The pandemic has dramatically accelerated big trends bubbling up in Hollywood in recent years, turning the town toward streaming services and away from business models first constructed more than a century ago.
Nowhere is that more true than with Disney, which today announced that Disney+, its 16-month-old streaming service, just passed 100 million subscribers.
That whopping number puts it almost halfway to Netflix in terms of paying customers. CEO Bob Chapek announced the news today as part of the company’s virtual annual shareholders meeting, and promised even more focus on streaming video in the future.
“Our direct-to-consumer business is the Company’s top priority, and our robust pipeline of content will continue to fuel its growth,” Chapek said in a release.
Hitting that number wasn’t a complete surprise; the most recent quarterly earnings included news that the company was already nearly there.
But it’s quite an achievement for Disney, one that has sent share prices soaring to a record this week even as the rest of the company still deals with the pandemic’s painful hangovers.
Theme parks around the world closed (and remain shuttered in Southern California, though could reopen April 1); animation studio Blue Sky closed; cruise ships were stuck in harbor; tens of thousands of employees were furloughed, 60 Disney stores closed in a pivot to e-commerce. The company is still sitting on a number of big movies, thanks to widespread theater closures, though Black Widow is still set for a May release.
None of that seems to have affected investor regard for the company’s stock: shares hit a record $201.68 the day before the meeting, before edging back ahead of the meeting. For comparison, in the early days of the pandemic and lockdown, Disney shares sold for as little as $79.07.
The company did a lot of things right in its shift to streaming: it kept Disney+ prices low, given the dearth of new originals thanks to pandemic shutdowns; it offered an appealing bundle with Hulu and ESPN+ that attracted bargain hunters; and it rolled out a few certifiable water-cooler hits, including Emmy winner The Mandalorian, the movie version of Hamilton, and the recently launched and weird-in-a-good-way Wandavision.
It has quickly moved beyond the crowded U.S. market, expanding into Europe, Latin America, and several smaller English-speaking markets such as Canada, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand.
And of course, it built on decades of good will and brand equity with families and super fans of its brand and characters ranging from Mickey’s crew to Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel. Disney should be able to count on fans of those durable brands as loyal streaming subscribers for years to come.
For all its sure-footedness, however, Disney will face more complicated questions going forward:
- How does it attract the next 100 million users while remaining true to the Disney brand? Huge swathes of subject matter and content sources just aren’t good fits for what people consider “a Disney show.” How does the company build and distribute content for consumers who are immune to the traditional Disney charms of superheroes and princesses?
- What happens to Hulu? Though the presence of fine FX content as a dedicated Hulu channel helps give some edge and shape to the service, it otherwise seems a bit rudderless right now. NBCUniversal almost certainly will exercise its option to withdraw its content and sell its minority stake when that comes due in a year or two. And Hulu doesn’t seem to have any international opportunity as Disney rolls out a sort-of similar Star service overseas.
- What happens to ESPN+? The sports service is stuck between its glorious (and dizzyingly profitable) cable past and an uncertain subscription future. We may get slightly more clarity on what next in the nearly complete NFL rights negotiations, which reportedly will include streaming rights alongside big hikes in payments, and a longer season. But that still doesn’t solve for the rest of the year. Getting a bunch of ho-hum college basketball games or Tuesday night baseball of limited regional appeal is hardly cause to pay month after month.
For now, perhaps it’s enough for Disney to take a victory lap, while figuring out how to reopen Disneyland, California Adventure, and its cruise lines. But investors will want these questions answered as the world slowly reopens to a new and different future.