This past weekend marked the first big Disney film release of 2021 and — movie theatre conditions around the world being what they are because of the pandemic — it mostly happened in living rooms: Raya and the Last Dragon debuted to critical acclaim (scored a critics rating of 95% at Rotten Tomatoes as of March 8th) through Disney Plus as premium content for $29.99.
It’s a beautiful movie that would have made a killing in the global box office under different circumstances. Even if there’s no easy way to know how well it did commercially, judging from consumer reception on the Web it was probably a hit, generating decent revenue for Disney while also helping Disney Plus add quite a few new subscribers to the service. Mulan and Hamilton did that in 2020 and it’s safe to assume that the first Disney animated feature to be offered in this way achieved something similar.
This is, of course, the power of a Disney family movie: after almost a century of animated films, each new one’s release is an event in and of itself (even if the film might not always be a masterpiece). Bringing that power to the streaming world was always going to be rule-changing. It’s also exactly what Netflix was afraid of back in 2014 when it became apparent that it would have to focus on expanding its own library of films considerably: the most popular streaming service in the market it might be, but the brand power of Disney it lacked. In a sense, these last 6 years have been a race against time for Netflix — and building a strong catalog of exclusive films in a short amount of time is no easy feat.
Problem is, there’s this unshakable feeling that — as far as movies are concerned — Netflix run out of time. There are only a handful of original films (more than five but less than ten depending who you ask) of true Hollywood caliber in its catalog, most of those are not family material and definitely not as recognizable as Star Wars, Marvel or Pixar films. Netflix has gotten better at producing exclusive content, but it failed to reach the level of quality that would protect it against an entertainment juggernaut such as Disney.
In the meantime, Disney managed to reach almost 100 million subscribers in just 14 months, an achievement that cannot be underestimated. Disney proved, once more, that content is king: not only did it leverage its vast library of classics and timeless hits, but it also produced new material that people really wanted to watch, such as Star Wars and Marvel shows. Combined, those drove subscriptions through the roof. The circumstances of a pandemic helped, but they only accelerated what would have probably happened anyway: Disney is now the second major player in a game that Netflix invented and will be coming for the streaming throne in due course.
Even if Netflix will be facing strong competition from Disney now, it’s still rather safe because of its considerable headstart: a global user base of 203 million subscribers will not be reached by the Mouse House in 2021 or even 2022 by the look of things. There’s no such safety net, though, for the rest of the streaming upstarts — such as Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Peacock, Paramount Plus and others — who will have to contend with Netflix, Disney and people’s wallets. How many movie and TV show subscriptions can the average household afford to pay monthly after all? The next 24 to 36 months will likely give a definitive answer to that question. It’s just that it might not be to everyone’s liking.