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Disney to test its power with new streaming service

Disney+ announced it will premiere a "Monsters, Inc." spin-off TV series to on its forthcoming streaming service in 2020.

Disney’s new streaming service will test Marvel’s power, the reach of the “Star Wars” galaxy and the magic of animated classics spanning more than 80 years, coupled with the new-found bulk provided by its acquisition of Fox Entertainment assets.

The studio will play show-and-tell with investors on Thursday, amid what promises to be a banner year for Disney at the box office — thanks to “Avengers,” “Toy Story” and “Star Wars” sequels, as well as a new version of “The Lion King” — and a major theme-park expansion with the opening of Star Wars Land sure to lengthen queue lines this spring.

Still, beyond those can’t-miss projects, much of the intrigue surrounding the Mouse House’s future revolves around its plans to introduce a streaming service this year, Disney+, as the major studios seek to fortify their positions against the challenge posed by Netflix as well as tech giants like Amazon, Google and most recently Apple in the content space.

Absorbing Fox — which has created its own layer of drama within the entertainment industry — has left Disney uniquely positioned to mount such an effort. The deal strengthened what was already the entertainment industry’s most enviable array of brands, with Fox’s National Geographic among the announced Disney+ elements. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of Disney.)

Nevertheless, at the risk of mixing sci-fi metaphors, Disney CEO Robert Iger’s determination to boldly explore this new frontier represents a leap into an arena that remains filled with unknowns.

If properties with avid fan bases serve as the linchpin of any subscription-driven service, the industry consensus is that nobody can match the arsenal that Disney possesses. Yet even that doesn’t assure success with such a startup venture.

Indeed, Disney has already witnessed warning signs, or at least experienced limitations, in leveraging its vast trove of intellectual property. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” fell well short of box-office expectations, and most recently a live-action reboot of “Dumbo” is flying far below the stratospheric returns of “Beauty and the Beast.”

There’s also the issue of whether Disney and other studios will divert projects that would have played on and benefited other studio-owned assets — such as networks like ABC, Disney Channel and Freeform — to feed the streaming operation. That calculus, in terms of what shows premiere where, is by no means an exact science.

In addition, Disney will be using its library to stock the new service’s shelves. By ceasing to license content to Netflix, the company will forgo about $150 million in revenue this year, executives told investors in February. There’s also the matter of how to integrate Disney+ with its other streaming platforms, including ESPN+ and the studio’s controlling stake in Hulu.

In an interview with Barron’s, Iger said some decisions regarding which properties will get funneled toward Disney+ will be “easy,” such as producing mid-budget movies directly for the service, in contrast to the Marvel and Lucasfilm blockbusters.

The emphasis in series is somewhat murkier, with a “Star Wars” spinoff, “The Mandalorian,” among the more eagerly anticipated titles being used to help launch the service. This week, the company also announced a series based on the hit movie “Monsters Inc.”

In that same interview, Iger conceded that building up the company’s direct-to-consumer strategy would be a process, one that will initially require considerable investment against uncertain returns.

“We’re looking for Wall Street to show some patience while we prove this out,” he said.

Disney has also sought to differentiate itself from Netflix, with Iger telling analysts last summer that Disney would use its marquee brands to be “in the quality game,” as opposed to emphasizing volume.

Notably, Disney’s past acquisitions were greeted with varying degrees of skepticism, only to pay off with a level of dominance in the theatrical world illustrated by the titles that the company is unleashing through 2019.

That track record has bought Iger considerable goodwill among investors. At the same time, the studio faces questions not only in regard to streaming but also its longer-term succession plans, with the 68-year-old Iger having already extended his tenure three times, in the latest announcement through 2021.

On most fronts, 2019 looks like a landmark year for Disney. The challenge now is how much fairy dust the studio has left to sprinkle on the streaming realm.

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