‘Black Widow’ and ‘Cruella’ will get Premier Access releases on Disney+

In what looks like both an endorsement of its Premier Access streaming strategy and a tacit acknowledgement that theatrical moviegoing won’t be returning to normal anytime soon, Disney just announced that its movies “Black Widow” and “Cruella” will be coming to Disney+ at the same time that they’re released in theaters.

That means Disney+ subscribers will have the option to pay an additional, one-time $29.99 fee to watch the live action remake of “Cruella” at home on May 28, or to do the same for “Black Widow” on July 9. (The movies will later become available to all Disney+ subscribers at no extra charge.)

Disney first tested out this strategy with the release of the live action “Mulan” last fall, followed by the animated “Raya and the Last Dragon” earlier this month. The studio has released other movies, like Pixar’s “Soul,” directly to Disney+ without an extra fee, and it says it will do the same for Pixar’s “Luca” on June 18.

Other big Disney releases have been pushed back repeatedly — “Black Widow,” for example, was originally supposed to be released on May 1 of last year, and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has reportedly resisted sending it straight to Disney+. (This will be the first Marvel Studios film released since the beginning of the pandemic.)

However, Disney executives may only be willing to wait for so long. And because Marvel’s movies and new Disney+ shows are often interconnected, delaying one release can also require pushing back several others at the same time.

As vaccinations continue and COVID-19 case numbers decline from their peaks, movie theaters are reopening in major markets like Los Angeles and New York — but at reduced capacity, with box office numbers still far below what they were pre-pandemic.

In the face of this uncertainty (as well as a general shift to streaming), other Hollywood studios have adopted a variety of hybrid strategies for their 2021 theatrical slates. All Warner Bros. movies will be released simultaneously on HBO Max this year, while Paramount will be bringing its films to Paramount+ in an accelerated fashion, 30 to 45 days after the theatrical release.

Disney+ has more than 73M subscribers

Disney+, the streaming service that launched one year ago today, grew to 73.7 million paid subscribers as of early October.

That’s according to The Walt Disney Company’s fourth quarter earnings report, which covers the company’s finances through October 3. The company previously said Disney+ had 60.5 million subscribers as of August 3.

The release also includes subscriber numbers for Disney’s other streaming services — Hulu had 36.6 million (including 4.1 million subscribers to Hulu + Live TV), while ESPN had 10.3 million (more than doubling from 3.5 million a year earlier).

Overall, Disney’s direct-to-consumer segment saw revenue grow 41% year-over-year to $4.9 billion, while its operating loss fell from $751 million in Q4 2019 to $580 million this year. Disney attributed the shrinking losses to “improved results at Hulu and ESPN+, partially offset by higher costs at Disney+, driven by the ongoing rollout.”

It was a tough quarter for Disney overall, with the pandemic forcing the company to keep some parks closed and the rest operating at reduced capacity. Disney’s revenue fell to $14.7 billion (compared to $19.1 billion during Q4 2019), with a loss of $0.39 per share.

“The real bright spot has been our direct-to-consumer business, which is key to the future of our company, and on this anniversary of the launch of Disney+ we’re pleased to report that, as of the end of the fourth quarter, the service had more than 73 million paid subscribers – far surpassing our expectations in just its first year,” said CEO Bob Chapek in a statement.

During the investor call, Chapek also noted that Disney+ is currently available in more than 20 countries worldwide, with plans to launch in Latin America on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, earlier today, Disney+ pushed the premiere date of its first Marvel series, “Wandavision,” from December until January 15.

Disney+ adds a co-watching feature called GroupWatch

Disney+ is the latest streaming service to introduce a way for friends and family to watch movies and TV together while in different locations.

With the pandemic closing movie theaters and making any kind of indoor socializing pretty risky, the Netflix Party Chrome extension has become the main way I watch TV with friends. Netflix Party doesn’t have any official connection to Netflix, but other streaming services, like Amazon Prime Video and Disney-owned Hulu, have been adding similar features of their own.

Disney has already been testing the new GroupWatch feature in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and today it’s launching for viewers in the United States.

Jerrell Jimerson, the chief product officer for Disney’s streaming services, told me that GroupWatch was already in development before the pandemic, but that the company “worked to accelerate it given the realities of COVID.”

The Disney+ experience has some key advantages over most other co-watching technology, because it doesn’t require users to install a browser extension and it will work on any device, not just laptop and desktop computers. Jimerson explained that the goal was to create something that was “super easy for consumers to use” and that “didn’t take away from the content and didn’t take away from the viewing experience.”

Disney+ GroupWatch

Image Credits: Disney

Once you’ve selected GroupWatch from the Details menu of a movie or TV show, you can invite up to six other people to participate — of course, they’ll need a Disney+ subscription of their own. And while the invitation has to be created via the Disney+ website or mobile app, people can also participate in a GroupWatch from their internet-connected TVs.

Besides synchronizing video playback (which any participant can control), GroupWatch allows viewers to respond to what’s happening on-screen by sharing emojis. But it lacks one of the hallmarks of co-watching, namely a chat that runs alongside the video.

