Is Premier Access the Future for Disney+?
Updated: Jan 20
Disney is slapping a $30 price tag on some of its hottest summer movies, but is it worth it?
This past year, we have all been streaming… a lot. With movie theaters being shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, major companies, such as Disney, have shifted their movie release plans. However, as movie theaters are reopening and we are finally reaching a “new normal,” where will they go from here?
Disney recently announced its plans to release Black Widow and Cruella, two of its biggest 2021 movies, on Disney+ in addition to theaters. The movies will be available on the same day as the theatrical release for a “premier access” fee. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone as Disney previously released Mulan and Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney+ for an extra $29.99.
Cruella will drop on May 28 and Black Widow, after being delayed three times, is set to be released on July 9 (but don’t hold your breath on that one). Additionally, Disney announced it will release its new Pixar film Luca on Disney+ on June 18 for no extra fee, similar to last year’s Soul. This begs the question: Is Disney making the right decision by releasing these movies both on Disney+ and in theaters?
In 2020, Disney used its streaming platform to release almost all of the movies it had intended for theaters, with some minor exceptions like Black Widow. Disney released Frozen II on Disney+ three months earlier than intended and placed Onward on Disney+ for free in April after the nationwide movie theater shut down. Onward grossed $141 million worldwide during its short run in theaters, but its shortcomings can be chalked up to the COVID-19 pandemic. For reference, both of Disney/Pixar’s previous two films, Frozen II and Toy Story 4, grossed over $1 billion. However, Onward wasn’t a failure and its release led to a new template for Disney films.
In May, Disney shocked the world by announcing it would release the long-awaited musical film Hamilton on Disney+ for free. Originally scheduled for an October theatrical release, Hamilton premiered on Disney+ on July 3. After its release, Disney saw a 74% increase in Disney+ downloads.
Fast forward to Mulan’s release in September, this time with a catch—a $29.99 premier access fee. Disney is the first to test the premier access option on streaming, which allows customers to pay a one-time fee to view a movie before it becomes free to all streaming subscribers. Mulan’s release saw a 68% increase in subscribers and a 193% increase in Disney+ spending, and the best part—they got to keep 100% of the cash. In a traditional box office sense, Mulan was a flop for Disney, but it was a success for Disney+.
Even though Mulan brought in money for Disney, the company has always looked after its customers. In December, they released Soul, one of the most anticipated films of 2020, on Disney+ for no additional cost.
“We also realize, though, that part of the lifeblood of Disney+ is providing great content to the base-level subscribers,” said CEO Bob Chapek in response to Soul’s free release.
Obviously, we can’t expect Disney to release all of its high-budget films for free, but it’s nice to know that subscribers won’t be expected to pay extra for every film. We’re seeing this again with Luca, which will be released for free in between the two premier access films.
In March, Disney, once again, tried something new. It released Raya and the Last Dragon simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ for the premier access fee. After its second weekend, Raya and the Last Dragon had grossed $68.4 million worldwide. With only about 50% of U.S. movie theaters open, Raya and the Last Dragon reigned victorious for most of March in the domestic box office. However, Raya and the Last Dragon is not performing as well as Mulan did on Disney+. Maybe this is because it’s cheaper to see in theaters, but the film is underperforming on the streaming service.
Disney has already committed to releasing Cruella and Black Widow via premier access on Disney+, but after Raya and the Last Dragon’s underwhelming performance, is it worth it? I once thought the style of simultaneous theatrical and exclusive streaming releases would be here to stay because of the pandemic. After all, some people might not feel comfortable visiting a movie theater for a while. However, I’m not sure I want to see a movie so badly that I would fork over $30 every time. The build-up for Black Widow may have some on the edge of their seats, but with Marvel’s Phase 4 rollout in place, MCU fans have a decent amount of content to tide them over until Black Widow is available for free.
On the other hand, Disney isn’t losing any money by placing a $30 price tag on its films. This way, Disney doesn’t have to pay the theaters and can keep 100% of the films’ profits. Releasing Mulan was a push to get more subscribers after the success of Hamilton, but now, why wouldn’t they continue releasing these films? Businesswise, it makes sense—grab the people who don’t want to go to the movie theater, who are bored during the pandemic, who want to see these films first, etc.
In many ways, premier access could make more money for the company. Of course, the box office is the best way for films to perform, but right now the box office has been heavily hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. With its streaming service, Disney takes home all the profits from the subscriptions, since there is no free trial, and then $30 per premier film. And with Disney constantly adding more content to the streamer, customers who only purchased a subscription for the exclusive movie are likely to stick around. It will be interesting to see if this format continues and if any other streaming services try to implement the premier access fee. For now, I think the premier access option is here to stay for Disney’s high-budget films, but they know how to keep you around with the free content too. It really is Disney’s world and we’re just living in it.
Watch the trailers below:
Cruella (available on May 28th)
Black Widow (available on July 9th)