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Is The Disney+ Premier Access Experiment Over?

Steve Anderson

Disney's next six films will get theatrical-only runs. Does this mean the Premier Access experiment is over? What might bring it back?

Premier Access began as a simple concept: take the very latest in movies, offer up early access for a premium price—$30 in Disney+’s case—and keep the money rolling despite the pandemic. It appears to have left a bad taste in subscribers’ mouths, however. Why should subscribers, who are already paying for access to the streaming service, be required to pay once again for access to certain titles on the service? While HBO Max provided their theatrical releases free to its subscribers and other services simply made you wait, Disney tried to split the difference: pay early to watch it before your fellow streamers or bide your time.

For the rest of 2021, Premier Access is essentially defunct. Disney’s CEO says individual titles will be considered on a “case-by-case basis.” And the company has stated that Premier Access is not guaranteed to continue beyond this year.

The reason Premier Access exists is probably because of the outsized impact of “Hamilton.” When the musical debuted on Disney+ in July of 2020, it drove a huge number of subscribers to the service, but many of them fell off once their initial month was over. Disney leaders likely grumbled that they threw away their shot to drive far more revenue on the event. So Premier Access was born.

But the strategy appeared flawed from the start. The first two Premier Access titles were “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Mulan,” both of which were just regular Disney movies. “Hamilton” is a much different animal, appealing to a different demographic.

“Hamilton” likely would have been a huge smash if offered under the Premier Access banner. In fact, it would have been seen as a spectacular bargain; the average price of a Broadway musical ticket for the 2018 - 2019 season was $122.73. Imagine the savings for a family of four; Disney could have charged five times what it did and likely still been considered a decent deal.

Still, trying to compare “Hamilton” to “Raya and the Last Dragon” is like trying to compare Barry Bonds to Little Timmy Wilkerson, cleanup batter in fourth-grade tee-ball. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is a once-in-a-generation marvel. These other Premier Access titles are typical Disney fare.

With theaters throughout the world re-opening—and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” ruling the box office for Labor Day Weekend—Disney’s experiment in Premier Access may have outlived its usefulness, at least in its present form. The rest of Disney’s lineup for the rest of the year will go straight to theaters, and Premier Access will likely go dark.

Will it stay dark? Only time will tell, but it may prove useful down the line for events like “Hamilton,” should any come around again.

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