What happened to the streamer’s initiative?
There was already so much upheaval in 2020 before Disney announced a drastic change to its Disney+ lineup. The streaming service would now host some big new Disney movies… but they wouldn’t stream for free like all the other titles on the service. Instead, they would now be available for $30 as video-on-demand titles collected under the Disney+ Premier Access banner. It’s been almost a year since Disney last tried this style of digital release with the July 2021 title. Jungle Cruisewhich begs the question of what happened to this once prolific part of the Disney+ experience?
Premier Access began in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by continually closing cinemas. projects like Mulane has been repeatedly delayed, and Disney has chosen not to wait any longer for theaters to reopen. In July 2020, the studio announced that Mulane would be the streamer’s first Premier Access title and would drop on Labor Day weekend that year. The lack of hard data on Disney+ viewership means it’s impossible to say how many people this title has attracted. However, the few numbers that have emerged from third-party sources indicate that Disney hasn’t done enough to make Mulan profitable, with Atlantic calling the release a “disappointment”.
It would take Disney another six months to try the Premier Access approach again, though this time it’s an addition to the theatrical experience rather than a substitute. The Walt Disney Animation Studios March 2021 Project Raya and the last dragon received a Premier Access arc in addition to a worldwide theatrical release. Over the next five months, Cruel, Black Widowand Jungle Cruise would all go in exactly the same direction. Disney wanted to further increase Disney+ subscribers, but gave up on Mulane tactics and maintaining a theatrical release showed that the studio recognized it needed the big screen to make a big profit.
After Jungle Cruise, Premier Access disappeared for various reasons. For one thing, users simply never proved strong enough for Disney+ titles they had to pay extra for. The envelope noted, for example, that Raya exploded in viewership once it was made available to stream for free in June 2021. In contrast, the same site noted that Raya wasn’t even one of the ten most-watched streaming programs the week it first aired on PVOD. Similar fates befell other later Premier Access features, with Black Widow and Jungle Cruise bringing in significantly lower opening weekend PVOD receipts than their respective box office opening weekend.
These shortcomings tie into a problem Premier Access was always going to have; it was an aberration in the streaming market. No other streamer charged subscribers extra to access specific movies. The various Warner Bros. 2021 as Dunes which were dropped on HBO Max, for example, were all available at no additional cost while Peacock made projects like halloween kills accessible for the same additional zero dollars to subscribers. Families and other customers were simply not very interested in spending more money on a service they had already been charged a monthly fee for, especially when it was so out of the norm in the streaming market.
It didn’t help either that the Premier Access initiative was causing clashes with key figures in Disney’s media empire. A report emerged in 2021 alleging that anonymous PIXAR employees were upset that Walt Disney Animation Studios titles like Raya and the last dragon got splashy PVOD drops through Premier Access while PIXAR titles like Soul and Lucas was released on the streamer for free. In an ideal world, Premier Access was supposed to give Disney+ users more options and even more money for Disney executives, without causing potential conflicts between the two animation powerhouses of the Mouse House.
This alleged feud was a walk in the park compared to a lawsuit filed in late July 2021. Scarlett Johansson alleged in a lawsuit against Disney that the release of its Marvel Cinematic Universe title Black Widow on Disney+ cost the film untold millions in box office revenue and, by proxy, cut it from further box office residuals. The lengthy legal battle was eventually settled out of court and things would end up, at least publicly, being comfortable between Johansson and Disney. However, this was yet another way the Premier Access approach had become a headache for Disney rather than a miraculous way to generate even more money.
But perhaps more impactful than anything else has been Disney+’s shifting business priorities. In March 2022, just over seven months after the launch of the latest Premier Access title, Disney announced that it would take inspiration from HBO Max and Peacock and offer an ad-supported version of Disney+. The goal here was to make Disney+ even more accessible to the general public. Now there would be a cheaper option to ensure that, in theory, people of all economic classes would have access to Turner and Hooch TV show whenever they wanted.
The goal of making Disney+ as financially attractive as possible to people of all backgrounds runs counter to the idea of charging people an extra $30 to watch a movie. Disney first saw the instant presence of titles like Cruel and Black Widow as a determining factor in increasing its subscriber base. Goals to achieve this shifted to make Disney+ pricing more flexible. Disney+’s image as a reasonably priced member of the streaming market is complicated by the presence of Premier Access.
On top of all of these factors, there’s also the simple fact that the theatrical box office has come alive over the past 12 months, especially for movies whose releases are exclusive to the big screen. The financial disparity between titles that commit to playing in theaters and those that attempt to please two masters at once is remarkable. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals only stayed on the big screen for months and as a result both were catapulted above the global Premier Access feature revenue Black Widow.
Meanwhile, the title Illumination Sing 2 more than tripled the global gross of Raya and the last dragon. Save for Dunes and Godzilla vs. Kong (whose HBO Max arcs were only limited to the United States of America unlike the largely global reach of Premier Access titles), all 2021 movies that cost $400 million worldwide were exclusive to theaters movies. If Disney still wants to be a competitive player in the global box office realm, it’s clear that giving its blockbusters simultaneous Premier Access releases won’t be enough.
The attempt to inject premium video-on-demand content into the Disney+ platform via Premier Access titles was an interesting experiment that reflected how Disney sees its streamer as nebulous enough to do anything. Kind of like with the live reality show Dancing with the stars Moving to Disney+ for the foreseeable future, Disney wants this platform to house anything and everything. However, for a wide variety of reasons, the Premier Access initiative just didn’t work. Although the unpredictability of the Mouse House means it could return in the future, for now the Premier Access publishing method appears to be on the back burner.
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