Why James Gunn’s Defection From Marvel Is a Blow to Disney Parks – and an Opportunity for DC

The loss of James Gunn — the talented writer/director behind the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films who will now oversee the newly formed DC Studios (along with partner Peter Safran) at Warner Bros. Discovery — is obviously a huge blow to the wildly successful Marvel Studios movies (and Disney’s larger streaming output), but it also serves as perhaps a less obvious blow to the company’s Parks division, which lost one of its most enthusiastic and innovative champions.

In an unstable and volatile market, with the movie industry still recovering following COVID and streaming facing an uncertain future, Disney’s theme park division is increasingly important — and profitable — to the company.

Just how important are the parks? When Disney’s profits jumped 50% earlier this year during its fiscal third-quarter, a big driver was revenue from the parks totaling $21.5 billion, a 26% increase from the previous year, with an operating profit that was up 50% to $3.6 billion. Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, the business unit that the parks are a part of, reported quarterly revenue of $7.4 billion, up from $4.3 billion a year earlier, and an operating profit of $2.2 billion, up from $356 million.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout! opened at Disney California Adventure in 2017. Gunn’s next ride, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, opened at Disney’s Epcot Center on May 27 (just ahead of its profitable Q3) to much fanfare. It’s a central attraction of Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebrations, which will stretch through March 2023.

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Why Gunn’s Guardian rides are so important to Marvel and Disney

Filmmakers who are actively involved in the theme park attractions based on their movies make all the difference, according to Jim Shull, former executive creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering (now retired), who oversaw the Avengers Campus expansion at Disneyland Paris. “[Gunn’s] fingerprints are all over the attractions,” Shull said. Gunn, like similarly hands-on filmmakers Andrew Stanton and James Cameron, understands that “even a hit movie is out of theaters quickly.”

“If it’s in a theme park, it’ll be there for 30 years,” Shull added. And he should know — he helped design the Rock n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith in Florida. It just celebrated its 23rd year of operation. And it heavily features Aerosmith.

The Guardians are hugely important to Marvel’s plans, not just within the series of interconnected movies and streaming series but in the theme park plans as well. In fact, Marvel has introduced a series of interconnected storylines that crisscross between resorts and cruise ships all over the world. These storylines involve your favorite Marvel characters including, crucially, the Guardians of the Galaxy. But with Gunn now missing, the characters he so lovingly shepherded on the big screen and in the parks will be out of his hands.

But Disney’s loss could be Warner Bros. Discovery’s gain, especially as they refocus attention on the themed entertainment rights to their beloved properties.

From left, Former Marvel CCO Joe Quesada, CEO Bob Chapek, actors Zoe Saldana, Benicio del Toro, Michael Rooker, and Pom Klementieff, director James Gunn and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige at the opening of Guardians of The Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! on May 25, 2017 at Disneys California Adventure (Photo by Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images)
From left, Former Marvel CCO Joe Quesada, CEO Bob Chapek, actors Zoe Saldana, Benicio del Toro, Michael Rooker, and Pom Klementieff, director James Gunn and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige at the opening of Guardians of The Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! on May 25, 2017 at Disneys California Adventure (Photo by Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images)

The theme park component to Gunn’s move to DC

Shull suggests that, at Warner Bros. Discovery, Gunn will undoubtedly bring up the DC characters’ placement in theme parks. “I can’t imagine him not asking,” Shull said.

Warner Bros. Discovery’s Global Themed Entertainment group is the division that runs the theme parks and in-person experiences. They do regional events, pop-up experiences and manage partnerships like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands at various global Universal Studios parks. While, at least according to the DC Films announcement, Gunn won’t have any direct oversight over themed experiences, he will work closely with the group (under the Global Brands division) on any IP-based attractions or experiences based off of the new DC Films products.

There is a snag: Warner Bros.’ deal with Six Flags., which includes access to characters from the “Looney Tunes” franchise, as well as DC. This relationship began in 1984, when the nascent Six Flags corporation (then owned by Penn Corp, the company that formed from the merged Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central Railroad organizations) purchased the Great America theme park from the Marriott hotel chain. During the themed entertainment boom of the early 1990s, Time Warner began quickly buying portions of the company (then owned primarily by Wesray Capital Corporation) until it controlled the entire company.

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Saddled with debt, Time Warner sold a controlling interest in the company in 1995 to an investment group. In 1998, Six Flags Theme Parks, Inc. (a name created by Time Warner) was purchased by Premier Parks for $1.86 billion. Since 1998, the company has gone through many changes. But one thing remains, perhaps going back to that initial Great America deal: the rights to the Warner Bros. staple of characters, including, of course, the DC suite of heroes and villains. Mostly this means off-the-shelf coasters with some loose branding and a title that indirectly references the character, not, as you would imagine, an elaborately themed and immersive attraction.

So unfortunately for Gunn, the Six Flags deal is a long-term arrangement with many years left before expiration or renegotiation. Meaning that an elaborate ride or attraction on the scale of Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind could be just out of reach. If part of the allure of running the new DC Films division was the themed entertainment component, then it won’t be actual rides (at least not in the United States) — it could be for themed regional or limited-time experiences and events. Still, should Gunn and Warner Bros. attempt something more elaborate (potentially abroad), many of Gunn’s collaborators on the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction (like Joe Rohde) have since left Disney.

Further complicating matters is the fact that many believe, including several people we spoke to within Warner Bros. Discovery, that come 2024, the company will be sold to Universal. Executives have been cautious in the press, perhaps wanting to skirt any antitrust litigation that would arise, but it’s clear that this buyout is indeed a feasible option. With Universal one of the industry leaders in the themed entertainment space, could Gunn soon oversee huge projects with Disney’s direct competitor? Only time will tell. And untangling the Six Flags rights would probably be complicated.

But Gunn’s hire now seems even more canny; they’re future-proofing the properties should the merger actually happen. Warner Bros. Discovery declined to comment for this article.

We reached out to Disney representatives for clarity on whether Gunn’s Warner Bros. deal, which forbids him from making any more projects with Marvel, also restricts him from working on theme park matters and they didn’t respond by publication.

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