Disney has unveiled a myriad of new streaming offerings, including plans for 10 Star Wars series spinoffs and 10 Marvel series that will debut on Disney+.
But even as Disney emphasised its expanding streaming portfolio, the company said theatrical release remained an important component of its big-budget spectacles.
The company is raising the cost of Disney+ subscriptions by $US1 ($1.32) per month in America and two euros ($3.22) across continental Europe.
It’s unclear yet if that will mean a price increase for Australian consumers.
In a virtual presentation for investors, Disney chief executive Bob Chapek laid out super-sized ambitions for it direct-to-consumer efforts, leaning heavily on some of the company’s biggest brands.
Over the next few years, Disney is planning to premiere directly on Disney+ not just a suite of Star Wars and Marvel series but 15 live-action, Pixar and other animated series, and 15 live-action, Pixar and other animated movies.
Mr Chapek said Disney+ subscribers worldwide had reached 86.8 million, up from 74 million last month. The service has easily exceeded most forecasts, reaching its user numbers in just 13 months since launch.
Slew of content designed to keep subscriber numbers up
To keep subscriber numbers climbing, Disney presented a blizzard of remakes, sequels and spinoffs of various shapes and sizes, including a Beauty and the Beast prequel series, a Moana animated series, a Three Men and a Baby reboot with Zac Efron, a Swiss Family Robinson series and, yes, even the Kardashians.
But Disney also kept its biggest films — including Marvel’s Black Widow, Pixar’s Luca, a Lion King prequel — on course for theatrical release. Whereas WarnerMedia last week pushed its entire 2021 slate to streaming, Disney executives signalled that theatrical release remains an important component of its big-budget spectacles.
I don’t even have the words. https://t.co/GHC8X6Yp7n
— Chris Evans (@ChrisEvans) December 11, 2020
Still, the four-hour presentation showed off a more seamless vision of content across platforms that made scant mention of its closed theme parks, or of the pandemic. That included a dizzying amount of series, many of them connected to big-screen movies past and present. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said a pair of new Marvel series — Secret Invasion, with Samuel Jackson, and Ironheart — will “tie directly to Marvel future films”. The only difference between the company’s short-form TV content and its theatrical content, said Bob Iger, executive chairman, “is length”.
Other films are going ahead with theatrical plans, among them a Buzz Lightyear Toy Story prequel, due in 2020, and the Black Panther sequel. Feige confirmed that the role of the late Chadwick Boseman would not be recast but that its makers were still interested in “exploring the world of Wakanda” in Ryan Coogler‘s film, due in theatres July 2022.
Next Star Wars film Rogue Squadron releases 2023
Lucasfilm announced that director Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) would direct the next Star Wars theatrical film, Rogue Squadron, with a release in theatres planned for Christmas 2023.
Jenkins becomes the first woman to direct a Star Wars film. In a video, she said the film would satisfy a long-held dream of hers as the daughter of an Air Force captain.
“When he lost his life in service of this country, it ignited a desire in me to turn all of that tragedy and thrill into one day making the greatest fighter pilot movie of all time,” said Jenkins in a video message.
Among the Star Wars series are two spinoffs of The Mandalorian, set during the series’ timeline: Rangers of the New Republic and Ahsoka, with Rosario Dawson.
Shooting also recently began on Andor, a series developed by Tony Gilroy (Bourne Identity), with Diego Luna’s reprising his character from the 2016 film Rogue One.
Hayden Christensen returns to Anakin/Darth Vader role
Other, less expected Star Wars stars are returning. Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker in the prequel films, will reprise his role as Darth Vader in Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Ewan McGregor.
“We have a vast and expansive timeline in the Star Wars mythology, spanning over 25,000 years of history in the galaxy with each era being a rich resource for storytelling,” said Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm.
“Now with Disney+ we can explore limitless story possibilities like never before and fulfil the promise that there is truly a Star Wars story for everyone.”
Disney said one of its upcoming films, the animated Raya and the Last Dragon would in March debut simultaneously in theatres and by premier access on Disney+.
That’s the same approach the company took earlier this year for Mulan, with a $34.99 early-access fee in Australia on top of the $8.99 monthly subscription.
Disney made other adjustments to reorient its film operations around streaming. Hulu, which this year debuted the Andy Samberg comedy Palm Springs and Sarah Paulson thriller Run, will be home to more original films from 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures.
Hulu will also be the new home of the Kardashians, recently departed from E!. The streaming service also renewed The Handmaid’s Tale for a fifth season.
FX is developing the first series based on the Alien films, with Noah Hawley (Fargo) directing. The network also renewed It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for four more seasons, to take it to 18 seasons.
Some forecast the end of cinema as we know it
Many in Hollywood had eagerly awaited Disney’s response following WarnerMedia’s announcement last week that it will release all 17 of its 2021 films – from Dune to The Matrix 4 – simultaneously on streaming platform HBO Max and in theatres.
That move set off shockwaves prompting a backlash from much of the film industry, including theatre chains, producing partners and some of the studio’s top talent.
Director Christopher Nolan criticised the plans as “a bit of a mess”.
Some said the long-forecast end times for cinemas had arrived.
Hayden Christensen returns as Darth Vader, joining Ewan McGregor in OBI-WAN KENOBI. The Original Series begins 10 years after the dramatic events of Revenge of the Sith, and is coming to #DisneyPlus. pic.twitter.com/9WR2npRUkk
— Star Wars (@starwars) December 10, 2020
Others questioned the economics of one of Hollywood’s top studios sacrificing a year of box office – and the cascading windows of release that follow a theatrical run – to salvage the rocky rollout of HBO Max – a service that many HBO subscribers still have not activated.
Wall Street approved. Stocks for WarnerMedia’s parent company AT&T are up about 6 per cent since the announcement by Jason Kilar, chief executive of WarnerMedia and a veteran of Hulu and Amazon.
John Stankey, the AT&T chief executive, on Tuesday said the pandemic had unleashed a new media reality unlikely to fade after COVID-19. “That horse left the barn,” he said.
But Disney signalled that while it would continue to be flexible during the pandemic in distributing its films and series, it still sees theatrical release as valuable. After several postponements, the Marvel film Black Widow is scheduled to open in theatres on May 7.
Compared to WarnerMedia, the present situation is very different for Disney, which has already laid the foundation for a formidable Netflix competitor in Disney+ and which has for years dominated the box office.
The company’s films accounted for more than $13 billion in ticket sales worldwide last year and 38 per cent of moviegoing in the US and Canada. Seven Disney films topped $US1 billion worldwide.