The Walt Disney Company is everywhere. If anything, that might actually be an understatement. And over the years they’ve crept into more and more places, thanks in large part to billions of dollars of acquisitions of already famous brands. Some of you may be huge Disney fans and view this as a great thing. After all, more brands within the Disney family can mean more awesome theme park rides and attractions. Or it can mean more money behind the cool things that you love, to make them even cooler. But there are also Disney detractors out there who view the Disney-fication of things as a dumbing down or as an edge-softening of a brand that previously had some grit.
We’ll explore both sides of those Mickey Mouse ears here in this list of properties you may not have known were owned by Disney, whether it be full ownership or a 50 per cent share. In the more famous cases, many people do know about Disney’s ownership, but some are still in the dark. In other cases, it might come as a complete shock that Mickey and company have their paws in the mix.
Here are 13 Brands You Didn’t Know Were Owned by Disney
This is a surprising one for both companies. Disney, of course, was founded on family-friendly fare, led by a cartoon mouse. Vice Media was founded largely on counter-culture values in 1994, led by three Canadian punks. It began as a magazine called Voice of Montreal and gradually changed to Vice when it moved to New York City. Now, it's audience extends all around the world. These days, it has a massive and well-respected online presence and even debuted an HBO TV show in 2013. Not to mention their book publishing and music recording wings, the latter releasing albums by Snoop Dogg, Death From Above 1979, and The Raveonettes, among others.
But despite Disney’s traditional focus on all that is shiny and happy, and Vice’s focus on truth and disruptive, authentic journalism, Disney’s money trucks pulled up to Vice’s offices late in 2015 and dropped off $400 million for approximately a one-fifth share in the company (part of which came from the existing stake held by A&E, another brand we'll get to in a minute. One of the results of this deal is that Vice is taking over cable channel H2, rebranding it “Viceland,” which debuts in February 2016.
That said, Disney doesn't truly own Vice. After all, 20th Century Fox, Disney's rivals in film production also own a large part of the new media empire. Apparently, Vice is hot commodity these days.
We’ll start with the most obvious choice. For starters, as an animation company directed primarily at children, Disney and Pixar had a lot in common from the start. And following the 2006 acquisition by Disney, the parent company has been very visible in the marketing of Pixar movies and related merchandise – for example, you’ll see “Disney • Pixar” on movie posters for Inside Out or Cars. But the relationship wasn’t always so buddy-buddy.
Pixar originally grew out of the Lucasfilm graphics department in 1979. When the group behind Pixar left Lucasfilm, Steve Jobs became a major investor, and Walt Disney Studios bought some of the hardware they produced. After creating some computer animated shorts into the early 90s, they struck a deal with Disney to produce three computer animated features. Of course, Toy Story was the first in 1995 and the rest is history. But things got contentious between Disney and Pixar in the late 90s, when Disney refused to include Toy Story 2, which had originally been slated for direct-to-video, in the three-film deal. Plus, Pixar wasn’t happy with being left out of story and sequel rights. Jobs stirred the pot, too, accusing Pixar of looking for other partners. Finally, everyone agreed to a deal when Disney threw $7.4 billion at Pixar, which, incidentally, made Jobs Disney’s largest individual shareholder.
It was huge news in 2012 when Disney purchased George Lucas’ company, Lucasfilm, for $4.06 billion. But, believe it or not, there are still some people out there who aren’t aware that this happened, and that thanks to this deal we have a great new Star Wars film in theaters, with five more still to come over the next few years. So, those of you in the dark, now you know!
Lucasfilm, of course, was Lucas’ production company – but it’s so much more than just a production company that produced such iconic works as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. When you own Lucasfilm, as Disney does, you also own: Industrial Light and Magic, the award-winning visual effects division; Skywalker Sound for post-production sound design (winners of 18 Academy Awards), and LucasArts Entertainment Company, which created dozens of Star Wars and other games over the years, but was all but dissolved after the acquisition, resulting in many layoffs (Electronic Arts now develops Star Wars games, such as the recent Battlefront). Lucasfilm properties are now seen everywhere in Disney theme parks, from Star Wars and Indiana Jones themed rides and attractions, to T-shirts and R2-D2 Mickey Mouse ears.
