What D23 Expo’s Newly Revealed Mega-Slate Tells Us About Disney+

August 26, 2019, 8:34 PM UTC
Disney+ D23 Expo
Attendees visit the Disney+ streaming service booth at the D23 Expo, billed as the "largest Disney fan event in the world," on August 23, 2019 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California. - Disney+ will launch on Nov. 12 and will compete with out streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, HBO Now and soon Apple TV+.
Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

Now that all the magic pixie dust has settled on D23—the weekend-long biennial fan convention mounted to spread the gospel of Disney – Disney+ seems bigger than ever, in no one’s mind more than its company’s. It cannot be overstated how much the mega-media conglomerate has riding on its Netflix-competing streaming service, which launches Nov. 12.

Sure, D23 was filled with high-profile movie announcements, from a new Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker trailer (dark-side Rey!) to casting victory-laps for Marvel films like The Eternals (with Angelina Jolie supplying the most star wattage at the head of an in-attendance cast). Those were the kinds of reveals you’d expect from a box-office behemoth so powerful it’s near-completely cornered the family moviegoing market; amid the year of Avengers: Endgame, Aladdin, and The Lion King, Disney’s simply never been stronger.

But that Disney+ repeatedly landed at center stage throughout D23 speaks to its creators’ high hopes for—and deep pockets regarding—the streaming service. It aims to put streaming rivals like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video fully on their heels (and preemptively sink incoming battleships like Apple TV+, which can’t fully compete with Disney’s extensive back catalog, no matter how much it talks up The Morning Show and Dickinson).

But more than that, Disney+ aims to broaden the company’s already-unparalleled reach until it’s a practically universal proposition. Sizzle reels—showcasing everything from a live-action Lady and the Tramp (debuting as a Disney+ exclusive this fall) to Oscar-winning rock-climbing doc Free Solo (a National Geographic production, and thus a Disney film under the terms of the Fox merger)—suggest “something for everyone” as the service’s guiding ethos.

D23 emphatically played up just how much content Disney will be stocking the platform’s online library with within the first year. With more than 7,500 episodes and 500 films from its back catalog within the first year, it will be an ostensibly permanent home in the Cloud for all things Disney. Tellingly, the D23 strategy saw a branding label split the platform’s library into five distinct categories: Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic.

National Geographic and Disney+

That NatGeo’s logo made the cut as opposed to Fox’s could be seen as a further refutation of that company’s moviemaking appartus, especially now that word’s emerged that Disney was deeply unhappy with the state in which it found Fox’s upcoming theatrical slate. But any discontent between the studios doesn’t mean that Disney+ will miss out on the chance to tap Fox mainstays; The Simpsons catalog will be available to subscribers within the first year. And NatGeo’s world- and travel-centered offerings do add a splash of realistic color to Disney+’s cartoon-heavy slate. Beyond Free Solo, its extensive library of nature documentaries could court a separate market of subscribers, ones less wont to buy wholesale into “Disney magic.”

Docuseries certainly weren’t at the forefront of conversation going into D23, but the inclusion of NatGeo does speak to a separate marketing play by Disney+, which will see it accrue a library of reality and docuseries offerings. New reality series featuring Kristen Bell (Encore!) and Jeff Goldlbum (The World According to Jeff Goldblum) suggest Disney+ is at least preliminarily interested in flirting with the same craze that once defined Fox’s TV approach (American Idol, Hell’s Kitchen) and has supplanted Netflix’s original content library quite nicely in recent years (Queer Eye, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, Chef’s Table).

How committed Disney+ will be to this angle remains to be seen, but the House of Mouse has little to lose—especially commercially, given such series’ low price-tags—by exploring the kinds of grounded-in-reality ventures that would help distinguish Disney+ as a content creator outside of its media library. For all the clout its major franchises afford the platform, that Disney+ is at such an early stage courting more outside-the-box programming speaks to how broadly it’s defined the platform’s parameters.

Marvel’s Place in Disney+

All this said, no one ever questioned that Marvel would serve as a linchpin in Disney’s Disney+ strategy. After all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe stands as the highest-grossing franchise in Hollywood history and, with no signs of slowing down even despite the ostensible climax of Avengers: Endgame, it was already well-established how increasingly difficult it’s about to be for rival studios to stay out of the Disney superhero industrial complex’s way at the box office.

But the degree to which, on the small screen, Disney+ is betting big on Marvel—and, critically, vice versa—was perhaps the biggest single takeaway from D23. Unlike Marvel’s short-lived dalliance with Netflix (which led to misbegotten love children like Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist plus one super-awkward family reunion, The Defenders), Disney+ and Marvel will be thick as billion-dollar thieves, even moreso that Comic-Con had led us to previously believe.

Amid the dizzying deluge of content Disney+ showcased at D23, the announcement of live-action series Moon Knight, She-Hulk, and Ms. Marvel stood out. Why? Marvel President Kevin Feige confirmed that, after Ms. Marvel debuts on Disney+, its protagonist—Muslim-American superhero Kamala Khan—will show up in Marvel movies, paving the way for characters like Moon Knight (basically a Batman-like figure who’s either mentally unwell or possessed by a lunar god) and She-Hulk (who’s exactly whom she claims to be) to do the same.

