Are Pixar movies now more valuable to Disney on its Disney+ platform than in cinemas? A few thoughts, given the release change to the upcoming Turning Red.

Who’d be the person in charge of distribution strategy in the modern movie marketplace? For the last near-two years, finding a release slot for a major film with marketing muscle has become an end-of-level boss-type assignment. For those without marketing muscle, an end-of-level boss when you’re down to your last life.

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Decisions about when to release films in cinemas oftentimes have to made months in advance, and rely on the best guess at the time the decision is made. Given that a big film generally requires a three month run-up just for marketing – that’s notwithstanding the actual booking of that marketing and the putting together of the creative work for it – it’s been quite a juggling act.

It was understandable then, especially with a big new business-changing streaming platform to feed, that Disney – back in 2020 – decided with the Oscar-winning Pixar film Soul to forgo a cinema release, and make it the big Christmas movie on Disney+ instead. It was an imperfect solution, but given that cinemas around the world were more closed than open, it wasn’t tricky to see the logic.

Even last year, it’s easy to overlook that cinemas still weren’t fully open for a long time. That whilst Disney had tried to release the film Raya & The Last Dragon – its 59th film in its line of official animated movies from Walt Disney Animation Studios – in cinemas, it went for a hybrid release in the UK. That was last March, and the plan was you could in theory see it in cinemas, or you could pay an extra £19.99 on top of your regular Disney+ subscription for ‘Premier Access’. Credit to Disney: it’s tried lots of models to get its films out there.

With Pixar’s next film though, Luca, it decided to go down the Disney+ route again.

This raised eyebrows. Cinemas had been slowly opening up, and multiplexes were crying out for films that could get people back to see movies on the big screen. Luca was one of the big releases, had been planned for June 2021, and in the UK at least it would follow Peter Rabbit 2. Scoff all you like at the really rather good Peter Rabbit 2, but Sony held it for a cinema release, and was richly rewarded when it became the first film to cross £20m at the UK box office since Sam Mendes’ 1917 at the start of 2019. It was one of the top five grossing films at the UK box office last year in the end.

Pixar's Luca

Against this backdrop, it was a disappointing choice that Disney opted to deny Luca a cinema release in territories around the world where its streaming service was operating. Believe the rumours, and some staff at Pixar weren’t best pleased, as this Business Insider piece outlined last spring.

Still, Disney was clear that it was planning to release future Pixar films in cinemas, and next in line was this year’s eagerly-awaited Turning Red.

Scheduled for March of 2022, Disney had started promoting the film, and was gearing up the press tour for the movie. It was buoyed by the release of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 60th film, Encanto, that successful played in cinemas last autumn, before moving at some speed to Disney+ in December. But crucially, the theatrical release was a success. Put family movies out there, people will come.

Still, against the backdrop of the Omicron variant surge, it’s not hard on the surface to see why Disney might be reticent about gambling on a cinema release for Turning Red. And now we learn that the film will bypass cinemas, and head straight to Disney+ in March instead.

In a statement, it said that “given the delayed box office recovery, particularly for family films, flexibility remains at the core of our distribution decisions as we prioritize delivering the unparalleled content of The Walt Disney Company to audiences around the world”.

Pixar's Turning Red

Again, all seems perfectly reasonable at first. It’s also not my money that’s paid for the film, so all of this is easy for me to observe from my side of the fence.

But: notwithstanding just what the virus is or isn’t expected to do, Disney has made the decision at a point where cinema exhibition finds itself back in rude health. Spider-Man: No Way Home has grossed over $1.4bn at a time when the variant is surging across the world for a start, and has a shot at $2bn.

Still, is that a family movie, Disney might argue? I’d argue there’s no shortage of families who have been watching it, but also, whilst Spider-Man has been earning the box office headlines, there’s another film that’s quietly been mopping up as well.

That movie? Sing 2, which has helped itself to $109m at the US box office alone. That, surely, is the very definition of a family movie, and it’s proven to be a very successful one. Furthermore, Universal has followed a model of giving it four weeks in cinemas before selling the film on digital services. And boy has it worked.

Clifford The Big Red Dog

Jack Whitehall (left) and Clifford The Big Red Dog

In the UK meanwhile – we get Sing 2 in a few weeks – the surprise hit has been Clifford The Big Red Dog, which has outgrossed The Matrix Resurrections and West Side Story over here. Families have been coming back to cinemas, and Turning Red  has been trailed extensively before some of the aforementioned movies.

Now nobody quite knows where the world will be in two months, but most seem to lean towards things not shutting down in the way they did in 2020. Disney’s decision, against that backdrop, seems a little odd.

Why at the very least couldn’t it do the same kind of hybrid release that Maya & The Last Dragon enjoyed, perhaps without the Premier Access fee? Wouldn’t that be a better way to hedge its bets, support its streaming platform and continue to back cinemas at the same time?

It may not be the case that Disney has decided Pixar is more valuable to Disney+ than to cinemas, but it certainly looks like it, again from our perspective. This is now the third Pixar release in a row that won’t get a cinema release in territories where Disney+ is active, and sooner or later the trend will start to feel more like a policy.

The pity here is that Pixar films are clearly, clearly made for the big screen. They’re clearly designed with cinema exhibition in mind, and not for nothing has it become a premier name in American feature animation. A worldwide respected name in family features too. It’s unfair to suggest that Pixar’s output is in any way reduced due to the platform that it’s playing on (just look at the quality of Soul and Luca), even if oftentimes films feel a little less special when playing at home. But it does feel that Disney has taken the safest possible choice here, with one of the most important names in family cinema.

It’s perfectly entitled to do that, and there’s no shortage of competition that’ll gladly take the screen space Disney has vacated. It’s just a little sad, and I can’t help but feel Disney is selling Pixar just a little short.

All eyes now move to its next film, Lightyear, that’s scheduled for release over the summer. It’s arguably a safer bet, given that it’s building on the Toy Story name. But if that too vacates cinemas, then that’ll be the clearest statement of intent yet for where Disney views Pixar going forward. Fingers crossed the Pixar name remains a regular one in cinemas. It’s almost certainly going to be, but for the first time, there’s just a little bit of doubt there.

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