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November 18, 2019

It All Adds Up

Disney+, the newest subscription service, enters the streaming market with some serious assets: the iconic Disney brand and the company’s vast intellectual property.

Mara Reinstein
  • Disney's Moana

    Images Courtesy Disney +
  • Pixar's The Incredibles

    Images Courtesy Disney +
  • Marvel's Iron Man

    Images Courtesy Disney +
  • Star Wars's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

    Images Courtesy Disney +
  • National Geographic

    Images Courtesy Disney +

The staffers came face to face with it every time they stepped into the kitchen at the Disney+ headquarters in Los Angeles this summer.

There it was, a digital clock — bought on Amazon for $70 — counting down the days, hours and minutes to the launch of the new streaming service on November 12. "You can't get a cup of coffee without seeing it," Disney+ president of content and marketing Ricky Strauss said in an August phone conversation. "I'm not sure what happens when it will get to zero." Spoiler: It was time to celebrate.

Even in an era when we've become accustomed to shiny new toys, Disney's subscription streaming service represents, well, "a whole new world" (to quote the Oscar-winning theme from Aladdin). At long last, the Hollywood giant is competing with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, the new AppleTV+ and the forthcoming HBO Max. With a difference.

Whereas some of the upstarts have started from scratch, Disney is using the full reach of its empire as it never has before.

For an in-app purchase of $6.99 a month (or $69 a year), Disney+ customers will have access to the studio's century-spanning catalog of films, plus all the movies from its LucasFilm, Marvel and Pixar properties, plus 600 hours of premium National Geographic content. And, thanks to the studio's recent $71 billion acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox, say hello (or d'oh!) to 30 years' worth of The Simpsons.

That's just the library. Disney+ is also kicking off its first year with 10 new films and more than 25 fresh series, including three Avengers spinoffs.

What's in the pipeline? Everything from a new live-action Star Wars series (in which Ewan McGregor will reprise his Obi-Wan Kenobi role from the 1999–2002 big-screen trilogy) to an updated Lizzie McGuire series (starring Hilary Duff again) to a spinoff of the 2018 teen LGBTQ dramedy Love, Simon.

Starting next year, the service will be rolling out in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and execs expect subscribers to total between 60 million and 90 million by 2024. Disney CEO Robert Iger vowed to Wall Street analysts in an August conference call that Disney+ "is going to be treated as the most important product that the company has launched" during his 14-year tenure.

Strauss says that's no hyperbole. "It's an opportunity to reach fans globally through a platform on an agnostic format," he explains. "We can do longform entertainment, we can do local content, we can do episodic content, we can build on our library and we can do new stories. It's obviously a very beloved brand."

Now that it's live, Disney+ aims to capitalize on that iconic brand and its core values. Or, as Iger put it during a public presentation in April, "We're starting from a position of strength, confidence and unbridled optimism."

Viewers can choose from series such as the standalone Star Wars saga The Mandalorian (overseen by The Lion King director Jon Favreau) and the mockumentary High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.

In Pixar's series of 10 short films, Forky Asks a Question, the title utensil serves up such posers as "What is money and what does it do?" to his fellow Toy Story characters. Monsters at Work is a workplace comedy set six months after the events of the 2003 hit Monsters, Inc.; it boasts the voices of original cast members Billy Crystal and John Goodman.

If you think it's completely intentional that much of the new content is steeped in nostalgia, you're right.

"We want to deliver to fans more of what they love," senior vice-president of content Agnes Chu says. "These stories are a way of getting even further and deeper into the characters and roles we've already been known for. This is how we can break through the clutter."

Strauss adds, "It's always going to be an advantage when you can offer something with recognition."

Leveraging Disney's vast trove of intellectual property, or IP, was just the foundation. With an eye at coming in big and hot, Chu and her team greenlit series that would combine top-tier talent, creativity, optimism and community. Unconstrained by the broadcast TV pilot season, many ideas went straight to series.

