There was a time when Disney, long before the wave of Marvel and live remakes, tried to break into the Chinese market differently. The idea? Open schools where privileged Chinese students learned English thanks to the productions of the house.
Between Disney and China, it has become, in recent years, a very upset honeymoon. Like the entire US Entertainment industry which has – we don’t know if we should now speak in the past – always had its eyes fixed on the Middle Kingdom, and rightly so. Because the Chinese market has become crucial for the Majors for several years.
The big-eared firm may seek to flatter Chinese national pride by setting up, for example, the adaptation of the legend of Mulan with a Chinese cast, the country’s public shunned the film, and not just a little. The Stations of the Cross did not stop. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings VF, also widely calibrated for the Chinese market, was torpedoed by Beijing by blocking its exit into the territory. Same observation for Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness …
A situation that is all the more problematic for Disney since its Live-Action remakes have not really performed there. As an indication, the Live version of Aladdin made $54.6 million. the Live version of Dumbo barely 21.7 million. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil $47 million. The live version of The Lion King VF fared better with its $122 million. But, given the size of the market, this remains very modest.
Already subject to a policy of drastic quotas, Hollywood films are now more than ever subject to political pressure in the country of Xi Jinping, who largely prefers to favor films flattering nationalist pride than consumerist works Made in the USA . And the Covid-19 pandemic, which has largely paralyzed Hollywood, has only reinforced this observation, and even amplified it.
A background considered suspicious, a more or less direct reference to homosexuality, a remark or consideration, even innocuous, provoking the wrath of the Beijing authorities and largely fueled by the sounding board offered by Chinese social networks VF such as Weibo. Everything is good to pass certain works by the wayside .
THE LITTLE MERMAID, A TROJAN HORSE IN CHINA
There was a time, not so long ago, when Disney practiced another form of Soft Power in China . And much less known to the general public. In October 2008, the Disney English program was set up , which aimed to teach English to Chinese children (but not only) from 1 to 11 years old.
First established in Shanghai, which will also be the venue for the amusement park in 2016, the structures welcomed teachers from China, the United States and Europe. The objective, clearly understood, being to use Disney VF productions, in particular the firm’s animated films, as educational support; the strength of the house resides in particular in the storytelling of its stories.
In July 2010, Disney already had 11 schools in two Chinese cities. The objectives were then very ambitious: to welcome no less than 150,000 Chinese children by 2015. Russell Hampton, the head of Disney Publishing Worldwide, in charge of this program, even wanted to go from 11 to 148 schools in five years. “It’s a very feasible opportunity,” he told the New York Times ; “which should allow us to generate operating profits in excess of $100 million over the next five years”.
The Disney school in Shanghai.
In a Chinese society that was seeing a new middle/upper social class emerge, with strong purchasing power, these Disney schools were also a way to indulge the American dream a little. Which had a significant cost.
Few parents could actually pay the equivalent of $2,200 a year for 2 hours of English lessons a week, 96 hours a year, in the company of Mickey Mouse and the Little Mermaid VF among others. “These schools also allow Disney to connect with a new generation of consumers who may not be aware of the company’s characters and history,” commented the Financial Times .
Bathed in an immersive universe, Chinese children learned English on the basis of an educational project concocted with the support of the University of Columbia and Alabama, thanks to role-playing games, interactive games, and of course screenings of house classics.
Numbers were also limited: no more than 12 children per class; 15 at most. Each class had its theme: Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, Tinkerbell VF, The Lion King, and even Winnie the Pooh… But that was before this figure was compared to the indestructible Xi Jinping, whose censorship services, more tense than ever, will ban any reference a few years later…
MICKEY ON TECHNICAL UNEMPLOYMENT
Between the initial announcements, and the final disconnection of Disney English , the balance sheet is not really famous. In June 2020, Disney announced VF the permanent closure of its 25 schools in China, located in 6 cities. That is to say if we were far from the ambitions displayed at the start…
Closed from January 2020 due to Covid-19, the pandemic was fatal to the project, even as the Beijing authorities took drastic measures to try to contain the pandemic that had started on its soil. While some traditional schools were subsequently able to reopen, Disney schools remained closed.
“Over the past few years, we have noticed a shift in consumer preferences towards online learning experiences and this trend has been accelerated by the global pandemic as families are reluctant to return to face-to-face learning classes” commented Mahesh Samat, Disney Vice President in charge of product marketing for the Asia-Pacific region, quoted in the New York Times .
Still, Disney’s initiative was interesting and quite clever. A project launched at a time when Chinese government limits on foreign media were beginning to make it difficult for Disney and other Hollywood studios to distribute movies VF and TV shows in China. An American Trojan horse in the Middle Kingdom, which was called Mickey, Peter Pan or The Little Mermaid.