Did Disney Blow It Letting ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ Skip Theaters for a Streaming-Only Debut?

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Disney+ viewership points to theatrical revenue possibly left on the table

(Left to Right): Kathy Najimy as Mary Sanderson, Bette Midler as Winifred Sanderson, and Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah Sanderson in Disney's live-action HOCUS POCUS 2, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Matt Kennedy. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Kathy Najimy as Mary Sanderson, Bette Midler as Winifred Sanderson, and Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah Sanderson in Disney's live-action HOCUS POCUS 2, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Matt Kennedy. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Sanderson sisters put another spell on “Hocus Pocus” fans — but did Disney miss out by bypassing theaters for a streaming-first release?

The straight-to-Disney+ sequel to the 1993 movie — a theatrical flop ($45 million global on a $28 million budget) that later became a beloved cult phenomenon — debuted on the weekend of Sept. 30 with Nielsen viewership of 2.75 billion minutes viewed. The film dropped hard the first full week after that opening weekend, which isn’t unexpected, yet still posted a terrific 1.099 billion minutes viewed from October 3-9.

“Hocus Pocus 2” was also the fourth most in-demand movie over the month of October, behind Paramount’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” Sony/Marvel’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Warner Bros./DC’s “Black Adam” — all big-screen blockbusters, according to data from Parrot Analytics. “Hocus Pocus 2” even finished ahead of Warner Bros.’ big-screen hit “The Batman” in terms of demand, which Parrot measures by factoring in consumer research, streaming, downloads and social media, among other engagement.

That’s a big-screen level of demand — which suggests that the studio may have benefited from reconsidering its streaming-only release plans.

“While it’s clear that Disney saw the streaming only release of ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ as a strategy to bolster the profile and popularity of Disney+,” Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap, “perhaps they could have come up with a theatrical strategy that could have taken advantage of the cache of a big screen release while simultaneously reaping the benefits of the streaming option.”

A representative for Disney declined to comment for this story. One studio insider pointed to the “Hocus Pocus 2” viewership data as validating its original streaming-only release strategy.

Nielsen initially reported the film had amassed a bigger week-long viewership figure (over its first Friday-to-Sunday frame) than any movie in Nielsen’s (just over two-years-and-counting) SVOD viewership measurement history. That blow-out success runs counter to conventional wisdom that films that play in theaters (or intended for theatrical distribution) like “The Batman,” “Sing 2” and “Turning Red” perform better on streaming, especially non-Netflix platforms, than streaming-specific originals.

Save for Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up” and “Red Notice,” the other films in Nielsen’s Top 10 single-week viewership milestones either played in theaters (“Wonder Woman 1984,” “Encanto,” “Frozen II” and “Onward”) or were supposed to be in theaters before switching to streaming-first releases, often due to pandemic factors (“Hamilton,” “Luca” and “Turning Red”).

Billion-plus-minute streaming debuts for Disney Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and 20th Century’s “Free Guy” following their theatrical successes implied that a strong theatrical release didn’t harm streaming potential on Disney+. Pixar’s theatrical flop “Lightyear” debuted with 1.3 billion minutes, implying its poor theatrical reception ($226 million global) didn’t make it less valuable during its first days as a Disney+ streaming title.

The sky-high streaming debut figures suggest that “Hocus Pocus 2” might have succeeded at the box office had it opened in theaters, grossed a halfway decent global cume and then debuted to almost-as-big streaming figures. And since Disney+ already assumed the production budget, a figure on which Disney declined to comment, the only risk would have been the cost of theatrical marketing campaign.

“As a goodwill generator,” Dergarabedian said, “fans would have enjoyed the opportunity to see ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ on the big screen and theaters would have appreciated the additional content for their screens.”

That’s especially true given the relative lack of major wide releases between Sony’s “Bullet Train” in early August and Universal’s “Halloween Ends” in mid-October.

If “Hocus Pocus” had earned (educated speculation) around $100 million worldwide from a $40 million marketing spend, that would have been around $20 million in “found money” for a film that was already going to be made anyway.

Still, the strategy would have carried risks. Playing on nostalgia is no guarantee of success, as proven by recent dud sequels like 2016’s “Zoolander 2” and 2019’s “Zombieland: Double Tap.” And disappointing box office — fueled by middling reviews (“Hocus Pocus 2” earned only 64% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and 51% from audiences) — might have tarnished what was always intended as a surefire streaming hit.

That may partially explain why Netflix’s “Green Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” a sequel to a Rian Johnson’s $310 million-grossing breakout smash, is only getting a week-long, 600-theater theatrical release. Why risk the film getting tagged as a box office bomb if it is already sure to be a streaming hit?

“Hocus Pocus 2” executive producer David Kirschner previously told TheWrap that he preferred a streaming release. “I just think [Disney did] such an amazing job that for me, it doesn’t make a difference in the least, and my preference is this,” he said. “But I’ll leave it to others, if they want it in theaters, I guess they’ll make that argument.”

It’s worth remembering that “Hocus Pocus” and Disney+’s upcoming Amy Adams fantasy musical “Enchanted” only have value due to their prior existence as theatrical releases. Ditto whatever fortune and glory is gained from the upcoming episodic “Willow” TV show, or offshoots from “Night at the Museum,” “Home Alone” and other properties that mostly began life as theatrical films and only recently came under the Disney umbrella.

Andi Ortiz contributed to this reporting.