Disney Plus goes live with Marvel, Star Wars and cartoon classics — and a focus on fans

That strategy has worked so far at the box office, with Disney racking up all-time records for annual box office earnings, even when critics were unimpressed.
Image: The Mandalorian
Pedro Pascal in a scene from the new Disney+ original show "The Mandalorian."Francois Duhamel / Disney Plus via AP
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By Ani Bundel

It wasn’t even two weeks ago that Apple launched its streaming service, Apple TV+, and yet here comes the next one. Disney+ (the plus sign is totally having a moment) arrives Tuesday. That these two services are launching so close together is somewhat ironic, as each has what the other needs. Apple TV+ has 2 billion potential users with a hankering for content. Disney has the content: beautifully branded, exquisitely targeted, household-name content.

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Convincing everyone they want to subscribe to yet another monthly service is no small task, considering the company's inexperience in this arena. Unlike Apple TV+ which rolled out without a hitch, so far the Disney+ launch has been bumpy, with servers unable to handle the crush of users downloading the app at once and or bugs impacting the controls.

One cannot over emphasize the sheer enormity of the entertainment landscape Disney owns.

One cannot over emphasize the sheer enormity of the entertainment landscape Disney owns. There’s a vault of Disney films dating to 1937, including most of the early stuff it has jealously guarded the distribution rights to for decades in a savvy play for home video supply and demand. On top of that, it has a virtual monopoly covering some of the largest names in entertainment, including all of 20th Century Fox content from the last 85 years, made both for the big and small screen.

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It also owns the television network ABC, all of ABC’s cable channels, and — distribution deals aside — all TV series produced by ABC studios. Not all of this will be on Disney+ at launch, but the app walkthrough shows overarching categories for Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Nation Geographic, plus full seasons of Fox shows such as “The Simpsons” and ABC series such as “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” suggesting Disney is planning to stream as much as it can.

At launch, Disney+ will have nearly 650 titles on offer. While this is a pittance in comparison to the enormous libraries offered by Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, all of this content, pretty much, is already recognizable. This is no clearing house of thousands of sometimes popular, sometimes obscure titles. The service has nearly every Disney live-action movie from the joyful “The Journey of Natty Gann” to the painful earworms of “Davey Crockett,” a nostalgia play for boomers and millennials alike. It has 50-odd Disney animated classics, from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to “Frozen.”

Almost the entire Pixar library is in residence, as is almost every Star Wars movie ("The Last Jedi" will switch over from Netflix at the end of December). In a down-to-the-wire move, Marvel will offer the majority of its 22 films, after initially only offering a small handful, with the rest coming once they finish their run on Netflix in 2020. In short, Disney is banking on fans like me, who has a family with disposable income, and who is already part of one (or many) of these fandoms.

All nine of Disney’s shows at launch fall into a fandom category. “Lady & the Tramp” is the newest live-action remake of a Disney animated classic. “Marvel’s Hero Project” has the distinction of being the first series from Marvel that’s not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Forky Asks a Question” is Pixar’s kid show (a spinoff from the latest “Toy Story”) and “SparkShorts” is its cartoon for adults. “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” is a travelogue under the National Geographic banner featuring millennial zaddy Goldblum. There’s also the ludicrously named “High School Musical: The Musical – The Series” and the corresponding reality show “Encore,” plus, there’s “The Imagineering Story.” And then there’s the flagship series “The Mandalorian,” Lucasfilm’s first foray into live-action Star Wars TV series.

“The Mandalorian” is the channel’s biggest title come launch day, but Lucasfilm hasn’t loosened its fevered grip on spoilers. No screeners were made available for review ahead of time. (The same will most likely be true for any MCU-connected TV series from Marvel, when they begin arriving in 2020.) But it also sums up Disney’s attitude about these shows. No matter what the critics think, Disney is confident that fans who love the franchises will sign up to watch them regardless.

That’s not to say the shows are bad. “HSM:TMTS” is as delightfully mediocre as the original “High School Musical” and subsequent sequels, which is super on brand. “Lady & The Tramp” is not as godawful as “The Lion King’s” all-CGI animal kingdom, because it used actual dogs. “SparkShorts” and “Forky Asks a Question” are adorable, with the former already a known quantity to Pixar fans, as it started as a YouTube channel for experimental short films.

“The World According To Jeff Goldblum” is yet another reality show where a charming celebrity does things. “Encore” is the same, featuring Kristen Bell, but instead of wandering the earth, she’s visiting high school reunions where former theater students restage their senior year musicals. Drama, on multiple levels, ensues. Both are easy, lightweight watches, even if the musicals are kind of terrible. “Marvel’s Hero Project” is an uplifting “the kids are alright” reality series about young people bettering their communities. And “The Imagineering Story” is exactly what it says on the tin, a propaganda series mythologizing the history of Disney. It also happens to be an interesting history of theme parks, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The company poured billions into launching Disney+, which means that everyone is playing this as safe as possible. And that’s a deliberate choice.

All of this is very nonthreatening, precisely as people would envision a Disney streaming service to be. That’s because the company poured billions into launching Disney+, which means that everyone is playing this as safe as possible. And that’s a deliberate choice, since Disney’s subscriber base is being built from scratch. It needs families of all stripes to see their fandoms (and their children’s fandoms) as worth the money, as well as it being a safe space for kids of all ages.

Disney is doing all it can to make itself attractive to consumers. It’s priced the service to move at $6.99 a month, partnered with Verizon to give customers the service free for the first year and made deals for superfans who join their D23 club. Disney’s other hope is using its ownership of Hulu and ESPN to offer a bundled service. But that gamble is far from a sure bet at this point.

In the end, Disney has to hope fandom is enough. So far, that strategy has worked at the box office, giving the production studio the all-time record for annual box office earnings in history, even when critics weren’t enamored of the offerings. Whether that extends to the streaming service remains to be seen, but I, for one, have already signed up.

CLARIFICATION (Nov. 13, 2019, 10:30 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when Disney+ will make all Star Wars films available. While Disney has the rights to all movies, "The Last Jedi" will remain streaming on Netflix until December before switching over to Disney+.