"It's an ongoing development cycle of getting to work with our studios and hearing pitches and evaluating ideas," she explains. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, The Mandalorian and The World According to Jeff Goldblum are some products of that process.

In the reality series Encore!, which also debuted on Day 1, adults who put on musicals together in high school come together again to recreate their original performances, this time with the help of Broadway talents. Kristen Bell (The Good Place) is an executive producer of the show, which originally premiered as a one-hour special on ABC in December 2017.

On Be Our Chef, hosted by Angela Kinsey (The Office), families from diverse backgrounds join a cooking contest at Walt Disney World. Pointing to Disney's core values, Chu notes, "Our unscripted series celebrate performance and expression and people coming together."

Squint hard enough, and the same principles apply to perhaps the biggest Disney property of all. Chu says she's most excited about working with newly promoted Marvel chief creative officer Kevin Feige and bringing some of the most beloved Avengers directly to consumers' living rooms. "I'm amazed at what he's done to build out the Marvel Cinematic Universe," she says. "What we have will really knock people's socks off."

The slate serves as an assurance to fans that some of their favorite superheroes did not run their courses in the $2 billion–grossing Avengers: Endgame. The new animated series What If…? features the voice talents of every single MCU cast member to date.

Production is under way on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a six-episode series that finds Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan's crusading duo again trying to defeat the villain Zemo (Daniel Brühl). "It's going to be fun for fans to see these characters in the movies migrate to episodic programming," Strauss says.

There's even a name for one crucial Disney+ viewer: an AWOK, or Adult Without Kids. (Strauss is aware it sounds like something from a Star Wars movie.)

Executives hope that fans 18 to 54 who have stuck with all 22 Marvel movies — not to mention all the Star Wars adventures — will pay to get the full MCU experience, as all the series and upcoming "phase four" tentpole big-screen movies bleed into each other. "You're going to want to be caught up," Chu says.

To that end, Marvel content has been curated for the next two years. Chu figures that by the time an AWOK has watched Captain Marvel or Avengers: Endgame "for the 10th time" on the service, it will be time to roll out one of the MCU series.

The breezy action series WandaVision (premiering spring 2021), starring Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda and Paul Bettany as Vision, is set immediately after the events of Endgame. The same is true of Hawkeye, in which Jeremy Renner will reprise his role as the arrow-shooting Avenger; it premieres in fall 2021.

Even mischievous villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) will get in on the fun with a six-hour, time-bending series titled, of course, Loki. Feige recently revealed three more new series: Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight and She-Hulk.

When Disney announced plans to start a commercial-free streaming service back in 2017, it was not a moment too soon. Netflix already had acclaimed hits such as Orange Is the New Black, The Crown and House of Cards. Hulu and Amazon Prime Video had also carved out impressive footholds (and scored some Emmys), while the subscription-based streamer CBS All Access had been live since 2014.

Disney's plan? Counterattack.

There was no name for the service, no price, no rollout strategy, no programming details and no exact launch date. Per Iger, no problem. "I would characterize this as an extremely important, very, very significant strategic shift for us," he told analysts at the time, acknowledging that the studio was in the process of reclaiming projects it had licensed to third-party distributors.

Hollywood insiders dubbed the service "Disneyflix." In June 2018, Iger and Kevin Mayer, chairman of Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer and International, announced that Strauss had been tapped to steer creative oversight of the service's programming and its marketing vision.

The former president of Participant Media (where he oversaw production of The Help) and marketing chief of Walt Disney Studios, he'd helped turn films like Black Panther, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Beauty and the Beast into box-office heroes.

"It was such a treat to be asked to come and run content and marketing, because it expanded upon that premise of branded content, which is obviously the differentiating factor in what we're going to do here," he says.

The strategy, he said, was to look at the existing intellectual property and work with the various creative studios to find new ways of telling stories. "Even before I got there, Bob asked all the talent across the company to come together and help us develop the slate," he explains. "It's been a collaborative process across the board."