There was a whole lot of skepticism from comic book fans when, in 2009, Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion. Marvel was known for comics that put somewhat realistic, everyman characters into extraordinary circumstances, filled with grey areas between good and evil. Would Disney dumb all that down? Would they have Mickey Mouse suit up next to Tony Stark in the next Iron Man film? Would Goofy walk around Disneyland wielding Thor’s mjolnir?
Fortunately, the answer is that Marvel franchises – particularly on the film side – have only gotten stronger since the acquisition. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is an absolute juggernaut, basking in critical and audience approval. The Civil War plotline we’re about to see, starting with this spring’s Captain America: Civil War, is proof that Disney is not shying away from those grey areas, with characters we know as “good guys” being pitted against each other. And in recent years, they’ve only expanded the MCU to television, with Marvel’s Agents of Shield (on a Disney-owned network, but more on that later) and Netflix shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones. In the real world, they’ve followed the “Disney On Ice” model with the Marvel Universe Live! touring arena show, and Hong Kong Disneyland is building an Iron Man themed ride.
What does a huge kids-based film studio do when teenagers start to shun their fare? Rebrand! Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Disney was having trouble appealing to teens and adults (without their children), even with films that were thematically less family-centric, like The Black Hole, Condorman and The Watcher in the Woods. That pesky mouse seemed to be driving older viewers away. So they developed the Touchstone Films (later renamed Touchstone Pictures) label in 1984 – and it paid off in a big way.
The first Touchstone film was Splash, which was a massive success. In 1986, Disney released their first ever R-rated film under the Touchstone label: Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Other notable Touchstone releases include Good Morning, Vietnam; Who Framed Roger Rabbit; Sister Act; Dead Poets Society; Armageddon; and Lincoln. Interestingly, while animated films are usually released under the Disney or Pixar labels, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a Touchstone release.
The Muppets, of course, is known as a huge entrepreneurial success story, created by the immortal Jim Henson way back in 1955. Muppets characters first appeared on a local Washington, D.C. kids show called Sam and Friends and went on to get national exposure on talk shows before Sesame Street really blew them up in 1969. Suddenly, Kermit the Frog and friends were huge, getting their own prime-time network show in 1976 and hitting the big screen with a number of movies.
As early as the '80s, Disney wanted to get its hands on the Muppets characters, but Henson and his heirs wouldn’t budge, even after his death in 1990. However, Disney did co-produce a couple of Muppets films in the early 90s (The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island), setting the stage for Disney to finally take full control over the Muppets with the acquisition in 2004. This has led to a couple of successful new movies and a new prime-time TV show, which debuted in September 2015. And, of course, the characters have been incorporated into Disney theme parks. However, Disney does not own the Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock Muppets characters.
ABC actually started life in 1927 as a sort of “minor league” affiliate of NBC radio, called NBC Blue, which would be used to test new shows in smaller markets. After a purchase in 1943, it split off on its own as ABC Radio, so it was actually the youngest of the original “big three” networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC). They broke into the TV biz in 1948 and by the early 50s they had some huge hits like The Lone Ranger and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which was the longest-running prime-time comedy ever (13 seasons), until The Simpsons passed it.
But Disney had their hands on ABC from very early on. Walt Disney himself asked ABC to help fund the building of Disneyland, in exchange for a weekly Sunday night show called Disneyland, and the network even broadcast the opening of the park live in 1955. Soon after, ABC aired the original iconic The Mickey Mouse Club. But by 1961, the relationship had already ended, and it would take 24 years for them to air Disney fare again. Finally, in 1996 Disney bought the company. After some rocky times with unsuccessful new shows, there were reports in 2010 that Disney was trying to sell the network, but failed. These days, despite hot shows like Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, ABC was still ranked third among the networks, as of September 2015.
Since its inception in 1989, Hollywood Records has always been a Disney property, it just didn’t necessarily flaunt the Disney brand. At first, it just released soundtracks for Disney films (including Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures films). There were some rocky roads in the early going, as they tried and failed to sign early-90s grunge and hip hop acts like Nirvana and Dr. Dre, but the acquisition of Queen’s catalogue gave them a boost.
At last, they discovered a gold mine in the young stars of Disney children’s shows. Hillary Duff was the label’s first big star in 2003, and they used the same model for the likes of Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. While still releasing movie soundtracks, Hollywood Records has also managed to snag some grittier talent to join the ranks of bubble-gum pop stars, including Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Breaking Benjamin.
