The success of Disney’s latest animated film, Encanto, might just have marked the sweet spot for the studio between a theatrical release and streaming.
The well-oiled marketing and promotional operations of Disney are currently in the midst of getting Pixar’s latest film, Turning Red, out into the world. It’s the third Pixar release since the first lockdown of 2020, and as many of you will be keenly aware, the third in a row that’s going to bypass cinemas in most of the world.
Disney announced earlier this year that in territories where it has a Disney+ streaming service up and running – specifically including the UK and US – it’ll be debuting Turning Red there, rather than affording it any kind of cinema release. The same fate befell both Soul and Luca, that enjoyed sizeable audiences on the Disney+ platform, but also felt just a little smaller by being denied a big screen release. As I’d talked about before, there were questions there, and rumours that Pixar’s own employees weren’t happy with the decision.
See also: is Disney selling Pixar short?
The irony is that Disney has found a way forward for whatever we call this new world, and it did it with Encanto. The output of Walt Disney Animation Studios was affected by the pandemic too of course, but its films have come out in better shape. Raya And The Last Dragon saw Disney experimenting with a dual cinema and Disney+ Premier Access release (basically, 20 notes on top of your Disney+ subscription). Cinemas were closed in the UK when the film was originally released, but notably, when they eventually reopened, Disney made prints of the film available, and it got a big screen outing.
With Encanto, though, it struck gold.
I should say from the outset that I liked the film, but it didn’t bowl me over in the way that the likes of Zootropolis, Moana, Frozen and Big Hero 6 had. But I liked it. Disney gave it a proper cinema release, I took my kids and we had a big trip out to the pictures, and I found myself drawn to the songbook and characters. The story a little less so, but there’s little question we got our money’s worth.
Disney had announced prior to the film’s release that it was going to give it a four week theatrical window before unleashing it on the Disney+ platform. In hindsight, this looks like something of a masterstroke: the best of the both worlds it’s been striving for.
Firstly, it did well at the box office. Appreciating numbers were suppressed across the board when it was released, Disney wasn’t going to grumble with $95m of takings in America and another $151m overseas. It also served as a big promotion for the home release that was coming, going back to the old adage in the 1990s that the cinema outing for a film was effectively the trailer for a VHS and eventually DVD release, where the real money was made.
Encanto though is also a Disney musical, and here’s where the company’s business was always in tandem. A big new animated Disney musical traditionally brought with it the soundtrack album, that tended to sell in droves. Then there were the toys you could buy at the Disney store, and the assorted theme park adds on. And whilst Disney has now shut most of its stores, the union of the music and the film here has proven vital.
We talked a few weeks ago about the staggering success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songbook for Encanto, which is taking music charts by storm. But this feels too like a case of one directly fuelling the other. The success of the music has led to more people wanting to seek out the film, and the fact that it was soon readily available on streaming built to the movie’s relative slow burn success.
After all, back in November when it debuted in cinemas, the music was slowly seeping into consciousness rather than soaring. But with a nod to how The Greatest Showman conquered the Earth, the songbook has been soaking in, to the point where it feels like it’s everywhere. And just as it began to build to a peak, the film was easy to watch, wherever you want to watch it.
I’m encouraged by the fact that even after it landed on Disney+, people were still seeking Encanto out in cinemas. But also, I’m encouraged that there appears to be a way to balance things in a better manner than Pixar has been on the receiving end of. Disney was and is the company best equipped to support a cinema release for its films, and had openly tried different approaches at various stages of pandemic lockdowns.
But this feels like something settled, that could work, and that Turning Red should be the beneficiary of as well. Thankfully, it’s already been confirmed that Pixar’s next film – Lightyear – will be heading to cinemas. Personally, I’d like to see the confirmation that slightly riskier projects from the studio have that future ahead of them too.
Because what Encanto has proven is that Disney can still launch a non-franchise, original film into cinemas. It can still sell its soundtracks. It can still support its Disney+ platform. And it can still give its films every chance of success and finding the biggest possible audience and screens, whether it’s a big Marvel movie or a bold swing from its animation arm.
Sure, it’s not always going to work, and the music has given Encanto a safety net. But it’s worked here. That the cinema release wasn’t skimped on at all – I’m not sure I could say the same for the promotion of something like The Last Duel last autumn, for instance – and was fully promoted. That the streaming buttons and numbers that needed to be hit were hit. And, wonderfully, by the box office numbers from mid-February 2022, it still sat in the UK box office top ten, with people keen to sit in a cinema to watch it.
It feels as close as we can get to everybody wins where Disney’s animated output is currently concerned. And it’s shone a path for arguably a positive way forward.
Don’t go on about Bruno, though…
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