There’s no denying it: it’s been a WEIRD few years for movies.
In response to the global health crisis, Disney’s approach to releasing movies has been creative and surprising at times. It can seem kind of random how they decide to release each of their films. So, is Disney playing favorites with certain movies getting a “better” type of release? Let’s take a look!
How Disney is Releasing Films
As of March 2021, Disney had released four MAJOR films during the global health crisis, while others had been delayed. Of those movies released:
- Some went straight to Disney+ as a free offering for subscribers
- Some hit theaters first and then became available on Disney+ for free
- Some became (at least initially) available through the Disney+ Premier Access program only (which requires an additional payment on top of the Disney+ subscription)
- Some were released on Disney+ and in theaters simultaneously.
Basically, the range is “free for Disney+ Subscribers” to “only in movie theaters” and everything in between. And it was being handled on a case-by-case basis. Yeah, it’s a little confusing.
Soul premiered directly on Disney+ for subscribers to view for FREE — no Premier Access, no theatrical release first. But, in international markets where Disney+ is not available, Soul was released theatrically.
Onward was initially released in theaters in early March 2020, but as the COVID-19 pandemic started to affect the world and movie theaters began closing, it quickly became available to purchase on streaming platforms, and shortly after became available to stream on Disney+ for free.
On the other hand, Mulan was released through Disney+ Premier Access for the one-time cost of $30. That means in order to initially watch this film you had to have a Disney+ subscription AND pay an additional $30 for the film. Again, in countries where Disney+ is not available, Disney released Mulan in theaters. A few months later, Mulan arrived on the platform free of additional charge. So if you didn’t mind waiting a couple months, you could watch it for no additional cost.
Raya and the Last Dragon used a slightly different method. The film was released on Disney+ through Premier Access for $30, like Mulan, but was also released on the same day in theaters. In June 2021, the film became available for free for all Disney+ subscribers.
Some movies were significantly delayed in an effort to ensure a full theatrical release. The most notable example of this was with Black Widow, the Marvel Cinematic Universe film that was originally set to release in 2020. Black Widow was then delayed multiple times — before being delayed AGAIN and releasing on Disney+ through Premier Access and in theaters on the same day in July 2021 (similar to what was done with Raya and the Last Dragon).
Disney also announced that Pixar’s Luca would be released for FREE on Disney+ (the film was originally set to be released in theaters), and Cruella released on Disney+ in May 2021 (it was originally just set to be released in theaters).
As of 2022, there’s been even more news of Pixar films being pushed to a free Disney+ release, even as theaters become more of an option for consumers again. Turning Red, Pixar’s upcoming film, was originally set to release in theaters this year. Instead, it’s been shifted to a Disney+-only release in response to “delayed box office recovery, particularly for family films.”
So, how does Disney decide which films get what treatment? Why didn’t Soul get a pushed-back release date to theaters? Why did Black Widow get the Disney+ and theatrical release treatment? And WHAT is the deciding factor for what goes to Premier Access? Are they playing favorites?
How Much Money Have These Films Made?
First, let’s take a look at how much money these films have made. Perhaps their budget and projected box office earnings have an effect on which release strategy Disney uses?
Let’s look at Soul. IndieWire notes that generally Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Disney’s own animated titles typically cost well over $150 million each to create. So, let’s assume Soul‘s budget, being a Pixar film, was somewhere close to that. According to Box Office Mojo (an IMDB project), the film brought in $116.2 from its worldwide theatrical releases.
Onward, Pixar’s previous film, brought in $141.9 million from theatrical releases, according to Box Office Mojo. (But remember that number got chopped lower than it likely would have been due to theaters closing.)
Disney has not released specific figures in terms of how these films affected Disney+ subscribers and what revenue exactly has come from that, but we did learn that Disney+ experienced a HUGE bump in app installations over the holidays (close to when Soul was released). According to Bloomberg, there were actually about 2.3 million global installations of the Disney+ mobile app over the Christmas holiday.
Disney hasn’t released figures on how much they made from Premier Access release on either of the films that went to Premier Access (Mulan and Raya). According to Box Office Mojo, Raya and the Last Dragon has grossed about $67.6 million worldwide in theaters.
Per CNN, Mulan had a $200 million budget. Box Office Mojo reports that the movie brought in about $66.8 million in worldwide theatrical releases. Again, these numbers don’t seem to reflect the revenue these potentially brought in in terms of Premier Access payments or increases to the Disney+ subscriber numbers.
Black Widow’s release, not counting Disney+ incomes, made about $196 million in theatres from a budget of $200 million, but another Marvel Cinematic Universe standalone film pre-pandemic (Spider-Man Far From Home) made about $1.132 billion at the box office from a budget of about $160 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
So, How Might Disney Be Deciding?