In April 2019, during a lavish presentation inside soundstage two on the Disney lot — home of the original the Mickey Mouse Club — Iger finally filled in all the blanks.

Disney+ would launch on November 12 at a sensible price. A 14-minute sizzle reel showcased its library, which included Fox movies such as Titanic and Avatar. "No other content or technology company can rival it," he said, not bothering to mention the competition.

Rather than present stars, as AppleTV+ had at its presentation one month earlier, Iger unveiled footage from the Disney+ original series line-up.

The Mandalorian appeared to have the same extravagant production values as Game of Thrones. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series looked polished and ready to roll. He also unveiled the simple user interface, which features tiles dedicated to brands such as Pixar, Star Wars and National Geographic.

Meanwhile, Mayer hinted that Disney+ would bundle its service with Hulu. By August, it was confirmed that Disney+, ad-supported Hulu and ESPN+ could be bought together for $12.99 a month — a 28 percent discount compared to buying each service separately. (The Fox acquisition included 30 percent of Hulu, giving Disney a controlling 60 percent share. Comcast has 30 percent and Time Warner owns 10 percent.)

Though the April presentation was aimed at Wall Street analysts, it was also designed to pique the curiosity of potential subscribers. From that day on, the marketing buzz grew from a murmur to a roar worthy of the Lion King himself.

First, there was a standing-room-only Marvel presentation at San Diego Comic-Con. Feige introduced the Disney+ series alongside the forthcoming feature-film extravaganzas, as his galaxy of A-list stars lined up behind him. "Ricky and I were there and it was amazing," Chu recalls. "Just to be able to hear the swell of 7,000 people reacting showed why we're all excited."

The momentum carried through to D23 Expo, the fan convention in Anaheim in late August.

Attendees not only got to see what the service looks like, they lined up to get hands-on with it and subscribe early. (For a three-year commitment, members could enjoy a $23 annual "Founders Circle" discount.) In a glitzy panel — that opened with a performance of "We're All in This Together" from the High School Musical series — Mayer revealed up-to-the-minute programming news.

Everyone from Bell to Goldblum showed up to talk up their new series.

The November start date, Strauss adds, intentionally coincides with the period between Thanksgiving and winter, as viewers are likely to be indoors watching television then. It also takes advantage of the gift-giving season, when people get new smartphones and TVs and want to subscribe to new apps.

Verizon customers will be able to self-gift: Disney+ announced in late October that its 4G LTE and 5G unlimited wireless subscribers and new Fios and 5G home internet subscribers can receive one free year of the streaming service.

And a year from now? Chu declares that she's not content to just sit and watch. "I'm relentless about making sure that we're on the right path," she says. "It's not enough to rest on the fact that we have these brands. I'm excited to share what we have and keep growing."

As to where Disney+ will fit into the expanding marketplace, Strauss is leaving his options open. "We'll have data and information from our consumers that will help inform our strategies, so that will change our focus," he says. "But the one thing that will not get derailed is quality content and an idea of delighting and entertaining consumers of all ages across the world."

While Netflix currently boasts 60 million U.S. subscribers and Hulu has 28 million, Strauss declines to share specific target numbers. One analyst recently predicted that the Disney+ streaming share could rise from 1 percent in 2019 to more than 9 percent in five years.

A decade down the line, Strauss says, "I'm just hoping the entertainment will go global and the affection for Disney continues to grow." As for Emmy wins and other accolades, he says, "That's just icing on the cake and could legitimize the effort. But we're trying to create an emotional and entertaining experience."

Asked about the risks of starting a new streaming service, Strauss alludes to the company's namesake. "This company was founded on ideas," he says. "Many years ago, who would have decided to start an animated film business? Then who would have created a theme park? We think in terms of being bold and innovating. We take big swings at this company, and they've proven to be good."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 11, 2019

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