After Wayne Gretzky, ESPN might be the greatest thing to come out of the long-defunct World Hockey Association (WHA). Bill Rasmussen was fired from a job with the WHA’s Hartford Whalers as their Communications Director in 1978 and within a year and a half, he had conceived of an all-sports cable channel and brought it to air to just 1.4 million cable subscribers. ESPN is now ubiquitous, available in more than 80% of American homes that have cable, and its flagship show, SportsCenter, is a must-watch for sports fans.
It was the purchase of ESPN by the ABC network in 1984 that put them over the top, because that allowed them to go after major sports and get big-time ratings. And when Disney bought ABC in 1996, ESPN came along with it. And it’s proven itself to be a major cash cow for the company. The ABC deal cost Mickey and company $19 billion. As of 2014, ESPN alone was worth over $50 billion, and in 2012 was named the world’s most valuable media company by Forbes.
Disney half-owns this cable channel, along with the Hearst Corporation. It first popped up in 1984, available in 9.3 million homes. But, interestingly, it was only available after 9:00 pm. From 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, Nickelodeon took the same airwaves. In the early days, and through the '90s, the network’s big success story was the documentary series Biography, where you could learn all about the life of your favorite celebrities and historical figures.
Gradually, after Disney’s 1996 acquisition of ABC (which included A&E), A&E’s programming started to change. Until the early 2000s, A&E was actually known for slightly more intellectual fare, like a commercial version of PBS. The new A&E is less known for Agatha Christie’s Poirot, as they were in the earlier days, and more for reality silliness like Dog the Bounty Hunter, Duck Dynasty and Storage Wars. But they also offer some quality scripted shows like Bates Motel and Unforgettable.
Like A&E, Lifetime was launched in 1984 and struggled early on, hemorrhaging money. Somehow, based on the name, people not interested in religious programming avoided it, thinking that’s what they’d find there. But an overhaul in the late 80s brought Lifetime to life – with a focus on women’s programming, most significantly with the creation of the phenomenon known as the “Lifetime movie.” They became so infamous for their melodrama that they were often satirized, perhaps most hilariously on 30 Rock, with titles like “A Dog Took My Face and Gave Me a Better Face to Change the World 2” and “Sister, Can You Spare a Breast?”
Lifetime joined the Disney family in 2009, when A&E (co-owned by Disney and Hearst) acquired it. Under Disney, it’s still known for the Lifetime movies, along with reality shows like Dance Moms, a few scripted programs and reruns of old network shows. They even satirized their own movies with the 2015 broadcast of A Deadly Adoption, starring comedy superstars Will Ferrell and Kristin Wiig. It was played straight, but the satire came from the stars’ hilarious reputations.
Ever since A&E Networks launched what was then called The History Channel in 1995, it’s been fairly successful. It was a little more than a year later that 50 per cent of it fell under the Disney umbrella, with Disney’s acquisition of ABC (which included A&E Networks). Like A&E and Lifetime, the other 50 per cent is owned by Hearst. Not surprisingly, History was originally known for airing historical documentary and scripted programs.
But it’s come a long way since then. A long way in the right or wrong direction? Well, that depends on your tastes. These days, you’ll find a lot of reality programming, like Pawn Stars and American Pickers, which have little to do with history. Then there are controversial shows like Ancient Aliens and UFO Hunters that have little basis in actual history or even science. However, they’ve earned some respect for their scripted historical drama, Vikings, which will premiere its fourth season February 18, 2016.
Maker Studios was founded in 2009, mostly by a group of YouTube stars, including Lisa Donovan, Kassem G, Shay Carl and Philip DeFranco, along with former CEO Danny Zappin. It’s a multi-channel YouTube network that produces some of the most-watched videos on the Internet. Little more than five years later, the company was a major hit and Disney bought it for somewhere between $500-$950 million (depending on financial milestones being met). But even before the acquisition, Zappin resigned when his decidedly un-Disney-like rap sheet came to light, having been convicted of felony drug possession in 2001.
For a while, in 2012, Maker was the top independent network on YouTube, and as of this writing they still rank as the fourth most viewed network. Their most popular program is Epic Rap Battles of History, which recently pitted two creators of property now owned by Disney against each other: Stan Lee (Marvel) vs. Jim Henson (The Muppets) (if you’re a Disney fan, the video is very much worth watching for a twist toward the end).
Any surprises on this list? Why not chime in below in the comments?