Interestingly enough, we’ve noticed that Disney has generally sent different studio films to different release methods. Pixar’s films — both Soul and Luca (and now Turning Red) — have gone or are set to go straight to Disney+ for free. Onward went to Disney+ for free rather quickly as well. On the other hand, Walt Disney Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios films have generally gone to Premier Access — we saw this for Raya and the Last Dragon and now for Cruella.
When it comes to Marvel, things are a bit different. Black Widow came to theaters and Disney+ through Premier Access on the same day. But, another Marvel film — Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — was initially a theatrical release only.
So, what gives?
Box Office Considerations
As mentioned, this decision may be based (partly) on how much these films are expected to bring in at the box office. Pure box office numbers however might indicate why Disney delayed Black Widow to try and get a purely theatrical release. Eventually, Disney gave up on that strategy for this film, perhaps because it has already been SIGNIFICANTLY delayed and delaying it further would complicate future releases.
But, Disney didn’t entirely give up on the potential revenue of a Marvel movie in theaters, as Shang Chi had a theatrical release. In that way, Disney may be playing favorites by holding onto a Marvel film that has the potential to earn them over a BILLION dollars.
On the other hand, releasing Pixar and Walt Disney Studios films in any way possible (Free or Premier Access) still generally lets Disney continue their normal pattern of merchandising. It’s possible that with these movies — which are (again generally speaking) marketed heavily towards children, bring in quite a bit of merchandise dollars and food tie-ins, in and out of the parks — their release in any fashion is “worth it.”
We’ve seen a LOT of Raya and the Last Dragon and Soul merchandise from Disney, for instance. We’ve even seen McDonald’s toys! We have seen Marvel merch too though, so it’s not as though merchandising is exclusive to kids’ films. But Disney might value the merchandise and release of these films differently.
These releases may also be aimed at increasing or maintaining the number of Disney+ subscribers. Back in November of 2020, Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek said “It’s very clear to us that new content drives subscribers.” Disney+ has a MASSIVE number of subscribers already, but its goal is to get MANY more.
Disney has noted just HOW important its direct-to-consumer (DTC) services are to the future of the company. Disney CEO Bob Chapek has specifically noted that “DTC business is key to the future growth of our company.” Chapek also said he sees the DTC business as a “key driver of significant long-term value for [the] company.”
So, if Disney is focused greatly on its DTC services (which it appears it VERY much is), then releasing more content on Disney+ (either for free or for an additional cost) might be a long-term strategy focused on gaining and keeping subscribers in a service that Disney considers to be KEY to its future.
Plus, continuing some sort of release pattern — even if it’s just on Disney+, frees up future release schedules instead of delaying them like Marvel’s has been.
With animation, films can generally be worked on at home. This means productions can largely stay on schedule. Disney’s Executive Chairman Bob Iger even noted in an interview how Soul was finished entirely during COVID.
For Marvel and other live-action concepts, however, the global health crisis slowed down production and bogged down releases.
Demand and Consumer Preference
One of the BIGGEST factors, however, might be demand and consumer preference. Demand at theaters may be lower due to health concerns, and that could impact future releases.
Disney’s changes regarding Black Widow, Cruella, Turning Red, and Luca might show that they’re prepared to make adjustments to meet changes in attitude and be flexible.
Talking about theatrical vs. Disney+ releases, Disney CEO Bob Chapek noted in a recent earnings call, “It’s going to be dependent, though, on what our slate of titles are and whether we think that we need to put something on the service for those particular guests, or whether this is something that we could use as another data point in our exploration of Premier Access same date with theatrical.”
Chapek noted, “it’s really about flexibility, and we’re going to steer our decision-making over time given what information that we get from our guests and our subscriber base on what they prefer.”
Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek has said that “People want to see movies the way they want to see them, when they want to see them, and how they want to see them.” In terms of using Premier Access for more films in the future, Chapek says that the decision on whether this strategy will be used moving forward will be “up to the consumer.”
According to Chapek, the decision really comes from what the audience prefers. So, in that case, Disney isn’t playing favorites — we are, as the consumers!
It seems there are really a number of factors potentially at play here — Disney+ subscribers, changing consumer preferences and behavior, financial considerations, and likely much more. At the end of the day, only time and future changes in consumer behavior, profits, and more will truly tell how Disney continues to adapt its movie premieres.
As always, stay tuned to DFB for all the latest news and analyses about the Walt Disney Company!
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Have you paid for Disney+ Premier Access to watch some of the new movies? Tell us in the comments!