That such a pipeline is even in the works speaks to Marvel and Disney+’s profoundly, perhaps already inextricably joint nature; the creative impact of projects like WandaVision (at D23 referred to as half superhero series, half sitcom) and Falcon and the Winter Soldier (picking up, notably, after Endgame‘s game-changing twist for the former) will be felt on the big screen. (Side-ventures like the Loki series, animated What If? and Moon Girl and the Devil Dinosaur seem more like flavorful apertifs than three-course meals for subscibers.) Narratively, this all speaks to a significant multi-media expansion of the stories told by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even within its flagship films. Commercially, it leads to just one conclusion: to fully appreciate the breadth of this franchise, audiences must also be Disney+ subscribers. It’s a hefty, though predictable, piece of showmanship by Disney, an insinuation (borne out by burgeoning box-office returns, of course) that audiences will follow the studio anywhere. It’s also a sizable show of faith in Disney+’s ability to not just stand out in the streaming landscape but upend its topography so as to better accommodate Disney content.

Disney+ and the ‘Star Wars’ Connection

Star Wars, the other Disney mega-franchise, isn’t as closely connected to Disney+ as Marvel, but D23 did take major strides toward setting up a future in which the galaxy far, far away lives extensively across the platform.

The Mandalorian, set after Return of the Jedi but before the new trilogy, isn’t expected to lead into future films so much as expand the universe’s sandbox, exploring new stories and genres with some familiar bounty-hunter faces. That it’ll do so with an impressive budget and creative pedigree (Jon Favreau, MCU architect and Lion King director, is behind the series) speaks to how much Disney+ is willing to pony up for individual projects. The Mandalorian will be available day-of-launch and already has a trailer out. For all the good it does the Star Wars universe, its greater significance may be as a pawn sacrifice, a premiering embodiment of the high-quality watercooler programming Disney+ seeks to make right out of the gate.

Meanwhile, D23 confirmed a Obi-Wan Kenobi series, which will see Ewan McGregor reprise his role from the prequel trilogy. That McGregor is on board constitutes one of the biggest star-led projects on Disney+’s announced slate. It’ll start shooting next year, so details are scarce, but the character’s assumed dead by the time of The Force Awakens. Chances that the series will lead into feature films appear, at this stage, unlikely, especially when one considers how carefully Lucasfilm works to maintain the quality of its big-screen offerings (going so far as to repeatedly fire directors who weren’t measuring up).

Everything Old Is New Again

The last and perhaps most implicitly amusing dimension to Disney+ out of D23 is increasing clarity about its approach to retooling and revamping classic catalog offerings. Put more simply, every Disney product you grew up with will likely be back in some way, shape or fashion.

With pricey blockbuster updates on its classic animated films absolutely dominating the summer box office (The Lion King and Aladdin have both passed $1 billion in global ticket sales, as has long-in-the-tooth sequel Toy Story 4), everyone knew Disney+ would dust off some beloved family films. First up is Lady and the Tramp, which clearly cost less than a fully CG-animated Lion King but similarly seeks to breathe new life into the story. Smartly, Disney has grasped that this story is in the second tier of its animated-classics catalog; and, given that it’s available day-of-launch, the film most interesting as a statement of intent for the platform.

Disney Channel is similarly getting raided, with a meta High School Musical update called High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, in which a new cast weighs high-school melodramatics against putting on their own version of High School Musical (which exists as a beloved cultural property known to the characters of the series). It’s out day-of-launch. Phineas and Ferb will get a movie within the first year, and a Lizzie McGuire sequel series is bringing back Hilary Duff to play the character as a grown-up thirtysomething navigating (and narrating) life in New York City, at an undetermined date.

Muppets and Love, Simon series—as well as newly announced projects that feel like spiritual updates of Disney films (for example: Noelle, riffing on The Santa Clause with Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader; and Togo, basically Eight Below with Willem Dafoe—add to Disney+’s self-orientation as an incubator for new TV and film projects that snugly fit the classic Disney mold.

Notably, Pixar doesn’t appear as fully integrated with the Disney+ rush in its early launch; the animation studio’s film offerings, for now, are staying theatrical. Instead, two spinoff series—Monsters, Inc. riff Monsters at Work and Toy Story 4 continuation Forky Asks a Question—will be available on day one, but Pixar will largely be left to focus on upcoming films like Onward and Soul, both teased at D23.

All this Disney+ content feels like a deluge, and that’s of course intentional on Disney’s part. With its extensive offerings, a shock-and-awe approach was perhaps inevitable. Much has been made of Disney’s box-office domination in recent months, and though its small-screen offerings will all be housed within one platform, it can afford to release projects at an intimidating velocity.

Stepping back to look at Disney+’s busy big picture, D23 neatly outlined the platform’s multi-pronged strategy for taking its brand into the streaming space. Nostalgia is a major tactic at play, with unfettered access to Disney content from throughout the ages. There will be Marvel and Star Wars tie-ins galore, and increasingly bold attempts to weave Disney+ into the fabric of those franchises; the platform, elsewhere, is mounting scaled-up Disney Channel Original Movies and working to haul some of its more well-regarded properties into the present. And with National Geographic underpinning another arena of original offerings, it’s seeking to lure in others who wouldn’t sign on the dotted line for Disney family entertainment alone.

Still, the most jaw-dropping element of Disney+ may well still be its price tag. The service will cost $6.99 per month or $69.99 for a whole year, while D23 attendees were offered a steep discount on that. With its box-office might unparalleled this year, Disney can afford to keep Disney+ cheap, even operating it at a loss for years in a way in-debt competitors like Netflix simply cannot. If dominating the streaming space is Disney’s plan, its most appealing magic will hinge on it offering much more for much less.

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