The controversy over Disney blacklisting the LA Times, explained

Disney retaliated against the LA Times for reporting it didn’t like. The implications are huge.

As reviews of Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok began rolling out in advance of the movie’s November 3 release, a review from one news outlet in particular — the Los Angeles Times — was glaringly absent. And its editors didn’t hold back in explaining why.

In a simple “note to readers,” published November 3, the newspaper explained that it could not review Thor: Ragnarok prior to the film’s release — nor include it or the highly anticipated Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi in its annual entertainment Holiday Preview. The reason, the note said, is that Disney (which owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm) had barred LA Times critics from attending advanced press screenings of both movies — and, in fact, any Disney movies — in response to “unfair coverage.” (LA Times film critic Justin Chang only saw and reviewed Thor: Ragnarok once it was released to the public.)

As LA Times writer Glenn Whipp explained on Twitter, the “unfair coverage” in question was a scathing two-part series published in late September that investigated Disney’s fraught business ties in Anaheim, California, home of the company’s Disneyland theme park. Disney’s displeasure with the LA Times’s reporting of this story took the form of a statement essentially blacklisting the entire paper from interviews and screenings related to any of its many properties, until the paper “adhere[s] to balanced reporting in the future.”

Four days after Disney issued the ban — and barely six hours after several critics groups banded together to condemn it — the company announced that it would lift its restrictions after having “productive discussions with the newly installed leadership at The Los Angeles Times regarding our specific concerns.”

Neither Disney nor its CEO Bob Iger explained why or how the LA Times’s Anaheim report was as “biased and inaccurate” as the company now claims. Even after lifting the ban, Disney has still has not publicly asked for a retraction of the Anaheim story, nor issued any corrections on the content of the report itself. The company’s first statement merely cited an Orange County Register op-ed that calls the LA Times report “a hit piece”; it appeared to stop just short of calling the LA Times “fake news.”

Criticism of Disney’s behavior, especially from critics and the press, was swift and fierce.

On the morning of November 7, four major critics organizations — the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Boston Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics — collectively stated that they voted to exclude Disney’s films from consideration for their respective annual honors and awards until it lifted the LA Times ban, which the organizations called “antithetical to the principles of a free press.” The Toronto Film Critics Association followed with a statement of their own condemning Disney’s action, as did the Television Critics Association. (Note: Vox film writer Alissa Wilkinson voted in favor of the measure as a member of the NYFCC; Vox critic-at-large Todd VanDerWerff is on the TCA board, and writer Caroline Framke is a TCA member.)

Meanwhile, some news outlets and critics — including The A.V. Club, Flavorwire, the Boston Globe, and Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg — said they wouldn’t attend Disney’s advanced press screenings in an act of solidarity with the LA Times’s staff. Less than an hour before Disney lifted its ban, the New York Times also issued a statement confirming it will not go to preview screenings “until access is restored to the Los Angeles Times”:

There were even some writers and directors joining the swelling protest, like The Deuce creator David Simon and Ava Duvernay, whose big-budget Disney film A Wrinkle in Time is due out in March.

Ironically, Disney’s decision to blacklist the LA Times and the ensuing fallout likely drew more attention to the articles the company disagrees with than they would have received if the company said nothing at all.

Even though Disney has since lifted the ban, that shouldn’t detract from the frightening fact of the matter, which is that a powerful company took issue with reporting on its business dealings by blacklisting the news outlet that dared do it. What may look like a petty dispute over whether critics should get advance access is, in fact, a pretty chilling sign of the lengths Disney is willing to go to when it feels threatened. After all, the report that so offended Disney wasn’t an entertainment story at all — but Disney knew that’s where it could exert its power to punish the newspaper for publishing it.

Here’s why Disney’s decision to blacklist LA Times critics mattered, and the repercussions it could have in the entertainment industry and beyond.

Banning a news outlet’s access to Disney properties means banning access to many, many different properties

 Star Wars/Twitter
Have you heard of a little thing called Star Wars?

