Is Disney+ using Pixar to bolster its original content slate? In 2021 two Pixar features (“Soul” and “Luca”) that would have otherwise played at movie theaters streamed exclusively on Disney+ as part of the regular subscription instead of spending the requisite time at in movie theaters. Disney used a different tact with other films such as Marvel’s Black Widow and the live action Mulan which were both streamed as part of Disney’s premium on-demand streaming option.
Disney’s decisions on Pixar films mirror what HBO Max did throughout the 2021 movie release schedule which saw all Warner Brothers releases drop on the streaming app at the same time the films played in movie theaters. Industry leaders expect that the availability of movies via streaming concurrently with theatrical runs severely affected the box office totals of the features.
The elephant in the room during the past year of course was Covid-19 which literally shuttered a many movie theaters in the US and around the world meaning that viewers sometimes had a choice to see movies at home or not at all. It should be considered no great coincidence that the movies which saw the biggest box office tallies hit during periods of declining cases after more theaters were open nationally and world wide.
All that being said, Disney has released more than a couple of movies in the past 12 months that did not drop straight onto Disney+ instead of movie theaters. And staff within Pixar has noticed the disparity.
“It’s safe to say that we’re all feeling extremely disappointed,” one Pixar staffer said. “Until today, we all thought ‘Turning Red’ would be our return to the big screen, and everyone at the studio was so excited about it being this film in particular. It was quite a blow.”
So why is Disney taking its animated movies out of the theaters and streaming them without the premium pricing seen on other more high profile releases? There could be a few things at work here. Maybe given the situation with the pandemic Disney assumed that parents would be unlikely to bring kids to the movie theater even if the opportunity existed. Considering that kids under 5 still have not been eligible to be vaccinated Disney may have anticipated that parents out of a sense of caution would avoid large public gatherings.
Another factor could be that Disney is looking at potential box office numbers and weighing the amount of money that would otherwise be spent on distribution and marketing and decided they would get a bigger bang for their buck by driving subscriptions to Disney+ than by releasing a movie to low attendance.
Time will tell if Disney will make the same decision on Lightyear which is set for a June 17 release date. Nobody knows what the Covid numbers will look like at that point or if movie theaters will be running regularly. But it should be noted that Lightyear is part of a major franchise “Toy Story” while other Pixar films that have been excluded from theaters were original creations unconnected to established storylines.
HBO Max was up front that having movies like Godzilla Vs Kong and The Matrix Resurrections available on the service drove subscription numbers and streaming interest. If Disney is making the same type of calculation viewers may be able to expect more such decisions in the future.