by Donna Martinez
Former Senior Writer and Editor, John Locke Foundation
Innovation leads to opportunity. And opportunity leads to prosperity. That’s why I’m forever reminding fellow free marketers that we should lift up and showcase innovators and their impact on our lives. In my household, innovators are driving me onto streaming platforms and out of traditional TV and — with a huge push by the COVID-19 menace — out of theaters as well. But it wasn’t COVID that pushed me away from big-screen movies. It was simply that I have an ever-growing slate of choices and content at my fingertips from my living room.
Theaters, in particular, have plummeted down my list of entertainment options. Changing buying behavior, along with COIVD-19, have left theaters scrambling for their future. Back in 1953, the brilliant Walt Disney, a man with a magical mind and imagination, penned a piece for Variety about the competition movies faced in that era of innovation. Television was the threat in 1953. In December of 2020, Variety looked back on the themes of that 1953 Disney column.
“The motion picture industry stands once more on the verge of a new era,” wrote Disney, adding that it was “a crucial time, certainly, but one of many it has survived with little impairment of its progress or its health. And certainly without occasion for alarm or defeatism.”
He referred to it as a time of “growing pains which must come periodically to every vital institution which deals with masses of people.” But in the entire column, he never mentioned the source of anxiety: television. In 1950, only 20% of American homes had a TV set. Only two years later, in July 1952, Variety reported that one out of three U.S. homes owned a TV set. By the end of the decade, TV sets were in 90% of U.S. homes.
No one could ignore the revolution that was happening. But as Disney wrote, the entertainment industry “calls for constant adaptation and adventures in showmanship. … Ours has long been a chance-taking business.”
Walt Disney embraced his ‘chance-taking’ mentality. He ushered in huge technical innovations to enhance the viewing experience, and he faced the competition from the talking box with gusto, as Variety details. In fact, he turned TV to his advantage, making Disney characters and cartoons a staple of American life. Rather than shrink from the challenge, he dreamed, he innovated, and he took incredible risks. He became the ultimate marketer.
If theaters are to survive the 2020/2021 COVID-19 challenge, they’ll need to partner with their Hollywood colleagues pronto. And I hope they’ll read — and heed — Walt Disney’s 1953 advice: “we must compete as never before.”
Here at the John Locke Foundation, our mission is to unleash the Walt Disney in each of us. To knock down barriers. To open up pathways. No, most of us won’t achieve his fame or fortune, or have his transformational impact on society and industry. But most of us will impact the lives of people we hold dear. And making the most of our personal potential is how it all starts. It begins with the freedom to follow our dreams.