This piece was updated after publication with information about Disney ending its ban.
Update: After The New York Times and the Television Critics Association joined the mounting group of publications and critics organizations condemning Disney for banning the Los Angeles Times from advanced screenings of its films, the company changed course and will once again allow Los Angeles Times critics to attend press screenings.
“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 in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.
A disturbance in the force has emerged between the Walt Disney Company and the biggest film critics and organizations around the country. On Tuesday, four film critic organizations—the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics—announced that they would disqualify all Disney films from year-end awards consideration after the company imposed a media blackout against the Los Angeles Times.
“It is admittedly extraordinary for a critics’ group, let alone four critics’ groups, to take any action that might penalize film artists for decisions beyond their control,” the statement read. “But Disney brought forth this action when it chose to punish the Times’ journalists rather than express its disagreement with a business story via ongoing public discussion. Disney’s response should gravely concern all who believe in the importance of a free press, artists included.”
While many of Disney’s films probably wouldn’t have been considered for critic associations’ awards—unless someone were to defend Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales on an island—the disqualification will mark a blow for year-end 2017 films like Pixar’s Coco and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. More importantly, the critics’ boycott of Disney films represents an increased negative public perception of the studio. So why did Disney ban the Times from screenings, a petty move that’s drawn comparisons between the company and Taylor Swift?
On Friday, the Times published a note in its 2017 holiday movie preview informing readers that the publication’s writers and critics had been barred from advanced screenings, which enable them to write reviews and related pieces before films’ official releases. The decision to block the Times from press screenings came in light of the publication’s investigative reports on Disney’s business ties with the city of Anaheim, where its Disneyland and Disney California Adventure theme parks are both located. Disney called the Times reports “biased and inaccurate” pieces that were “wholly driven by a political agenda.”
The ban against the Times, which meant the publication was unable to publish a review of Thor: Ragnarok until after the film’s release, was initially scrutinized by individual critics and publications. The Washington Post’s critic-at-large, Alyssa Rosenberg, wrote Monday that she would no longer attend Disney press screenings, while Flavorwire and The A.V. Club announced similar vows from their writers moving forward. Further, director Ava DuVernay, whose upcoming Disney film A Wrinkle in Time is due for release in March 2018, tweeted in solidarity with the journalists choosing to boycott.
Saluting the film journalists standing up for one another. Standing with you. https://t.co/M9Fs22vv4L— Ava DuVernay (@ava) November 7, 2017
As Rosenberg, the aforementioned entertainment outlets and the joint statement from four film critic organizations have noted, Disney’s media blackout of the Times—regardless of the accuracy of the publication’s reporting on its business ties—sets a troubling precedent. In turn, the ensuing media coverage of Disney’s ban has also shined a light on the Times’ investigative stories, making it the most-read business article on the Times on Friday, according to Times reporter Daniel Miller.
It’s unclear how long Disney will continue to bar the Times from press screenings, but if it does for much longer, more Disney films could be affected in 2018, including Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, and Avengers: Infinity War. If larger awards bodies, like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the American Film Institute, were to extend similar solidarity to the Times and critics, the media blackout would likely be too significant for Disney to ignore. However, in the eyes of the public—at a time when freedom of press is constantly challenged in the national spotlight—notable damage might have already been done.