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Disney CEO Promises ‘Flexibility’ With Theatrical vs. Streaming Releases

Ben Bowman

Will Disney+ Premier Access ever return? According to Disney CEO Bob Chapek, the answer is a definitive “maybe.”

“We’re watching very, very carefully different types of movies to see how the different components of the demographics of the market come back,” Chapek said in the company’s Q4 earnings call. “We’re watching the family films as they are released to make sure the market will come back.”

This suggests Disney is open to the ViacomCBS model. Paramount+ has seen outsized success with simultaneous theatrical and streaming releases of family films like “PAW Patrol,” so it’s replicating the plan with “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” Perhaps parents would rather stay home and stream a family movie than pay $200 for movie tickets, snacks, and parking.

It’s worth noting that the only Disney+ Premier Access title specifically aimed at kids was the animated “Raya and the Last Dragon.” The others (“Cruella,” “Mulan,” “Jungle Cruise,” and “Black Widow”) were more adult-skewing. This statement by Chapek might suggest that if Premier Access were to return, it might be for animated movies like “Soul” or “Luca,” which were available on Disney+ without the added fee.

Disney+ dropped its free trial ahead of “Hamilton” in July of 2020, but saw a huge influx of subscribers when the award-winning musical arrived. Many of those new viewers left the service after watching “Hamilton,” so the service hatched its Premier Access plan - a premium upcharge for the ability to watch theatrical releases at home.

Just three months ago, Chapek made the call to throw Premier Access overboard, which meant “Shang-Chi” was the first Disney film to be a theatrical-only release since “Onward,” which released a few short days before the world shut down due to the pandemic.

“Shang-Chi” went on to earn $430 million at the global box office. Presumably, that was a big enough success, Disney made the call to plow forward with the theatrical-only plan, at least for the grown-up movies. The theatrical-only “Eternals” is up to $170 million in just seven days of release. (The Premier Access-available “Black Widow” took home $379 million in theaters.)

Piracy is also a consideration. Direct-to-streaming releases are easily pirated and shared around the world. Theatrical-only releases are much harder to steal and share. With Disney’s coveted IP, that’s a serious factor.

In a post-earnings interview with CNBC, Chapek said “the consumer is going to drive us” in regard to the Disney release strategy. As long as audiences come to theaters, Disney is likely to skip a direct-to-streaming strategy. If families stay from the cinema, Disney plans to pivot.

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