powerful company punishing a news organization for a story they do not like is meant to have a chilling effect. This is a dangerous precedent and not at all in the public interest.”

Less than a day after the united critical backlash began, Disney relented. “We’ve had productive discussions with the newly installed leadership at the Los Angeles Times regarding our specific concerns, and as a result, we’ve agreed to restore access to advance screenings for their film critics,” Disney said. With that, the critics groups’ ban will be lifted, and the issue should be considered settled. Beyond the lesson learned about such public bullying tactics, the message of the pushback should be clear—that even behemoths like Disney can be vulnerable to bad press.