Granted, a chat window could have been a bit distracting when blown up onto a big TV, but it’s arguably the centerpiece of social viewing. Jimerson said that if viewers want to chat, they can continue talking on whatever channel they used to send the invite (presumably a chat app on their phones).

“There are other opportunities to integrate communication capabilities, but we haven’t shared any timing on those things,” he added.

Original Content podcast: Disney’s ‘Mulan’ remake is fun, if you can forget the controversy

Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” comes with some serious baggage.

First, the film has drawn political controversy for its star’s statements in support of the action Hong Kong police against protestors, as well as the fact that “Mulan” was partly filmed in the Xinjiang region, where the Chinese government has held Muslim ethnic minorities in detention camps.

And although it’s less weighty, it’s also hard to escape the business context: “Mulan” is one of the first big Hollywood blockbusters (along with “Tenet”) to be released after the pandemic shuttered movie theaters around the world. Warner Bros. opted to release “Tenet” in theaters, while Disney is bringing “Mulan” to Disney+ with a hefty price tag of $29.99. (There’s still a theatrical release in some markets, including China.)

On the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we acknowledge all of that context while also doing our best to discuss the merits of the film itself. It’s arguably the best of Disney’s live-action remakes, and it’s certainly gorgeous to watch, with some thrilling action scenes and beautiful landscape shots.

At the same time, Jordan argued that it doesn’t live up to the animated original, and we both agreed that the script can feel sleight and forgettable — particularly in the shadow of those real-world controversies. Plus, it’s hard to justify the current price, unless you’ve got kids who are eager to see it. Otherwise, you can probably wait until December 4, when “Mulan” becomes available to regular Disney+ subscribers.

Before we jump into our review, we also talk about this coming week’s virtual Disrupt conference.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:31 Disrupt preview
6:33 “Mulan” review
35:10 “Mulan” spoiler discussion

‘The Mandalorian’ launches its second season on Oct. 30

“The Mandalorian” is returning to Disney+ with new episodes starting on October 30.

The Star Wars spinoff series (created by Jon Favreau) was the biggest original offering when Disney+ launched in November of last year. With its story of a mysterious bounty hunter (played by Pedro Pascal) and his adorable alien ward, the first season turned “Baby Yoda” into a pop culture phenomenon and is currently nominated for 15 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series.

Disney+ even released a whole separate series. “Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian,” documenting the show’s production. (The show employed a new “virtual production” style that displayed live images behind actors, rather than relying on green screens.)

Since “The Mandalorian”‘s release, Disney+ has been relatively light on original shows. Nonetheless, the company said the service has grown to more than 60.5 million subscribers, and it’s benefited from from the exclusive release of a filmed version of “Hamilton.” Plus, on Friday, “Mulan” will be available to subscribers for an additional $29.99.

And luckily for Disney, “The Mandalorian” finished shooting its second season right before the pandemic shut down film production everywhere (it’s slowly begun to resume in recent months). Disney and Lucasfilm have yet to release a trailer, or any real details about the new season’s plot.

Original Content podcast: Yep, ‘Hamilton’ is still very good

With the release of “Hamilton” on Disney+, Jordan and Darrell finally got to watch the musical biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton — albeit in recorded form, rather than live on-stage.

And as we discuss on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, they were pretty delighted by what they found. Not that a Broadway hit that’s won virtually every award really needs defenders at this point — but the Disney+ version is beautifully filmed, and it’s nice to see that five years later, “Hamilton” still works for new viewers.

Anthony, meanwhile, saw the show back in 2015 and has listened to the soundtrack many, many times. But after years of reading about “Hamilton” rather than experiencing it directly, Disney+ gave him a chance to rediscover how virtuosic and entertaining the show is from beginning to end, with one memorable song after another.

We did have a few reservations, about composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s decision to cast himself as Hamilton, and about the show’s politics — we certainly appreciated its attempt to reclaim the founding story of the United States as a story for immigrants and people of color, but as others have pointed out, the decisions to downplay slavery and to celebrate the creation of America’s financial institutions feel a bit off-putting, at least in 2020.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Introduction
0:21 “Hamilton” review
30:52 “Hamilton” spoiler discussion

Hulu announces a new offer-focused ad format called GatewayGo

Hulu is unveiling a new ad unit today, which it’s calling GatewayGo. The idea is to give viewers a way to directly interact with the advertisers and receive personalized offers.

This makes good on Hulu’s statement at the beginning of the year that it would be rolling out ads that are more transactional — so viewers can act on an ad right away, and advertisers get a concrete measurement of an ad’s impact.

When someone sees a GatewayGo ad, it will include an option to receive more information or offers delivered to their phone or tablet via push notification, email or QR code. Initial advertisers include SmileDirectClub, The RealReal and Sweetgreen.

The announcement is coming at Hulu’s virtual NewFronts presentation for advertisers. The Disney-owned streaming service is pitching this as an extension of an ad strategy that tries to find new viewer-friendly ways to advertise, for example with ads designed specifically for pausing or brand-sponsored, ad-free “binge watch” episodes.

