Should Marvel and Star Wars Fans Be Worried About the "Disney Vault?"

Earlier this month, analysts reported that Disney+ had likely peeled off as many as a million Netflix subscribers in its first month, convincing users who did not want to add another monthly charge to their bill that Disney's catalog of recent hits and family classics was more valuable than Netflix's broader selection of less-well-curated movies and TV series. That happened while Disney+'s own original offerings were fairly limited, confirming suspicions that a lot of people in the film industry have had from the get-go: Disney is poised to be a huge factor in the streaming wars.

Besides the initial success of Disney+, bolstered by a film studio that generated 80% of 2019's biggest box office hits, the service has another thing going for it: a planned influx of recent big-hit movies as the licensing deals previously signed with Netflix and other streaming providers lapse. Disney is banking on the appeal of its own brand -- arguably the most diligently-curated one in all of entertainment -- to keep things going beyond the initial, ecstatic flood of users to the shiny new service.

Marvel Studios, which was purchased by Disney in 2009, has since continued to be a box office juggernaut, with movies that have broad audience appeal and critical acclaim. It is one of the brands -- along with Star Wars, The Simpsons, and National Geographic -- that Disney leaned most heavily on in promoting the Disney+ app from the get-go, and the company has a plan in place to get all of Marvel's blockbusters off other platforms and relocated to Disney+ as quickly as they can.

...Is that something fans should be worried about?

A story from ABC Australia got a lot of traction over the weekend by encouraging users to embrace digital media like DVDs and Blu-rays, since the rapidly-changing streaming environment is likely to create a lot of frustration in the years to come. In addition to the current trend of rapidly-changing licenses that move popular properties from place to place depending on corporate priorities and the highest bidder, the article suggested that Disney's strategy of placing hits in "the vault" might be a concern as more and more of the world's favorite properties are consolidated under a single, sometimes fickle, corporate umbrella.

Disney has a section called "Out of the Vault" on Disney+, and it's a section that features the studio's beloved animated classics. And if you don't get the reference to "the vault," that's something that Disney has successfully used to stoke home video revenue basically since there has been a home video market.

During the days of the VHS market in the '80s and '90s, Disney introduced the concept of the "Disney Vault." Animated classics would be periodically re-released -- often with improved picture quality or other extra content on the tape -- for a limited time. Once that limited window had expired, Disney would place the film "in the vault," essentially putting a moratorium on production and distribution, making a film unavailable to retailers. The strategy, which was a huge success for years, held that the re-release would be met with media attention and fan enthusiasm, making those short bursts of availability much more profitable than an older movie would ordinarily be when just sitting on the shelf.

In March of this year, Disney CEO Robert Iger suggested that Disney+ making all of the company's library available would constitute a de facto retirement of the concept of the Disney Vault. The rollout has been incomplete, however, and some omissions -- Bride of Boogedy, for example -- seem more likely to be things the company did not prioritize rather than things that are committed elsewhere. The company has also quietly removed 20th Century Fox's back catalog from theatrical encore performances, a significant change to a policy Fox had in place for years. Critics suggest that this is a de facto vaulting of the Fox library, and while that might sound somewhat conspiratorial, it is difficult to argue since Disney have a long history of doing exactly that.

One notable exception at Fox was the Star Wars franchise, which Lucasfilm would periodically pull from circulation, creating the same artificial scarcity and excitement upon re-release that Disney did with its animated classics.

So what, if anything, does all of this mean for Marvel and Star Wars fans in the age of Disney+? It's hard to say.

Certainly it is no longer possible for Disney to fully control the legal supply of their movies in the way they did back in VHS and DVD days. Once a movie is brought out of the vault for any period of time, and purchased digitally, it is difficult for Disney to "confiscate" a legally purchased digital copy that was delivered through a third party. It is not unheard of, but in a case where thousands or millions of people have purchased something it would be basically unenforceable on a large scale. Still, they could easily revoke the licenses to digital video on demand vendors like the Walmart-owned Vudu and Apple's storefront. Doing so would leave users who had already purchased a copy able to watch it, but would remove the ability of new users to purchase it (essentially the Disney Vault effect).

Such a policy would drive users to Disney+ if they wanted to see properties that were otherwise unavailable to rent or buy digitally. And it would be a fairly easy decision for many consumers to justify becuase the relatively low entry cost of Disney+ means a user could tell themselves "well, I was planning on paying more than this to buy it anyway."

And in the short term, other than some movies that are contractually moving around from place to place, it is unlikely Disney will be removing any content from circulation on Disney+. The strength of the service has been sold largely on unfettered access to an exhaustive catalog of Disney products for a low price point. In the longer term, though, it would not be difficult to imagine Disney playing with the idea of "vaulting" certain properties simply by removing them briefly from Disney+, effectively making it impossible for them to be streamed for free.

An interesting case-in-point may be the X-Men brand. While the mutant superheroes were one of Fox's most reliably profitable franchises for the better part of the last twenty years, Disney's acquisition of Fox raises questions about what will happen to the streaming rights for those films. They are not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while Disney+ features plenty of non-MCU Marvel properties on TV, their film offerings in that vein are non-existent. Granted, the likes of the pre-MCU Doctor Strange and Captain America movies were mediocre at best, and likely have other entanglements that fans don't know about, but still. They aren't there, and it is not evident Marvel or Disney has any interest in bringing them over.


So it is, so far, with the X-Men movies. It's certainly too early to declare that they "won't" come over (excepting Deadpool and Logan, which will likely head somewhere else since they are R-rated), but at present none of Fox's X-Men or Fantastic Four movies are available to stream. And none of them have that generic entry that teases "due to existing agreements, this title will be available on..." like you see with properties like Black Panther.

So, how much fear should Disney's history of vaulting products cause in fans who don't have their favorite MCU movies backed up on DVD? Probably not a ton...for now. It does, however, seem like X-Men fans might do well to sneak out and grab themselves a box set of the movies while they are still cheap...just in case.