How Disney+, or theatrical, or a hybrid of the two equals “more creative freedom” at Disney

parqor disney+

Back in May, I wrote Kevin Mayer’s Disney+ Flywheel is Dead. I wrote, then:

The flywheel Kevin Mayer had architected meticulously for Disney+ was punched in the mouth by COVID. As a result, he is now gone. It is no wonder he jumped ship so quickly, or that Disney+ employees are being anonymously quoted as saying their group is “fucked” now.

First, let’s put aside Kevin Mayer’s three months since leaving Disney (I quoted Mike Tyson’s famous “Everybody has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth”  in the conclusion to Member Mailing #214, and Mayer has been on the receiving end of unenviable, Tyson-esque punches from the pandemic marketplace).

Instead, let’s focus on Mayer’s “flywheel” and a recent quote in a Deadline interview with Mulan producer Jason Reed:

DEADLINE: When it comes to Disney’s live action reboots of its animated vault, do you think the future supply is rather limited in quantity? Obviously, one day we’ll see a live-action take on Moana or a Frozen.

REED: As you just said, there are a lot more titles that have big fanbases that certainly audiences would love to see another version of or continue to live in the world created by those movies. There is not an endless supply of them. However, I think that there is an endless supply of stories that can be told in the Disney style and at the scope and scale of how Disney tells those stories, and it might not be a Frozen movie, but it might be a different princess story that’s original. What I think is really fun about the future of Disney going forward is now that they have multiple business models they can embrace, be it Disney+, or theatrical, or a hybrid of the two I think it gives them a lot more creative freedom. I think it’s going to be great for audiences because they’re going to get a much broader, wider array of stories told in that tradition than they would’ve if they were limited to simply theatrical.

What Reed is saying here is, look past the “flywheel” and focus on the “creative freedom” that having streaming, theatrical, or  a hybrid of the two creates for them. Which means, Mayer’s flywheel could be dead, but that does not rule out a supply of stories built around their own mini-flywheels – an array of interconnected stories building upon each other – with their own content verticals across Disney+ and theatrical.

Mulan and Black Widow‘s mini-flywheel

I broke down the math of the pre-COVID flywheel Kevin Mayer had constructed in Member Mailing #214, and included a link to a Google Sheet with the math in it.

What is interesting about Mulan and the post-COVID theatrical distribution model is the emergence of Disney’s Paid Video on Demand (PVOD) window for Mulan. According to a Disney press release:

  • September 4 through November 2, 2020: PVOD-only on Disney+ and select platforms including Roku, Apple, and Google.
  • November 3, 2020 through December 3, 2020: unclear, but 30 day rental window a reasonably likely outcome.
  • December 4, 2020 onwards: Mulan available to all Disney+ subscribers at no additional cost

In Member Mailing #214, I assumed Black Widow was going to be the catalyst for Kevin Mayer’s architected theatrical-to-streaming-to-theatrical-etc. flywheel. I estimated Black Widow would have run somewhere between four and six months in theaters, which means it would have exited theaters sometime in August or September.

In this new PVOD model, Black Widow is expected to be in theaters in November 6. Let’s assume it will not be and goes straight to PVOD in U.S. like Mulan. That means:

  • November 6, 2020 through January 5, 2021: PVOD-only on Disney+ and select platforms including Roku, Apple, and Google.
  • January 6, 2021 through February 5 , 2021: unclear, but 30 day rental window a reasonably likely outcome.
  • February 6, 2021 onwards: Black Widow available to all Disney+ subscribers at no additional cost

Instead of being in theaters, it is in domestic U.S. living rooms starting in November.

There are three Disney+ Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) shows lined up for that same time, in order they were supposed to be released:

  • End of 2020: Falcon and The Winter Soldier
  • December 2020: WandaVision (scheduled)
  • Early 2021: Loki

If Black Widow goes PVOD in the U.S. in November, what we can expect as a release schedule is something like this:

  • November 6, 2020: Black Widow PVOD
  • December 6, 2021: Falcon and The Winter Soldier
  • January 6, 2021: Black Widow on Disney+
  • February 6, 2021: WandaVision on Disney+
  • March 6, 2021: Loki

That becomes a mini-MCU flywheel. Meaning, Disney’s Kevin Feige will be able to deliver a lot of story in a compact period of time (six months).

But what business objectives does this solve for?

Right now? Your guess is as good as mine. I think the more important question is, “what business objectives will Disney be solving for with the PVOD-driven, mini-flywheel model”?

The first is something reported by Tom Dotan of The Information:

As strong as [Disney+’s] growth rate is, it’s not clear that Disney can sustain it. In each market, including the U.S., the company has loyal fans who signed up as soon as the service became available, a pattern that repeated itself as Disney+ expanded into different parts of the world. But once that initial surge of subscribers had subsided, the growth would plateau for that region, according to a person familiar with the matter.

In other words, they need to solve for a repeated pattern in user behavior worldwide(plateauing growth) and the implied higher churn that comes with that plateau. Disney+ also has higher churn than the Disney+/ESPN+/Hulu bundle.

The second is laying the groundwork for a Netflix-style release schedule. The Netflix precedent is that a faster release schedule drives more engagement, and more engagement drives both higher growth and lower churn. Disney+ launched with a weekly-release model. The dynamics of the post-COVID market and especially the PVOD-driven release model seem likely to push Disney+ into a binge-viewing model; or, something like what Amazon Prime Video is doing with its eight episodes of Season 2 of The Boys: the first three episodes at launch, followed by a weekly release schedule over five weeks.

Odds are the changes in PVOD-windowing and COVID-related delays on production will force Disney to make changes to its release schedule for theatrical and Disney+. That will drive higher engagement. Amazon Prime Video does not have a churn problem, it does have an engagement problem.

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