Future of Disney+

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises.)

Let it be said that if the Walt Disney Company knows one thing, it knows how to market itself. Last week, the Disney+ Twitter account basically took a hold of the entire social-media platform and used it to promote itself. Depending on how you look at things, their thread of more than 600 tweets, each one announcing a different film or TV show, in chronological order, that would be available on Disney+ on November 12, was spam or brilliance. (Or maybe both.) What the thread ended up highlighting was how the future of Disney+ lies not with flashy new Star Wars shows or the latest Marvel title, but with their past.

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Until this week, Disney+ had been fairly cagey and noncommittal on what was arguably the most important question anyone had regarding the streaming service: what older titles would they showcase? When the service was first unveiled in April at an investors’ event, executives gave brief lip service to the idea that there would be hundreds of films and thousands of episodes of TV shows on Disney+. But aside from that kind of generic comment and a screenshot or two of a PowerPoint slide with lots of catalog titles, there wasn’t much confirmation on what Disney+ would have that separate of films like Noelle and TV shows like The Mandalorian.

The decision to reveal all (or, presuming that a few more titles will get unveiled before November 12, reveal almost all) via Twitter ended up capturing people’s attention as much as, if not more so, than an investor presentation ever could. Almost by sheer will, the service became a trending topic, and people’s responses ranged from wondering why they were being spammed to asking if certain movie titles were made-up (yes, Sammy the Way-Out Seal sounds like it’s fake, but it was a very real episode of the Disneyland anthology TV series you may know now as the Wonderful World of Disney), to happily swimming in the waters of nostalgia over more obscure titles that will have their HD-streaming day in the sun soon enough.

In effect, what happened on Monday was a reminder to the other big streaming service arriving in November that it’s in trouble before it starts. The shows that Apple TV+ is offering, starting on November 1 (and if you’re thinking, “Boy, that sure is coming up fast!”, you are correct), may well be entertaining. They offer a spectrum of genres, from ripped-from-the-headlines drama with The Morning Show to alternative-history science-fiction with For All Mankind. At first glance, too, Apple TV+ is cheaper than Disney+: the former is $4.99 a month, with the latter being $6.99 a month. The difference is in the tweets, though. 

A Big Library

With Disney+, sure, you can watch The Mandalorian or The World According to Jeff Goldblum. But you can also watch almost every Disney animated feature, most of the Star Wars films, plenty of Disney Channel shows, and more. With Apple TV+, you can watch…well, The Morning Show or For All Mankind or whatever else they have that’s new. As recently emphasized in a sprawling profile of the service in the Hollywood Reporter, Apple TV+ doesn’t have a back catalog. Seven dollars a month with Disney+ is a small price to pay to see HD-quality versions of plenty of films that have previously never been available in that format. That’s not even to note that, if you’ve taken advantage of the various discounts Disney has pushed in the last couple months, you might not even be paying that much for the first year or the first three years. (The latter deal, which has since expired, let people even with a free D23 membership pay just $3.99 a month for the first 36 months for the service.)

Yes, it was easy to joke about little-seen films like The Biscuit Eater when they got included in the thread. But now you can see it for yourself. And Disney+, simply by highlighting its own older films, now has more than 100 movies from before 1990, just eight fewer than Netflix. (What this proves, if nothing else, is that Netflix has a shamefully low number of older films available for streaming.) That number should get larger soon enough, as there’s more than a hundred movies from the Walt Disney Company not yet accounted for on Disney+. 

Hiding What’s New

Disney+ won’t just have old shows and films for adults to revisit, and kids to discover anew. There are two new movies arriving in just a few weeks: the Christmas-themed comedy Noelle with Anna Kendrick as the daughter of Santa Claus; and a live-action/CG remake of Lady and the Tramp, the latter of which got a new trailer yesterday. Of course, you can be forgiven for not having noticed the trailer announcement in another tweet Disney+ featured. It came after 600-plus tweets as well as a 3-hour video announcement encompassing all of those titles.

But that near-burial of the new ad for Lady and the Tramp (2019) is, intentionally or not, hinting at the reality of Disney+ once it opens: the selling points, the real selling points, won’t be the new stuff. Yes, sure, you can find out if remakes of animated films work better when you’re watching them exclusively on your phone, tablet, or HDTV. But is that really why you might want to sign up for Disney+? Isn’t it more appealing for you and/or your family to get the opportunity to watch hundreds of Disney movies you might never have had such easy access to before?

From a personal perspective, there’s something genuinely surreal about watching the Disney+ marketing machine kick into high gear. A few years ago, I was stumping at another website regarding the “Disney Vault”, the marketing creation that allowed Disney to remove animated films from home-media distribution, simply to gin up interest a few years later. That article is from February 2016; a few months later, at the same site, I was arguing in favor of Disney opening its own streaming service. Eleven months later, it was confirmed that Disney would pursue such a platform. 

I realize my own arguments arriving before the official announcement constitute nothing less than a fortuitous coincidence. A project of this scope and size had to have been in the planning for months, if not years, in advance of any official confirmations. But it’s simply weird to see the kind of thing I’d been advocating for — a streaming service that, like the Walt Disney Company, offers something for everyone, from Marvel to Lucasfilm to Pixar to Disney Animation to Disney Channel content, and everything in between — coming true. 

There are concerns to be had, of course: seeing the Disney logo on a poster for The Sound of Music is just weird, seeing as it’s always been a Fox release. One can only hope that Fox’s vast, rich history of cinema over 80-plus years won’t be scrubbed away. All that said, the notion of a service housing decades of Disney history, and growing to that service, is very appealing. Some of the new content, too, is exciting — the minimal marketing for The Mandalorian is nonetheless quite intriguing. But the back catalog has always been what I, as a Disney fan, wanted. And, just a few weeks out, it looks like that’s what we’re getting. Bring on November 12.

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