The centerpiece of Disney’s streaming strategy is here.
After an initial test in the Netherlands, Disney+ is officially launching in the United States and Canada today, with a lineup of original content that includes the first episode of the very first live-action Star Wars series, “The Mandalorian,” along with a deep library of Disney, Pixar and Marvel movies and shows — not to mention the first 30 seasons of “The Simpsons.”
Disney+ is available on the web, iOS, Android, Roku, various smart TVs and game consoles — and, as just announced last week, Amazon Fire TV, all for a monthly price of $6.99. (Verizon, which owns TechCrunch, is also offering a year of free Disney+ to unlimited subscribers and new Fios Home Internet customers.)
This isn’t Disney’s first streaming service. It took a big step in this direction with the launch of ESPN+ last year, and it has also taken operational control of Hulu following its acquisition of Fox. (The company is even offering Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu together in a package that it calls the Disney Bundle, at a monthly price of $12.99 — the same as a basic Netflix subscription.) Plus, it owns the streaming service Hotstar in India, which it plans to bring to other developing Asian countries.
Still, at a press event last week in New York City, Direct to Consumer and International Chairman Kevin Mayer described Disney+ as “the crown jewel of our streaming collection.” He explained that the service will be “the ultimate and exclusive home” for all the content from the company’s Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic brands.
Of course, that doesn’t mean everything will be premiering on Disney+ — those giant Marvel movies are still coming to theaters. But they’ll eventually make their way over to the service, where they will stream exclusively.
Mayer noted that this has required a big shift in Disney’s strategy, since it has had to pass up revenue from licensing content to streamers like Netflix. The company also expects to spend $1 billion on original content during the service’s first year, with that number increasing to $2.5 billion by its 2024 fiscal year.
In addition to “The Mandalorian,” original shows announced for Disney+ include an Obi-Wan Kenobi series, as well as the Marvel titles “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki.”
Disney+ President of Content and Marketing Ricky Strauss explained that the Marvel shows will allow filmmakers to explore characters and post-“Avengers: Endgame” storylines more deeply, which can then feed back into what you see on the big screen.
“The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not just a theatrical play” anymore, Strauss said.
There will also be movies like “Lady and the Tramp,” and unscripted series like "The World According to Jeff Goldblum." Disney+ Senior Vice President of Content Agnes Chu added that the unscripted programs can supplement the big movies — for example, someone could watch the animated “Beauty and the Beast,” then learn more about lyricist Howard Ashman in the original documentary “Howard.”
Everything is meant to be family-friendly, with no R-content on the platform. So despite acquiring “Deadpool” as part of the Fox deal, Disney will be streaming that movie elsewhere.
Still, Mayer suggested that initial usage in the Netherlands confirms Disney’s hopes that the service will appeal to a variety of audiences; even though subscribers usually start by watching a Marvel movie, the most-watched titles overall are “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” and “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”
It also could take a little while before the full libraries of the various Disney brands make it onto the Disney+, because they need to be freed up from the company’s deals with Netflix and others. But at launch, it will offer a number of classic Disney films, as well as the first seven Star Wars movies (available in 4K Dolby Vision for the first time) and many Marvel movies, including “Endgame.”
In fact, Disney specifically moved up the streaming release of “Endgame” to coincide with the Disney+ launch — something that Mayer described as a one-time decision that “does not indicate an ongoing compression of the home video window.”
He also emphasized that Disney will continue to make movies for theatrical release — not just Marvel blockbusters, but also Fox Searchlight's artier films, which will continue to “find their way into theaters.” At the same time, the company is also making movies specifically for Disney+ and Hulu — Mayer said those are cases where executives have decided that the movies will “live better on our SVOD services.”
Strauss projected that in its first year, Disney+ will premiere 30 original series and 15 movies and specials, while also hosting a library of 7,500 TV episodes and more than 500 films. And Mayer said that by 2024, Disney is expecting the service to break even, with 60 to 90 million paying subscribers.
The event closed with a half-hour screening of clips from the first few episodes of “The Mandalorian,” which tells the story of a mysterious bounty hunter and takes place in the aftermath of the Empire’s overthrow in “Return of the Jedi.”
I suspect the clips were carefully selected to avoid revealing any major plot details, but I’m happy to report that the show explores a seedier side of the Star Wars universe — think the Mos Eisley cantina scene, but starring Boba Fett and expanded across eight episodes, with plenty of big-budget action and effects.
And yes, legendary director Werner Herzog makes for a delightful Star Wars baddie.
Update: Looks like the service is having a bumpy launch day.