Most people associate Disney with animated films like Moana, which are produced under the company’s Walt Disney Animation Studios banner. But Disney’s reach is much more vast than the average moviegoer might realize. Here are some familiar entertainment properties that fall under the company’s conglomerate umbrella:

  • Marvel Entertainment, LLC — including Marvel Studios, among many other properties and brands — is a wholly owned Disney subsidiary, which is why the company retaliated against the LA Times by blocking its critics from press screenings of Thor: Ragnarok.
  • Lucasfilm, home of the Star Wars universe, was acquired by Disney in 2012. The studio’s next major release is Star Wars: Episode VII – The Last Jedi, which arrives in theaters on December 15. (Note: 20th Century Fox retains certain distribution rights to the first two trilogies of Star Wars films.)
  • Pixar is one of several animation studios that are owned by Disney. The studio’s next film, Coco, opens on November 21.
  • Through its ownership of the Disney–ABC Television Group and the Walt Disney Television production company, Disney company owns a number of TV networks and dozens of shows, including Grey’s Anatomy, Modern Family, Dancing With the Stars, The Bachelor, Black-ish, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and TV’s newest number one hit The Good Doctor. Networks that fall under the Disney umbrella include ABC, Freeform (formerly ABC Family), the Disney Channel, Disney Junior, and Disney XD, among others. LA Times journalists’ access to Disney–ABC’s press website — where they can typically access information about programming as well as advanced press screeners of individual episodes — was revoked as part of Disney’s retaliatory action against the newspaper.
  • Disney owns an 80 percent stake in ESPN and its many related brands.
  • Disney and the Hearst Corporation each have 50 percent ownership of A&E Networks, which includes A&E, the History Channel, and Lifetime.
  • Disney owns a 30 percent stake (along with NBC, 21st Century Fox, and Time Warner Cable) in Hulu, which both streams shows from those networks and creates its own original programming, including the Emmy-award winning drama The Handmaid’s Tale.

Thus, Disney’s blacklist of the LA Times wasn’t just about barring the paper’s critics from screening Thor or Star Wars prior to the films’ release. By issuing a vague statement that restricts the LA Times’s access to all of its properties, the company made it clear just how far it’s willing to go in order to retaliate against unflattering reporting on its business dealings.

Why advanced press screenings matter for both critics and the films they review

Most films are screened in advance of their release for journalists and film critics, usually at least a few days before release. These advanced press screenings are typically organized by a film’s studio or distributor, and they are invitation-only.

Such screenings serve several purposes, many of which are mutually beneficial to both the studio and the press who cover the studio’s releases. For journalists planning to interview a film’s director or actors, they are a necessary part of preparing for the conversation. For critics, being able to see a film prior to its release is what allows them to write and publish a review before the film hits theaters, which helps their readers decide whether they’d like to see it. (Often, studios will place an “embargo” on reviews of a given film until a specified time of their choosing; when that embargo is “lifted” can range from a few hours to several weeks before the film’s first public screenings.)

And from the studios’ perspective, advanced press screenings are an important part of the movie release process. There are two main reasons for this: One is that good early reviews help to generate the all-important “buzz,” encouraging potential ticket buyers to get excited about the film and providing pull quotes from critics that can be used on posters, in advertising, and in trailers.

The other reason has to do with the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, which has become steadily more significant over the past few years, particularly since its acquisition by the movie ticket-selling website Fandango. While there is no simple link between a high Rotten Tomatoes score and ticket sales, it’s certainly true that a good Rotten Tomatoes score is significant achievement in the eyes of the studio; as the Washington Post noted going into Thor: Ragnarok’s opening weekend, the film was the best-reviewed of Marvel’s films to date, which could implicitly nudge would-be ticket buyers to get down to the multiplex.

Being able to tally a Rotten Tomatoes score, however, depends entirely on when the critics’ reviews become available. Studios sometimes try to game the system by holding extra early screenings for a select group of reviewers whose opinions they suspect will be favorable. Or, they’ll try to stave off a bad Rotten Tomatoes score by embargoing reviews until a few hours before a film’s debut, hoping to rack up as many advanced ticket sales as possible from those who will buy them without first reading what critics have to say.

