Bob Chapek, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, will later today deliver to investors the entertainment giant’s annual report. Even worse than the rest of Hollywood, Disney has been hit hard by the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. Most theme parks remain shuttered, tens of thousands of employees have been laid off, and revenue from theatrical film releases has gone from billions in 2019 to nearly zero this year.
It’s no accident that today marks one year since the premiere of Disney Plus, the company’s one bright spot in 2020. The streaming service offers Disney’s library of popular films and series across Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and other brands. Initially available in three nations and now rolled out to more than 40 countries, the streaming service has quickly risen to an estimated 70 million subscribers worldwide.
Its biggest rival showered Disney’s launch into streaming with high praise. “To have them achieve over 50 million [subscribers] in six months, it’s stunning,” said Netflix Co-CEO Reed Hastings in April. “Over 20 years of watching different businesses, incumbents like Blockbuster and Walmart, I’ve never seen such a good execution of the incumbent learning the new way and mastering.”
In the call today, Chapek and other company officials will tout the multiplying Disney Plus subscriber base and a few upcoming projects. Hungry for any news aside from theatrical movie delays, the entertainment press will report updates on its streaming growth and ambitions.
Yet many observers remain skeptical that Disney will dominate the future of streaming, which increasingly looks like the future of popular entertainment itself. Several questions about the core appeal of Disney Plus and its ability to reach diverse audiences are worth exploring.
1. Can Disney Plus Really Compete with Netflix?
Despite the hype, Disney Plus has had only two bona fide hits in its first year: serialized space Western show “The Mandalorian” and an artfully filmed version of Broadway smash hit “Hamilton.” (Some would add “Mulan” to that list, though a deep dive reveals that $200 million film failed to meet expectations. Perhaps working closely with the Chinese Communist Party wasn’t a great strategic move.) A few other first-year entries on the streamer are worth watching, such as real-life drama “The Right Stuff,” behind-the-movies series “Prop Culture,” talking-animals comedy “The One and Only Ivan” for kids, and animated space opera “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”
That’s hardly the breadth of content Netflix is churning out. A recent analysis noted 67 Netflix originals premiered in October 2020 compared to just five new films and series on Disney Plus. Many Netflix offerings have risen to cultural events: “The Last Dance,” “Extraction,” “Tiger King,” “The English Game,” “Enola Holmes,” “Challenger: The Final Flight,” “The Pharmacist,” and others released in the past year.
2. Does Disney Plus Have Appeal Beyond Young Families?
Many families have found Disney Plus, which launched three months before America’s lockdowns, an ideal option for kids facing extended time at home. From its inception, Disney executives have claimed their streaming service is intended to be more than a babysitter, but, in effect, that’s exactly what it has become.
Animated fare dominates its library. Its feature films are second to none, although TV entries are a hodgepodge or only intended for the littlest of tykes. It’s challenging to weed through all the cheesy laugh-track Disney Channel shows to find those few binge-worthy series, whereas rivals such as HBO Max and even free service Peacock have dozens of quality live-action series.
In short, many people who signed up to watch top-flight drama “The Mandalorian” will currently find little of interest. Like the rest of Hollywood, Disney had to stop production as of March due to COVID-19, which resulted in fewer new releases. With safety protocols established, its number of 2021 entries will apparently dwarf year one, which leads to the next question.
3. Will New Marvel Shows Meet Fan Expectations?
Intriguing sci-fi miniseries “WandaVision” will premiere in December, promising storylines that fully integrate into the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe. Over the next year, three more Marvel Studios series will land on Disney Plus: “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (originally slated for this past August), “Loki” (continuing story threads from “Avengers: Endgame”), and “What/If?” (a speculative animated series with MCU actors reprising past roles).
No one denies that “The Mandalorian” caught lightning in a bottle, with acclaimed director Jon Favreau, longtime Star Wars universe story guru Dave Filoni, and their collaborators delivering unexpected, compelling sci-fi stories. Yet to sustain a surprising, suspenseful TV drama is no easy task, as past middling efforts such as Marvel’s “Inhumans” reveal all too well.
One past Marvel show that soared for two seasons, “Agent Carter” on Disney Plus, benefited from the personal involvement of MCU mastermind Kevin Feige. Now that he’s overseeing even Marvel TV, fans are hopeful these upcoming series could achieve the quality that fans expect.
4. Can Disney Plus Navigate Values Conflicts?
Family entertainment critic Michael Foust has had a lot to say about Disney Plus. The Crosswalk writer and his wife are raising four kids in rural Illinois. Early adopters of the streamer, the Fousts have enjoyed easy access to such classics as “The Love Bug,” “Remember the Titans,” and even originals such as adventure drama “Togo” and inspirational film “Clouds,” a film Foust has applauded as “one of the best movies of 2020.”
On the other hand, he says, “It’s not a free-for-all when the kids use Disney Plus.” The service offers several PG-13 films to appeal to older audiences. More worrying to the Fousts are titles produced for kids that have themes and situations in conflict with their values, such as series “Andi Mack” and “The Owl House,” which feature romantic same-sex relationships.
“There are general attitudes, where kids might hear ‘doofus’ and ‘shut up’ in a Disney show,” said Foust earlier this year. “But there are also social agendas.” Such agendas are even more apparent on rival service Netflix, which includes shows such as “The Baby-Sitters Club” for young audiences, for which it has come under fire from parent advocacy groups. No matter the platform, many parents regard involvement in their kids’ entertainment options as essential.
5. Will Disney Plus Pick Up the Pace of Legacy Releases?
— Disney Family (@Disney_Family) April 20, 2020
When releasing fan-favorite fairytale comedy “The Princess Bride,” Disney Plus found a way to create some buzz around a decades-old film. Even with fewer new titles, Disney’s deep vault of past films has appealed to diverse subscriber segments. Notably, legacy releases such as “Home Alone,” “Once Upon A Time,” and “Cool Runnings” have shown up on the weekly trending list.
Yet the service has seemed to prioritize releasing 20th Century Studios’ recent hits, such as “X-Men” and “Cheaper by the Dozen,” rather than hundreds of Disney family films dating back to the 1950s — some of middling quality that are still beloved by many. Since the streamer’s launch, it has added only one Disney theatrical film released prior to 1990. It’s a large enough library that most media haven’t noticed how much is missing, including Disney franchises, musicals, and even Star Wars titles.
Certainly, some films and series are being held back for future release. Yet the name of the game in streaming is bringing on new subscribers, as Chapek noted during the last quarterly earnings call. “New content tends to bring in new subscribers, but catalog increases engagement and helps us retain subscribers,” he said. “So I think this new content [is] really going to go ahead and propel the business forward.”
No one disputes that new releases are significant to drive growth, which has been the playbook for Netflix to dominate in streaming. Hopefully, the retention of Disney fans isn’t forgotten in all the hype. Lately, those “catalog” releases on Disney Plus have tilted toward National Geographic and Disney Channel series, rather than a deeper dive into the vault.
With its bent toward leftist values and even compromises with the Chinese totalitarian regime, Disney has surely changed since its founding. Reflecting popular culture, where conflicts among different values and worldviews play out, streaming services like Disney’s demand a discerning approach.