Disney finally revealed the real Disney Plus

By Julia Alexander

By the end of Disney’s four-hour event, which felt like an amalgamation of a San Diego Comic-Con Hall H panel and an Apple keynote, executives made one thing clear: we can do this because we’re Disney, and we’re Disney because we can do this.

A reminder of what transpired on Thursday night: a neverending stream of new Disney, Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, National Geographic, Hulu, FX, and more titles were announced in rapid-fire succession. Of those, 80 percent were streaming-only titles.

That doesn’t account for Star, a new “streaming service” of sorts that will integrate into Disney Plus for international subscribers and essentially act as a version of Hulu. (This will also help Disney with its “lack of things for adults to watch” problem, so don’t be surprised to see something similar integrate into Disney Plus for US subscribers at some point.)

While all of Disney’s streaming properties are important, totaling more than 137 million collective subscribers, Disney used its event last night to actually unveil the version of its crown jewel, Disney Plus, that executives have touted for a very, very long time.

When Disney Plus launched in 2019, the idea was a relatively simple one that would accomplish three tasks: people would sign up for the service (or the Disney bundle in the United States that combines Hulu and ESPN Plus), people would stay subscribed, and every new show would help Disney’s other, non-streaming divisions. Think of all the people with Grogu (forever Baby Yoda in my heart) plushies or Mandalorian action figures; think of all the Mandalorian-related food items or exclusives that Disney will use to fill its parks.

Launching just five months before a pandemic made the first two hard and the third nearly impossible. Disney Plus was starved of exciting new content between December 2019 and October 2020, when the first Mandalorian season ended and the second season began.

There were a handful of exceptions — a new season of Clone Wars, Hamilton’s debut, Mulan on Premier Access — but for the most part, Disney Plus was the place to rewatch the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the ninth time. Disney Plus couldn’t compete with Netflix’s onslaught of new shows and movies, new streamers were popping up every other month (including HBO Max and Peacock), and things like Fortnite and TikTok stole people’s attention. There was a promise of what Disney Plus could be that Disney Plus didn’t seem to realize.

Last night’s presentation established the undeniable version of Disney Plus that delivers on nearly $100 billion worth of acquisitions over the last 15 years. Dozens of new Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar projects, all based around multi-billion dollar franchises that are adored by kids and adults around the world, all appearing on Disney Plus one right after the other. Movies that would have gone to theaters are now Disney Plus exclusives, and Disney’s various TV divisions will supply a stream of shows. In 2019, Disney introduced an idea of a streamer. Now, Disney Plus will consistently be fed with content audiences have proven they will gobble up.

A brute show of power, introduced by a longtime Disney executive who smirked when announcing, “This is only the beginning.” In many ways, the stream of announcements feels like that. Disney has spent the last year pulling the sled up the hill, trying to get to the highest peak, before jumping on and actually enjoying the ride.

There will come a time when Disney has a new Star Wars or Marvel show seemingly every week, and that powerful harnessing of lucrative, sought-after, fan-adored brands should be terrifying to competitors (who have their own advantages. Netflix isn’t going to suddenly crumble.). Plus, even with the new shows — and raising the streaming content budget alone to $9 billion by 2024 — Disney is going to do it all for just $8 a month. That’s a $1 increase for a seemingly neverending supply of Marvel and Star Wars projects.

What Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos once referred to as a potential trap is Disney’s $100 billion gamble. The big franchises, the massive IP, the ability to create stories based around lesser-known characters because people are invested in the much larger worlds, all coming together to get potentially hundreds of millions of people to spend money every single month for a very, very long time. It’s exhausting to think about. It’s also going to work well for the Walt Disney Corporation. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues. Disney’s streaming division won’t be profitable until fiscal 2024, and the company is bleeding in other areas (especially parks, where Disney has laid off around 30,000 employees this year). There is increased competition, and giant conglomerates like WarnerMedia are moving fast and breaking things to try and attract subscribers, keeping their wallets and attention.

Industry insiders are still scratching their heads over whatever Disney’s Hulu plan is — my opinion is that Disney isn’t going to make major investments into Hulu until it pays out Comcast for the company’s remaining stake. Why make that payout larger than it has to be when heavier investment can come after the payout and Disney reaps the full benefit? That is, if Disney is interested in prioritizing Hulu, which is still up for debate.

Those issues are important to note, but the meaningful opportunity Disney has with Disney Plus is glaringly obvious after last night’s event. One that really, and truly, officially, introduced the world to Disney Plus.