Everything Old Is New Again as Disney Feeds Its Streaming Beast

If you’re a Disney fan in any way, there was something for you in the company’s four-hour investor-day presentation this week.

The world’s largest entertainment company touted plans for dozens of new movies and TV shows -- and plans a surge in content spending to as much as $16 billion a year by 2024. Some 80% of the lineup is aimed at Disney’s growing array of streaming services.

On tap are 10 Star Wars series, including the first two spinoffs from the Disney+ streaming service’s hit “The Mandalorian.” There are 10 Marvel series, including projects with a deep bench of Black and female superheroes. Characters from recent films such as “Moana,” “Zootopia” and “Big Hero 6” are getting TV shows. Even Dug, the lovable dog from Pixar’s 2009 film “Up,” will get his own series.

Everything Old Is New Again as Disney Feeds Its Streaming Beast

“It’s all something that’s got some word of relevance to someone’s past,” said Peter Newman, a producer and professor of film at New York University. “What you’re seeing is a company that’s saying, ‘We need to get very large, very quickly,’” in streaming.

Walt Disney Co., along with the rest of Hollywood, has been doing this for years -- drenching audiences with sequels and remakes. In some cases, recycled ideas equal recycled success: A 2019 remake of Disney’s 1994 animated hit “The Lion King” generated $1.66 billion in global ticket sales. But all studios need at least a few new ideas if they’re to create the franchises of the future, and limit the risk of nostalgia fatigue among audiences.

“For now at least, the primary strategy seems to be extending their built-in generational appeal by revisiting stories and characters familiar to Generation X and older millennials,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro. “The inherent risk is the chance of alienating an audience due to overexposure, or a string of subpar content.”

For some longtime Disney watchers, the company’s spending plans are a return to an era that passed long ago. Disney founded Touchstone Films in 1984 to make mid-budget, original adult-oriented pictures like “Splash,” the mermaid love story starring Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks. Others followed, including “Ruthless People,” “Pretty Woman” and “The Color of Money.”

There were plenty of duds as well. When Bob Iger took over as CEO in 2005, Disney shifted gears, focusing on big-budget films based on well-known characters that could travel well overseas and appeal to both kids and adults. Iger bought Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm to acquire characters and stories that he said would cut through the clutter of a crowded entertainment marketplace.

Smaller Output

Disney’s number of releases plunged from about 36 movies a year, including films from the Miramax label it once owned, to just 10 in 2018. Yet Disney’s film profit surged to a record $3 billion that year, from $662 million in 2004, and the studio dominated the box office.

Now, the company is back to making those mid-budget movies again, along with just about anything else management thinks might work. Iger, now executive chairman, said the company is on pace to release 100 new titles a year, just for Disney+.

The lineup presented by Burbank, California-based Disney includes a number of retreads of earlier films. There’s a “The Mighty Ducks” series for Disney+, based on the 1990s film series. Remakes and sequels were announced for 1987’s “Three Men and a Baby,” 1989’s “Turner & Hooch” and 1992’s “Sister Act.”

Feel-good sports films, a genre that Disney once excelled at with features such as 2000’s “Remember the Titans,” are also back. The company touted four of them Thursday, including a biopic about basketball’s Chris Paul.

In perhaps the company’s biggest “to infinity and beyond” moment, Disney is making a real movie about an imaginary film that the “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear was allegedly based on.

In Disney’s defense, there is some entirely new material. “Iwaju,” an animated production set in Nigeria, will be based on the work of African cartoonists. “Hamilton” writer Lin-Manuel Miranda is creating “Encanto,” an animated musical about Colombia.

The increased spending will mean plenty of work for writers, producers and actors, said Peter Sealey, a former head of marketing and distribution at Columbia Pictures and now a consultant. The big losers are theaters. Even though Disney said it will still put its biggest films in cinemas, the deluge of content online only gives people more reason to stay home.

“It’s a huge power grab,” Sealey said. “If anyone can do it Disney can.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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