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How Disney Plus is winning by ripping up the streaming playbook

How Disney’s streaming service is outmaneuvering Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, and everyone else by subverting what had been the new way of doing business

How Disney Plus is winning by ripping up the streaming playbook
[Photos: WandaVision, The Mandalorian, Soul: Disney+; claudiodivizia/iStock]
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Earlier this month, Netflix sent out an email announcing titles on its service for that week. The flurry of personalized (for the subscriber) titles included its teen romance hit To All the Boys: Always and Forever; the Nickelodeon series iCarly; and War Dogs, a Netflix original movie starring Bradley Cooper. There were also promos for recent Netflix originals: Bridgerton, Shonda Rhimes’ buzzy period drama; the teen film We Can Be Heroes; and George Clooney’s sci-fi film The Midnight Sky.

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Disney also sent out an email that week announcing what it was touting on its streaming service, DisneyPlus. Most prominently featured was Cinderella, the 1997 TV adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical starring Brandy. Less space was given to a single episode—number six—of the Marvel series WandaVision, a DisneyPlus exclusive, and High School Musical: The Musical: Series, another Disney Plus show that debuted in 2019.

As streaming services duke it out and woo subscribers—the latest, Paramount Plus, debuts on March 4—Disney is snubbing its nose at the streaming playbook pioneered most meaningfully (and aggressively) by Netflix. It is not promising a brand-new TV show or movie every single day of the year. It is not churning out splashy press releases announcing lavish deals with TV and filmmakers like Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. It isn’t catering to consumers by allowing them to binge an entire season of a show in one sitting. Want to watch WandaVision? You’ll be getting one episode every week, thank you. (As was the case with another DisneyPlus buzzy title, The Mandalorian.) Indeed, Disney doesn’t even seem interested in any fresh, non-IP-related projects that might attract someone outside of its well-established stable of kids, teens, and dudes in their forties who can recite the entire script of The Empire Strikes Back. This past week brought news that Disney was developing a “Magic Kingdom cinematic universe” for Disney Plus.

What gives?

First of all, Disney has the luxury of an enormous library that allows it to sit back on its haunches and not worry too much about generating new content. The Brandy Cinderella movie may not be new to a parent, but to a seven-year-old, it’s a hot, new release. Ditto for the original Cinderella, and the live-action version directed by Kenneth Branagh in 2015. (Surely there are more that I’m forgetting.) As competition amps up between streamers and licensing contracts run out, HBO Max, Paramount Plus, and Peacock will all be reining in properties that had been sourced out to services like Netflix, making original titles like Cinderella even more potent fodder against the Netflixes and Amazons of the world.

“The Disney library is so specific and so branded, that’s their super power,” says one streaming source. “Paramount Plus is like, ‘We’ll be the exclusive home of Chinatown!‘ I love Chinatown, but they don’t have the Star Wars titles and all the animated films that Disney does.” In other words.: Good luck competing.

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Not that Disney isn’t promising new titles. At its Investor Day last December, it announced 105 new movies and TV shows for DisneyPlus. But they will roll out over the course of a few years as opposed to being jammed into one. “They’re not going to whack you in the face with 30 new shows dropping every Friday the way Netflix does,” says the source.

As for why DisneyPlus is eschewing the binge model and eking out episodes to new shows like it’s, indeed, 1997, another source says Disney is “merging old-school marketing with the modern streaming world.”

“They’re treating The Mandalorian like it’s Seinfeld—people tune in one week and they get a great publicity bump as people talk about it over the weekend and there are roundup pieces in the press, ‘What happened on The Mandalorian last week?,'” said one Hollywood publicist. It’s an old-fashioned PR marketing tactic.”

In features, too, Disney is trying to have it both ways. Following the Mulan strategy, the new Disney animated movie Raya and the Dragon, which comes out on March 5, will be released in theaters and available to DisneyPlus subscribers—for an additional $30. DisneyPlus subscribers who don’t want to pay extra will have to wait a few months. In this way, the company doesn’t entirely forgo making a feature film an event (and it will able to milk some theatrical dollars in areas where theaters are actually open), but it is still able to boost streaming subscriptions.

All of this is working swimmingly for Disney—at least for now. DisneyPlus has skyrocketed to almost 95 million subscribers in a little over a year. (Netflix has a little over twice that, but has been at it for over a decade.) The big question is, as other services mature and find their footing, Disney is going to need more than the next Star Wars spinoff to stay relevant. At least with adults and those who aren’t either toddlers or geeks. What happens when the seven-year-old who was enthralled with Cinderella is in her thirties and could care less about Marvel or Pixar? Yes, Disney has NatGeo titles and FX has edgy, grown-up original TV series. But for the movie equivalent of an FX show, there will be no more use for DisneyPlus. It will be time to churn out and pony up for Hulu or whatever else has hit the market by then.

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The Magic Kingdom has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to IP. But even riches run out.

About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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