Disney+ Breaks 86.8 Million Subscribers as Mouse Shows That Streaming Is King on Investor Day

Hulu renews “Handmaid’s Tale” for Seasons 4 and 5 and prepares to stream new films from Searchlight and 20th Century.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek
Disney CEO Bob Chapek

Disney is continuing to lean even more heavily into streaming as Disney+ continues its extraordinary growth trajectory. Executives on Thursday began the company’s four-hour virtual investor day by announcing the service now boasts 86.8 million subscribers as of December 2. Four hours later Disney revealed it plans to spend $14-16 billion on content creation for all of their direct-to-consumer platforms from now until 2024, a figure that rivals Netflix’s own extraordinary content budget.

In between, during those four hours, the company also revealed also revealed a multi-pronged distribution model that will see previously announced theatrical titles being released on Disney+, teased beefed-up content offerings for the service, and revealed new TV and film developments with Hulu.

Executives made the announcements Thursday during a special presentation to investors that was streamed online. While the company’s quarterly earnings calls this year have all been headline-grabbing affairs, Thursday’s event pulled out all the stops with a slick audiovisual extravaganza that more closely resembled an event at Disney’s annual D23 fan convention than one geared toward investment bankers.

Kareem Daniel, the company’s distribution chairman, gave a top-level rundown of Disney’s new multi-tiered distribution model: releases straight to theaters and linear networks (a play that would be best for major franchises, he said), simultaneous release on streaming and in theaters, and exclusive streaming releases.

Daniel made sure to point out that the options were being presented “in no particular order” — theatrical and streaming are equal here — while at the same time, Disney was embracing a strategy that makes streaming a top priority.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” will be among the titles shifted to Disney+: It will be released day-and-date on the streaming service for a premium price as well as in theaters on March 5, 2021.

The animated film stars Kelly Marie Tran as Raya and Awkwafina as Sisu, the last dragon set in a world where ancient monsters return to the world. Co-directed by Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) and Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”), the film was originally set for a traditional theatrical release.

Additionally, Daniel revealed that Disney+ will pick up the pace of its releases, adding new content weekly. Over the next few years, that will include 10 Marvel series, 10 “Star Wars” series; 10 Disney live-action, animation, and Pixar series; and 10 Disney live-action, animation, and Pixar features.

Disney film production chief Sean Bailey announced upcoming Disney+ movies: “Hocus Pocus 2,” “Three Men and a Baby” with Zac Efron; “Flora and Ulysses” about children’s book girl and squirrel sidekick, due for release in February; a “Cheaper by the Dozen” installment starring Gabrielle Union in 2022,  a new animated “Diary of a Wimpy Kid;” Ice Age spinoff “Ice Age Adventures of Buckwild” featuring the return of Simon Pegg; an animated “Night at the Museum;” “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers,” a live-action “Pinnochio” directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks as Geppetto; a live-action “Peter Pan & Wendy,” from “Pete’s Dragon” director David Lowery; and an “Enchanted” sequel “Disenchanted.”

For other movies highlighted Thursday, executives did not specify distribution plans. Among them are “Encanto,” an animated musical-comedy set in Colombia, with music and storytelling from Lin-Manuel Miranda; a prequel to the live-action “Lion King” directed by Barry Jenkins and featuring the music of Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Nicholas Britell; “The Little Mermaid” starring Halle Bailey; and the Emma Stone-starring live-action “Cruella.”

The company announced that it would begin to expand Disney+ with general entertainment options outside of the US through the Star brand, which will make Disney+ more akin to Netflix with its “everything to everybody” strategy. But stateside, executives doubled-down on their commitment to keeping Hulu as its general audience service in the US.

As part of that, Hulu chief Kelly Campbell announced that 20th Century Studios and Searchlight will produce original films for Hulu. More details will be revealed later this year. The move comes on the heels of the company launching the FX on Hulu vertical and as Hulu has been one of the more aggressive acquirers of festival titles that end up bearing the Hulu Original Films banner such as “Bad Hair” and “Palm Springs.”

TV studio chief Dana Walden teased new shows that will premiere on Hulu in the US and Disney+’s Star vertical in other territories. Among them: “Only Murders in the Building,” starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez; “The Dropout,” starring Kate McKinnon as Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder and CEO of healthcare startup Theranos; “Dopesick” starring Michael Keaton, Peter Sarsgaard, and Rosario Dawson; “Nine Perfect Strangers” from David E. Kelley and starring Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, and Regina Hall.

She also announced Season 5 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

The company also announced its first Walt Disney Animated series, “Baymax!,” based on the 2014 movie “Big Hero Six.” The series will premiere in 2022. It will be followed by several more. Princess Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog” will return in a musical series “Tiana” in 2023. A “Moana” series will premiere in 2023.

Another series, “Iwaju” which means “The Future” in the Yoruba language, set in Lagos, will debut in 2022.

In Hollywood, all eyes were on the presentation as an industry roiled by the pandemic continues to change by the day. It comes about a week after WarnerMedia announced the entirety of Warner Bros.’s 2021 slate would debut simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters, a move that angered talent and cinema operators, but marked a preemptive victory for Warners in the streaming wars.

The spectacle was meant to keep Wall Street’s attention on the promise of Disney’s streaming-centric future and away from the company’s deplorable financial results amid the pandemic.

With TV ad sales down, theaters hurting, and some of Disney’s parks still closed, 2020 marked the first annual loss for Disney in more than 40 years. Consecutive quarterly losses brought on by the pandemic marked the first time the company reported even a single quarterly loss since 2001.

After launching in November 2019, Disney+’s subscriber growth quickly blew past expectations. It closed Q4 with 73.7 million subscribers; at launch, Disney’s goal was to reach 60 to 90 million subscriptions by 2024.

The company has long articulated that it sees its future as streaming. The pandemic accelerated some of that, given the simple fact that streaming is just where people are getting their entertainment now.

After buying the filmed version of “Hamilton” for a reported $75 million in February, Disney nixed its plans for a theatrical release and instead gave the musical a Disney+ debut in July. It joined another A-list project, Kenneth Branagh’s Colin Farrell and Judi Dench-starring “Artemis Fowl,” which was released on the service a month earlier.

In September, Disney delivered its own take on the PVOD model that has served Universal well during the pandemic by offering “Mulan” on Disney+ on a “premiere access” basis. The movie is available only to Disney+ subscribers willing to pay $30 to access the movie as long as they remain subscribers.

Pixar’s “Soul” will get a Disney+ release on Christmas Day for no additional cost.

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