Disney’s battle plan? Just look around Comic-Con

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SAN DIEGO -- For those seeking to understand Disney's strategy under CEO Robert Iger, just take a look around the colorful halls of Comic-Con: Thousands of people who spent hard-earned cash trekking to San Diego -- in some cases great distances -- to savor their favorite pastimes, many dressed in purchased or home-made costumes.

Over the past dozen years, Disney has assiduously pursued a plan built on tapping into the most passionate fan bases, with multi-billion-dollar acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. Those deals provided the foundation for blockbuster movies, but also merchandising and theme-park tie-ins, feeding the company's coffers on a variety of fronts.

Photos: Costumes of Comic-Con 2018

With Comcast dropping its bid for 21st Century Fox, Disney is positioned to add those assets to its portfolio, further consolidating its hold over such properties by adding Fox's "Avatar" and other Marvel titles -- Fantastic Four and X-Men -- that the company had let slip away years ago, when Marvel was forced to shed certain assets because of financial difficulties. (Spider-Man, the other one that got away, remains affiliated with Sony.)

That murderer's row of fan-oriented entertainment has already positioned Disney as the foremost gateway into the fan community, a position with enormous benefits -- witness the box-office results this year for "Black Panther," "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Incredibles 2" -- as well as an assorted trove of headaches (see the backlash triggered by "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," and the surprisingly disappointing returns for "Solo").

Still, Disney's guiding philosophy is hard to dispute -- namely, that in a world overflowing with entertainment options, there's no substitute for possessing brands in which audiences feel personally invested. That also feeds directly into the challenge of getting people to pay directly for access to content, from streaming services to movie and theme-park tickets. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of Disney.)

Tellingly, Disney has already made inroads in directly exploiting and serving the fan experience, mounting its own Comic-Con-like convention, the biennial D23 Expo, named after the year Walt Disney founded the studio. Disney doesn't release attendance figures, but last year's event drew tens of thousands to Anaheim's convention center, not far from Disneyland.

Disney's longterm objective is clear: To take the middle man out of the deal, whether that involves distribution services like Netflix (which is assembling its own vast content library) or intermediaries like Comic-Con. While every big media player has adopted a version of that approach, Disney appears to have a huge head start in getting there.

Like the Marvel universe or "Star Wars" galaxy, the entertainment/media industry remains filled with unforeseen threats, even to the kind of super-team that Iger has put together. But Mickey Mouse has a lot of powerful friends and is about to get more, putting him one step closer to the goal of many mythical heroes, or for that matter, villains: controlling their own destiny.

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