“For our brand partners, the power of this ad experience lies in its ability to give viewers a simple way to engage with brands and take action on their mobile device,” said Laura Nelson, senior vice president for cross portfolio solutions at Disney Advertising Sales, in a statement. “Ultimately, this helps advertisers get closer to their conversion goals with Streaming TV.”

Hulu says it will also be integrating with Nielsen Media Impact to help advertisers measure the reach of their campaigns, and that it plans to launch something called Disney Hulu XP in October, which will give advertisers a way to buy video campaigns across Disney properties.

And Hulu is using the presentation to highlight early data from a behavioral study of streaming audiences. It says streaming audiences tend to be younger, more affluent and more likely to be college educated than an average audience. It also says streaming audiences divide into streaming only (37%), streaming most (47%) and streaming also (16%) — and that three-quarters of streaming audiences want some degree of personalization from advertisers.

‘Thor: Ragnarok’ director Taika Waititi is making a Star Wars movie

Taika Waititi already reinvigorated the Thor franchise. Now he’s looking to do the same for Star Wars.

Waititi is probably best-known for directing “Thor: Ragnarok” — easily the best of the Thor movies and one of the most delightful films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. More recently, he wrote and directed the Nazi comedy “Jojo Rabbit,” for which he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

He’s actually worked in Star Wars universe already, directing the first season finale of “The Mandalorian” on Disney+ (and also lending his voice to a droid assassin).

According to the announcement from Disney (presumably timed with its annual “May the 4th” promotional event for Star Wars), Waititi will be directing a Star Wars film, which he will co-write with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“1917”). The movie does not yet have a release date – Waititi probably needs to get the next Thor sequel done first.

Star Wars and Lucasfilm are in a bit of flux right now, with the recent “Rise of Skywalker” wrapping up the nine-film Skywalker Saga to mixed reviews and significant lower box office than either “The Force Awakens” or “The Last Jedi.” Former Disney CEO Bob Iger even admitted that the company “might’ve put a little bit too much in the marketplace too fast.”

While “The Mandalorian” looks a hit, and although there are more Star Wars shows in the works for Disney+, it’s not clear what’s next for the franchise on the big-screen. In addition to Waititi’s film, “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson is also supposed to be working on his own trilogy, while “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have apparently abandoned their Star Wars plans to focus on their work for Netflix.

Disney’s announcement confirms previous reports of Waititi’s move to Star Wars, and it confirms another rumor — that Leslye Headland is developing a Star Wars series for Disney+, which she will write, executive produce and showrun. Since Headland was co-creator and showrunner of “Russian Doll” (my favorite streaming show of 2019), this is good news indeed.

Disney+ has more than 50M subscribers

The Walt Disney Company just announced that its streaming service Disney+ has more than 50 million subscribers.

The service launched less than five months ago, and apparently had 28.6 million subscribers as of February 3.

These “paid subscriber” numbers include subscribers who are bringing in revenue for Disney but are not paying for the service themselves. (TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon is offering a year of free Disney+ to some customers.) It also includes 8 million subscribers in India, where Disney+ launched last week as part of Hotstar, a popular streaming service that Disney owns thanks to the acquisition of Fox.

While Disney has been relatively slow to release scripted streaming originals after the initial splash of “The Mandalorian,” it has been bringing its films like “Frozen 2,” “Onward” and the upcoming “Artemis Fowl” to the service at an accelerated pace, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting theatrical closures.

The service has also been expanding internationally, launching in eight Western European counties — the U.K., Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria and Switzerland — in the past two weeks.

“We’re truly humbled that Disney+ is resonating with millions around the globe, and believe this bodes well for our continued expansion throughout Western Europe and into Japan and all of Latin America later this year,” said Kevin Mayer, the chairman of Disney’s direct-to-consumer and international business, in a statement.

In its latest earnings report, Netflix (which is far more global than Disney+ right now) said it has 167 million paid memberships worldwide.

Pixar’s ‘Onward’ goes on-sale digitally today, coming to Disney+ on April 3

Hollywood studios continue to rush theatrical films to streaming as the COVID-19 pandemic closes theaters.

Last weekend, Disney released “Frozen 2” (which had already finished its theatrical run) ahead-of-schedule on Disney+.

Then NBCUniversal went even further, announcing that movies still in-theaters, including “The Invisible Man” and “The Hunt,” would go on-sale digitally today, at a higher-than-normal rental price of $19.99. It’s a move that broke the theatrical window (the period of time when movies can only be seen in theaters) in a way that would have been unthinkable before the outbreak.

Disney’s strategy for the Pixar film “Onward” is a combination of both approaches. Starting today at 8pm Eastern, you’ll be able to buy “Onward” from the major digital marketplaces for $19.99. Then on April 3, it will launch on Disney+ in the United States.

“Onward” tells the story of teenage elf brothers voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, who go on a quest after their father’s death. The film opened just a couple weeks ago, on March 6, but like every other movie, its theatrical revenue plummeted this past weekend.

“While we’re looking forward to audiences enjoying our films on the big screen again soon, given the current circumstances, we are pleased to release this fun, adventurous film to digital platforms early for audiences to enjoy from the comfort of their home,” said “Onward” director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae in a statement.