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When Will Disney+ Have a Non-Marvel, Non-Star Wars Original Hit?

Ben Bowman

It’s been two years since Disney+ exploded on the scene, assembling a formidable library of some of the greatest IP in movie history. It’s an impressive lineup, but subscriber growth has hit a plateau. If you haven’t subscribed yet, what’s liable to bring you in? Can Disney magic still work with a story that doesn’t stem from an existing universe?

A Streaming Toy Store

A trip through the Disney+ library feels awfully similar to a stroll down the toy aisle at your favorite store. You’ll see heroes, princesses, space wizards, and animals galore. While that content definitely appeals to a certain demographic, the allure wears off quickly once you reach a certain age.

Yes, grown-ups like these stories, too. But is it worth subscribing for a whole year? You could binge your way through the MCU in a month. Its Marvel series are wildly expensive and only count for 6-9 hours of content each. Many more Marvel shows are on the way, but we should expect a slow, deliberate release strategy for titles like “She-Hulk,” “Moon Knight,” and “Ms. Marvel.”

The service’s biggest hit, “The Mandalorian,” has just 16 episodes. There are 11 major Star Wars films. And then what? Are kids really clamoring to watch the “Droids” cartoon from 1985? “The Book of Boba Fett” will likely be a success, but then Star Wars fans will be stuck waiting for their next fix - probably “Obi-Wan Kenobi” or “Andor.”

Because of the high standards and labor-intensive production standards expected from Disney, the service finds itself walking a knife’s edge. It could do cheaper entertainment and risk alienating its rabid fan base. Or it could continue at its slow pace, frustrating subscribers who get sick of waiting.

There’s also the very real danger of diluting Disney’s brands. Former CEO Bob Iger admitted as much, saying “I think we made and released too many Star Wars films over a short period of time.” Today, Disney announced 10 new Marvel series in the works. At what point does Marvel become too muddled?

‘This is the way’

Yes, audiences love Star Wars and Marvel. A certain chunk of subscribers would watch anything with those brand names. But if Disney+ wants to grow, it will need a hit that doesn’t come from those worlds. Here are some of their options.

Channeling Disney Channel

Disney had a successful run of kid-focused shows on Disney Channel in the mid-2000s. Their hits included “Hannah Montana,” “Sonny with a Chance,”“Wizards of Waverly Place,” “Lizzie McGuire,” and “That's So Raven.” Certainly, Disney has a knack for finding telegenic kids and plopping them in wish-fulfillment sitcom scenarios. It would be cheap and fast to spin out a few more shows like that.

“High School Musical” provides a more promising template. Disney’s knack for music could help it break through the clutter with the right song and the right talent. While adult-skewing musicals have fallen flat on network TV (“Cop Rock,” “Smash”), musicals would be happily at home with Disney+. “Hamilton” provided an enormous Disney+ subscriber surge, but many of those new adopters left. The new musical series “Tiana” (about “The Princess and the Frog” heroine) could scratch that itch, though it’s still aimed at kids.

Back of the Stacks

Disney has a habit of retreading its older properties (more on that later), and there’s some good IP available if the company is willing to dig. Perhaps a grittier reboot of “Swiss Family Robinson” or “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”? A modern-day reimagining of a classic Disney adventure series like “Zorro” or “Davy Crockett”?

The company has already announced a reboot of the 1986 film “Flight of the Navigator.” The new Disney+ series set in the world of “Willow” could break out, though the original movie was more of a cult hit.

Origin Story

The holy grail for Disney+ would be an entirely new title that breaks through to a larger audience. Certainly, Disney has the firepower to crank up new ideas. Without them, it runs the risk of oversaturating its superhero and sci-fi audiences with franchise spinoffs. Since the company has successfully mined fairy tales from around the world, it could go back to that well for an inexpensive series.

The company tried and failed to adapt Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books with “The Black Cauldron” in 1985 - those could be the basis of a kid-skewing series in the vein of “Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones.” The “Willow” series could take that position. So could the just-announced “Spiderwick Chronicles” series.

Whatever Disney does, it’s going to need to invest in series that don’t feature capes or lightsabers.


Disney’s ideas didn’t dry up overnight. After the company’s early-90s revival (chronicled in the great “Waking Sleeping Beauty”), it stalled out and started churning out direct-to-video sequels to its animated hits. In recent years, the creative bankruptcy has taken form with low-effort reboots like the live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “Lion King” films.

Those reboots may bring parents and their kids to theaters to relive a classic story in a new way, but when both films are side-by-side on Disney+, which one will audiences choose? Do you want to hear Seth Rogen sing again? Is Robin Williams or Will Smith your preferred Genie? Side-by-side comparisons like this are damning.

We also have the Disney trend of its vilainness backstory films like “Cruella” or “Maleficent.” At least those aren’t straight remakes, but it’s still treading over the same path.

What Netflix has realized is that its subscribers want something entirely new. While some people may subscribe to check out “Squid Game,” the service has industry-best churn rates because it’s interested in entertaining its existing audience with completely original content, which, in turn, brings in new viewers. While intellectual property retreads may bring people to a physical theater, novelty stands out once you’ve already made the commitment to subscribe to a streamer. In other words, a “Frozen 3” wouldn’t appeal to anyone who hasn’t already subscribed for the first two films in the series.

Hulu Handcuffs

The elephant in the room is Disney’s relationship with Hulu. Since Disney+ is attempting to remain walled off from graphic violence, sex, or profanity, it’s cutting out an adult audience that doesn’t crave sugar for every streaming meal. The ultra-dark “Handmaid's Tale” has been Hulu’s flagship series for years, but it wouldn’t have a home within Disney+.

Other countries are able to show adult content under the Disney+ Star tab. Hulu is only available domestically. And because Comcast owns a chunk of the service (at least for the next few years), Disney wants to keep that content sidelined.

It feels inevitable that Hulu will one day join Disney+ in a true Netflix-fighting super-app, but that doesn’t help the services now. In fact, they both suffer without access to the other’s library. Hulu’s children’s content is woefully thin. (It’s interesting that Disney chose to shove the “Shrek” movies to Hulu, presumably because of the adult humor and blunt Disney criticism contained within.)

Hulu itself has been slow to attack the streaming game. In recent years, it’s showing a little more fight with some excellent documentaries and “Only Murders in the Building.” Disney may also feel stuck because it needs to field content for its TV channels, including ABC and FX. It has to be difficult to program several networks and a streaming service.

Disney would do well to give more power to FX chairman John Landgraf. His creator-friendly approach has yielded some of the best TV in the last decade, including “Atlanta,” “What We Do In the Shadows,” “Louie,” “Rescue Me,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and “Fargo.” Series like those would do exceptionally well in a streaming environment if they bypassed linear TV.

In a 2014 interview with Variety, Landgraf said, “The more you micromanage, the more you push the writer, the producer or the actor into making conventional choices. Micromanaging is about fear and pushing people to fit preconceived notions. The goal with entertainment is to move people — to surprise them, to grip them, to make them laugh. The best work does that in a way that is wholly original.”

Does that sound like someone whose streaming service you would subscribe to?


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