Disney’s $16 Billion-Plus Bet: An Avalanche of New Content for Streaming – and Movie Theaters Too

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“It’s not HBO Max that has to worry; it’s Netflix,” a top agent says

Bob Chapek as Disney Investor Day

After a brutal pandemic year, The Walt Disney Co. on Thursday came out swinging with a recovery plan based on an avalanche of new content distributed across all of its platforms — including movie theaters that have been battered by shutdowns this year. The company plans to accelerate the growth in streaming-first films and TV shows, spending up to $16 billion annually within four years on Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ in a drive to challenge category leader Netflix. Disney watchers may have been expecting the company to adopt a strategy similar to the one rival WarnerMedia announced last week — diverting its entire 2021 slate of 17 feature films to its nascent streaming platform, HBO Max, on the same day as they open in theaters. But while three smaller, mostly animated films will bypass theaters for a Disney+ debut, the company committed to a theatrical release for major titles, including this May’s Marvel release “Black Widow,” that many had anticipated would head straight to streaming. In fact, Disney used its virtual “Investor Day” to present an ambitious model that included a boatload of original content to appear on its streaming service Disney+, as well as on ESPN+  and Hulu — with additional high-profile projects bound for theaters. “It’s all about flexibility,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in a session with industry analysts at the end of the meetings. After what he called a “tough year,” Chapek predicted a “bright” future that would encompass Disney’s broad range of streaming services and distribution platforms. And the company is investing in its strategy in a very big way, ramping up spending on original streaming content to $14 billion to $16 billion annually by 2024, CFO Christine McCarthy said, with $8 billion to $9 billion dedicated just to Disney+. That would be a huge increase — though it’s still below the $17 billion that streaming supergiant Netflix is spending on content this year alone. “Netflix must be getting worried and Apple is just waiting in the long grass waiting to pounce,” a top Hollywood agent told theWrap of Disney’s ambitious production plans. “It’s not HBO Max that has to worry; it’s Netflix.” Disney promised a deluge of new shows, many based on familiar characters, brands and franchises — including 10 new Marvel series and 10 “Star Wars” series over the next few years. Disney+ will also roll out 15 live-action and animated series as well as 15 original features — enough original programming to justify an imminent $1 hike in the monthly fee even as the number of Disney+ subscribers topped 86 million. The goal, outgoing CEO Bob Iger said, is to launch two new shows or movies each week on Disney+ by 2024. While the investment in Disney+ is striking, the company’s 2021 plans also include theatrical releases — with most avoiding the concurrent streaming debut that Warner Bros. plans. “Of the 100 titles we announced today, 80% are first going to Disney+,” Chapek said, “but at the time same, we had $13 billion dollars of (worldwide) box office last year and that’s nothing to sneeze at.”
“For theaters, there is a sense of relief,” Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock said, noting that only this March’s animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon” will be getting a simultaneous debut in theaters and as a premium Disney+ offering. “Obviously they could still move ‘Black Widow’ or ‘Luca’ to Premiere Access if it doesn’t look like theaters are close to coming back this spring. But for now it’s looking like Disney is preparing for a future where theatrical releases are coming back at some point next year.” Eric Schiffer, CEO of the The Patriarch Organization, and private equity and venture capital firm based in Santa Ana, Calif., said he thought Disney was “hedging their bets” by avoiding the revolutionary move that Warner Bros. made. “Disney is being conservative, recognizing that they can always change,” Schiffer said. “They don’t want to be seen as the killer of the theatrical experience or the final death blow of cinema.” And as Bock noted, “Disney has so much new content that they need theatrical just as another distribution stream!” Chad Fitzgerald, a partner and entertainment litigator with  Kinsella, Weitzman, Iser Kump, told TheWrap, “It seems like they are doing not quite the all-out nuclear option of Warner Bros.” And since top Warner Bros. directors like Christopher Nolan (“Tenet”) and Denis Villeneuve (“Dune”) have publicly criticized that studio’s move, he added, “I think that talent still has a reason to be unhappy, but less reasons than in the Warner situation.” Disney’s investors were clearly pleased by the announcement. The company’s stock surged in after-hours trading, rising from a closing price of $154.69 at 4 p.m. ET to $160.95 four hours later — an all-time high. And the strategy is clearly meant to boost the company’s streaming strategy — particularly as it centers on Disney+. In that regard, the Burbank-based company has a leg up on AT&T’s WarnerMedia despite some of their surface similarities. “HBO Max has a library, just like Disney has,” the agent said. “And a library that can be fully realized and exploited. Having a library is the most important thing for any studio as we move forward. And Netflix does not have one, hence why they’re spending about $17 billion per year on content in a very expensive game of catch-up. If you don’t have a library, you cannot survive.” But Disney didn’t need to pull back from theaters — and the huge profit margins that a big-screen hit can produce — just to boost its streaming service. “Warner Bros. is clearly making a move to boost their HBO Max subscriber count,” Bock said, noting that HBO Max has only a fraction of the subscribers of its streaming rivals. “They are struggling on that front and think their big tentpoles will bring in new subscribers.” Disney could come out ahead due to its traditionally cautious approach to change. “You are talking about masters of managing brand image,” Schiffer said. “They are going to play it with a level of hyper-careful curation, where Warner didn’t care.” Jeremy Fuster, Umberto Gonzalez and Beatrice Verhoeven contributed to this report.    


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