When Disney blocked LA Times critics and journalists from attended advanced press screenings for Thor: Ragnarok, the paper still ran a review of the film after its critic Justin Chang attended a public screening. But that meant Chang’s review couldn’t run until the movie was already in theaters — not to mention several weeks after its embargo was lifted (in October) and most other major outlets and well-known critics had published an assessment the film. Any LA Times readers looking for the paper’s early coverage of Thor couldn’t find any, because it didn’t exist.

The LA Times is an influential newspaper, but one review can’t sink a movie, so Disney’s move against the paper may seem relatively small. But as more critics and news outlets showed solidarity with the LA Times by vowing to not attend advanced press screenings or publishing early reviews, one of the potential repercussions of the ban became clear: Fewer critics at advance screenings would mean fewer quotes and Rotten Tomatoes scores available to the studio prior to opening weekend. (For a wide-release film to achieve “Certified Fresh” standing at Rotten Tomatoes, for instance, it needs at least 80 reviews from critics, five of whom must be designated by Rotten Tomatoes as “top critics.”)

Of course, there was little chance of every review being held until opening weekend in solidarity with the LA Times, and Disney probably knew it. It also knows that in the current journalistic climate, newspapers and websites depend on traffic (and thus advertising) to generate revenue. Early reviews, and the increased visibility that comes with the resulting higher Google ranking, lead to an uptick in traffic. By withholding access from the LA Times, Disney attempted to undercut their traffic, which cuts into the Times’s competitiveness with other outlets publishing early reviews and hurts the paper’s revenue, and by extension, its journalists.

In short, Disney tried to hurt the LA Times financially to retaliate for how it was covered in a series of investigative articles.

A similar situation existed for TV critics and journalists, who frequently receive access to a number of episodes of an upcoming TV show before it premieres so that they can assess it and plan coverage — whether that’s a review, interview, or something more in-depth. Getting advance looks at episodes can help kick-start conversations around the show — a mutually beneficial situation for both the writers and the shows they’re covering.

Suffice it to say, Disney was trying to hit the LA Times where it would hurt most. Disney’s blanket ban on LA Times journalists’ access to its properties put the paper’s writers at a steep disadvantage to cover the many films and TV shows on its extensive release calendar.

Disney’s decision to blacklist The LA Times wasn’t just petty. It was, and remains, disturbing.

'Beauty And The Beast' New York ScreeningPhoto by Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Disney CEO Bob Iger at the premiere of Beauty and the Beast, which has made more than $1 billion worldwide.

Disney’s goal in blacklisting the LA Times was obviously punitive. The company knew that plenty of people will watch its movies and TV shows whether or not the LA Times covers them — nobody’s going to skip out on the new Star Wars film because one newspaper didn’t publish an early review. And Disney’s behavior is not entirely abnormal; many entertainment journalists and critics have experienced some kind of retaliation in the past. Publishing a negative review can, in some cases, make it harder for an outlet or individual critic to get an interview or an invite to an advanced screening in the future.

But this situation is different, given that Disney retaliated not for negative coverage of its entertainment properties, but rather for journalistic coverage in a different section of the newspaper, by different journalists. And that’s an extremely important detail. Newspapers and websites depend on traffic (and thus advertising) to generate revenue; by stripping the LA Times of the opportunity to run its reviews and coverage of Disney’s most popular properties on a competitive schedule alongside other major outlets, Disney appeared to be attempting to financially hurt the paper and, by extension, the people who work for the company.

As the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips wrote, Disney’s actions are “hostile to the practice, provocation and purpose of journalism — cultural, investigative or otherwise.” Critics and journalists who chose to show solidarity to the LA Times by voluntarily skipping advanced press screenings of Disney properties, by not publishing early reviews of said properties, and removing Disney from consideration in year-end awards voting, were aiming to remind the company that advanced coverage, like advanced screening access, is also a privilege and not a right.

Taking a step back, it becomes painfully clear that this isn’t just a story about advanced screenings for entertainment critics. It’s a story about the lengths to which a powerful company is willing to go to intimidate the press into writing more flattering coverage however it can — a disturbing impulse that shouldn’t just worry critics.