The Walt Disney Company has a creeping neo-fascism problem, one that won’t always be restricted to Disney, either.
As readers already know, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis found himself cornered by his own rhetoric, signing the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill into law after taking larger umbrage at Disney’s umbrage on behalf of its LGBTQ+ employees (and heck, people everywhere) as the move to strip the Mouse House of its special jurisdictional status in Florida — where it essentially operates as its own county — became not just a culture war talking point to pad campaign coffers, but something the GOP-dominated legislature in the Sunshine State felt obliged to act on. Which then, of course, obliged DeSantis to sign it into law.
This is exactly how “oh, that’s just rhetoric, you can ignore it” becomes an unignorable reality.
What does this new reality actually mean for Disney? (Note, this is separate from the discussion about whether Walt & Co. should have been granted that special “Reedy Creek Improvement District” to begin with, since it was, after all, signed into law by another outburst-prone GOP governor who liked waging his own culture wars.)
Regarding its practical effects, Orlando-area TV reporter Nick Papantonis, who works for WFTV, said in a recent, longish Twitter thread (yes, that same just-been-Musked Twitter, about which, more in a moment), that despite being its own fiefdom as far as new building permits, road building, and pothole repairing, Disney also “pays the same local property taxes as every other landowner. Reedy Creek added its own tax on top of that to pay for its projects. That tax — $163 million per year — is illegal outside of the district… When Reedy Creek goes away, that tax goes away, and Orange and Osceola Counties can’t do anything to get it back. However, the counties will now be responsible for all of the services Reedy Creek provides and all of the debt it has accumulated… They can’t raise sales taxes or impact fees. So, the counties will have to raise property taxes. They must tax every property equally — not just Disney — and therefore it’s expected that property taxes in Orange County will rise as much as 25 percent next June.”
This should be quite an interesting turn of events, considering DeSantis is up for re-“election” (given the state voting restrictions enacted, the scare quotes seem reasonable) in Florida that same season — a lynchpin in his own ambitions for the White House.
And no one is sure yet what Disney will do in response. They can’t just pull up stakes and move several theme parks at once (though the eventually-rising Atlantic may force them to rethink this sooner rather than later). So are they planning a lawsuit?
Disney itself must be a bit bewildered by this turn of events since they — like most corporations — regularly greased the palms of politicians from both political parties to appear both non-partisan yet indispensable come legislation time.
Walt would probably be even more bewildered, as Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch wrote over the weekend, as GOP Congressfolk began Tweeting (!) out a meme with Disney’s “D” replaced by the hammer-and-sickle of the late USSR (where you actually couldn’t say “gay” either, and where Putin started public life as a KGB agent before rising to the level where he hosted GOP Senators for 4th of July visits in Russia).
As Bunch noted, “the cartoonist-turned-entrepreneur proved his anti-communist bona fides by naming names before the notorious House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC), even though the alleged ‘reds’ whose lives were ruined by Disney were just workers who wanted to unionize his studio.”
Bunch continued that “the Disney attack is just the latest and most forceful salvo in a wider Republican war against what they’ve branded as ‘woke corporations.’ These are big firms where socially conscious branding has evolved — with a push from their younger, college-educated workforce, accelerated during 2020′s George Floyd protests — into stands on issues like transgender rights or voter suppression that are typically at odds with today’s GOP.”
So the irony is that the party most heavily invested in the idea that corporations are “private persons” who have an innate right to free speech — in the form of campaign contributions to that same party — is now equally heavily invested in stripping that free speech away.
The problem for Disney, and everyone else in “Hollywood” — the literal place, or working in the general media metaphor — is that it’s not simply a matter of “woke training” (which DeSantis is also striving to ban, in a bill signed that same day) but the actual products being made.
You know, those things called “stories.”
So then, what happens when the next Elon Musk isn’t just content to buy a social media company like Twitter, spending billions in order to tweak moderation rules, but now wants to own other, more “legacy” media companies to start changing any stories those new potential owners might not like. Or characters, whether they’re non-white, non-straight, or non-whatever.
As Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, tweeted (!) “think about how utterly crazy it is that in 2022 a company with a significant dataset of private and public communications, that has municipalities, companies, and governments on the platform, can switch ownership with pretty much zero scrutiny.”
Some of that lack of scrutiny might be explained by the underreported news that house GOP members sent a letter to Twitter’s board of directors threatening an investigation into their not selling to Musk, should said GOP regain such investigatory power after the midterms.
Lo and behold! A couple of days later, a deal was struck.
So hey, if a company irks you, why not just buy it outright? (At least, if you’re not in a position to directly pass laws against it.) After all, there appear to be fewer and fewer such companies in the media space anyway. On which note, given a financial quarter spent shedding viewers, rumors abound that even Netflix could be ripe for a takeover.
Granted, though, in the article linked here, analyst Rich Greenfield seems to suggest Amazon, Apple — or, hey! Disney! — as likelier suitors.
The question is whether those suitors will keep lining the palms of the political party allied with Franklin Graham — eldest son of the late Billy Graham — who thundered on Facebook that Disney had lost its “moral compass” and now “want(s) to redefine family counter to God’s original design and flaunt sin.”
All of which might also surprise Walt.
But if companies, striving to simply meet audiences where they now are, are going to be punished in America’s brewing domestic jihad, they might need to start acting as “individuals” after all, to see how best to protect their free speech rights and those of their workers, since the two, as it ironically turns out, now appear to be intertwined.
We’ve already seen what happens when extremist rhetoric boxes in its purveyors or devotees. Luchino Visconti even made an Oscar-nominated film about corporate barons being consumed by the very political fires they helped light in a crumbling democracy. Called The Damned, it might be an instructive rewatch.
Let me know what platform you can still manage to find it on, though. And who owns the platform.
And, perhaps, for how much longer.
Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”