On Jan. 7, Walt Disney Co. announced it wasn’t putting its Pixar Animation Studios feature “Turning Red” into theatrical release, but instead was slating it for a March 11 premiere on the Disney+ streaming service.
“Turning Red” is the third consecutive Pixar feature kept out of theaters in favor of a streaming debut, following “Soul” and “Luca.” No Pixar film has played in a U.S. theater since “Onward” in March 2020, which opened ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shuttering of theaters.
The announcement that “Turning Red”—a comic fantasy about a 13-year-old girl who turns into a giant red panda whenever she is agitated—would not be seen by movie audiences generated a flurry of negative press coverage. Variety ran an article with the angry headline “Why Does Disney Keep Sending Pixar Movies Straight to Streaming?” while Insider conducted interviews with anonymous Pixar employees who expressed frustration over the lack of a theatrical release.
The Right Strategy?
However, Benzinga polled several prominent film industry experts who cover the Disney output, and they insisted the absence of theatrical playdates is should not be seen as a sign the company thinks poorly of Pixar’s output.
“It’s not that Disney has lost faith in Pixar’s content,” explained Eric Kohn, vice president and executive editor of IndieWire, a film industry news site. “Disney’s priority is its streaming platform and it sees Pixar as a quality brand that’s lasted generations. I think that for Disney’s corporate agenda, having a Pixar movie that is exclusively a streaming experience is exactly what they’re looking to have right now.”
Rebekah Barton, senior entertainment editor for Inside the Magic, a news site focused exclusively on Disney’s corporate endeavors, observed that the company’s current animated feature in theatrical release—“Encanto” from the company’s Walt Disney Animation Studios—has been struggling to secure audiences.
“I’m looking at ‘Encanto’ and it did poorly in theaters,” she said. “But its Disney+ reception, however, has been incredible—‘Bruno’ is the number one song in America right now and it blew up the second it hit streaming.”
Barton noted that as a parent of two young children, she is cognizant of the concerns that many parents might have in bringing youngsters to a theater setting while the omicron variant surge has yet to abate.
“With the rise of omicron, Disney looked at what ‘Encanto’ did,” she continued. “It’s a similar demographic that’s being targeted with ‘Turning Red’ and I think they realized that streaming was probably their best bet.”
Dan Sarto, publisher and editor-in-chief at Animation World Network, echoed Barton’s observation by pointing out that Disney+ became the company’s primary focus since the pandemic took root.
“As with all streamers, it’s not just building subscribers but keeping them and avoiding the churn,” Sarto said. “Disney, unlike the other streamers, does not just throw up tons of content hoping some will stick and be popular. Disney is extremely deliberate across all its brands and when they invest in content, they’re expecting it to be good stuff made by great folks that people want.”
Sarto added that “bringing Pixar films directly to Disney+ is not a slam on Pixar—it’s the opposite. It’s saying people love this content because Pixar is the gold standard, the type of content that will bring people to subscribe just to watch the next Pixar film.”
Other Films in Release
Still, it’s difficult to ignore that while Disney is directing its Pixar films away from theaters, it has arranged theatrical playdates for the animated titles from its 20th Century Studios unit. “Ron’s Gone Wrong” opened in theaters last October while “The Bob’s Burgers Movies” is being readied for screenings during the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Barton highlighted that the 20th Century Studios titles were inherited by Disney when it acquired the 20th Century Fox assets in late 2019, noting that these projects were already guaranteed to have a theatrical run before they became Disney properties.
“There are certainly contractual issues,” she said. “And I think also with ‘Bob’s Burgers,’ that’s an adult film. It’s not a film that’s being marketed at small children in the way that ‘Turning Red’ is being marketed at small children.”
For Ramin Zahed, editor in chief at Animation Magazine, the 20th Century Studios titles had the good fortune to get scheduled for theatrical exhibition between coronavirus surges.
“The release date for ‘Bob’s Burgers Movie’ is in May, so I think everyone is hopeful that by the beginning of summer more people will feel safe enough to return to theaters,” he said. “‘Ron’s Gone Wrong’ was released in October, months before the omicron variant started wreaking havoc in the U.S. The March premiere date for ‘Turning Red’ was still too close for a safe return to movie theaters for the whole family.”
Jerry Beck, animation historian and publisher of the Cartoon Research website, cautioned that today’s distribution patterns have evolved significantly from the pre-pandemic era.
“People are thinking old-school here,” he explained. “In the old days before the pandemic and before streaming services, if you took a movie and put it on the shelf, you’d have no faith in the movie. If you took a movie and it went straight to television or straight to video, it was on some lower tier.
“They know Pixar has its audience,” Beck continued. “And the streaming business model is completely different from what Hollywood’s done in decades past. You realize that they’re making billions of dollars with subscriptions to Disney+ and they will keep you hooked on it to make sure you don’t pull the plug—whether it is ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ or a new Marvel show or a new Star Wars show that serialized over six or seven weeks, they’re hooking you to stay subscribed to that service.”
While Beck acknowledged that not playing “Turning Red” in theaters will deny Disney box office dollars, he stressed that streaming is still in its “pioneering Wild West experimental early days” and Disney is among the companies working to establish the medium as a commercially successful endeavor.
To Infinity and Beyond
The next Pixar film after “Turning Red” is “Lightyear,” with Chris Evans providing the voice performance of the astronaut Buzz Lightyear in an origin story about the same-named action figure in the “Toy Story” franchise. That film is slated for a theatrical premiere on June 17, and Barton is expecting it to herald Pixar’s return to cinemas.
“I will personally be shocked if that one doesn’t go to theaters with Chris Evans and being such a recognizable character,” she said.
Yet Barton predicted that other studios might follow the Disney lead and point their family-friendly animated films to streaming rather than theaters.
“Going to movies is expensive,” she said. “I think people struggled financially the past couple of years, and for a lot of families it’s easier to make popcorn and sit at home and watching movies on a service they’re already paying for then spend $50, $60 or $70 to go out to a movie theater when you don’t know if a small child is going to sit through a movie. And you don’t know who in the theater has COVID.”
However, Animation Magazine’s Zahed predicted family-friendly animation will be a theatrical staple for years to come.
“Family friendly animated features will always attract big numbers to theaters once everyone feels more safe about the moviegoing experience,” he said. “Movies like ‘The Incredibles 2,’ ‘The Lion King,’ ‘Finding Dory’ and ‘Frozen 2’ are currently among the top 20 movies of all time in theaters. There’s no reason to believe that families will not embrace the theatrical animation experience again. Perhaps even as soon as April when DreamWorks’ ‘The Bad Guys’ and June when Pixar’s ‘Lightyear’ is expected to debut in cinemas—if that nasty virus packs its bags and stops mutating for good.”
By Phil Hall
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