Disney makes the small screen big

  • Disney’s own streaming service, Disney+, launches this November
  • ‘The Mandalorian’ cost $100 million and there’s a slate of ambitious Marvel shows

Television, we aren’t in Kansas any more. Given Disney’s increasingly monopolistic grip over the entertainment industry, most viewers expected D23 Expo in California (23-25 August) to show off some serious film and television power for Disney’s own streaming service,

Disney+, launching this November—but nobody expected this mighty a mouse attack. Highlighted by Star Wars-based television show The Mandalorian, which looks every bit as massive as a summer release, there really does seem to be something for everyone on the new network, from musicals to documentaries, from superheroes to Jeff Goldblum.

The potential spectacle is immense. Disney is bringing its blockbuster A-game, with The Mandalorian reportedly costing $100 million (around 718 crore) and a slate of ambitious Marvel shows, including spin-offs featuring stars of the movies and animated shows that will be voiced by most actors from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There will be critically acclaimed films from Fox Searchlight and selected documentaries from National Geographic, both recent Disney acquisitions. The sizzle-reel presented last week seems markedly big-screen and premium, but Disney is offering it, decapitatingly, at the exact same price as Netflix.

According to a recent survey in The Hollywood Reporter, 22% of Americans claim they will give up on Netflix if the streaming service loses the Marvel superhero movies. Twenty per cent say they will leave if the service doesn’t have the Star Wars franchise, 11% if Netflix loses Friends and 14% if it loses The Office. Unfortunately for Netflix, all of the above is happening, and even though a survey of 2,201 people cannot be called definitive, the competition is increasing and the streaming giant will be forced to buckle down and defend its turf. It’s decidedly un-chill season.

Disney+ is bringing the heat, hard. Netflix has an enviable and exhaustive library of original content but as its back catalogue fades over the coming months—with Disney, NBC and Time Warner Cable yanking away content for their own streaming services—consumers will be forced to ask: Is it worth it to renew the Netflix subscription only for BoJack Horseman? (Short answer: Yes.) For now, Netflix has an exponential lead over rivals in its global reach and in the way it has aggressively green-lit and acquired local content.

Disney+ plans have not yet been announced in India, but it’s going to take a while to create their own local shows—and that really is where the future lies.

For English-language audiences, however, it’s hard not to be impressed by this salvo. Disney+ will form a bundle of family-friendly fare (the rest will live on Disney’s popular Hulu streaming service) and that in itself is an intriguing idea. Before its launch announcement, the Apple TV+ streaming service was incorrectly rumoured to be family-only, but the all-audiences tag is a much better fit for the Disney brand, and the safe-for-everyone nature of content will undoubtedly find many takers. It has become harder for family audiences to find television shows they can share across age groups, and Disney+ is poised to create a library of programming that is entirely grandparent- and grandchild-friendly.

(Apple TV+, meanwhile, seems to be generating little buzz, despite the initially notable presence of the almighty Oprah Winfrey. The tech behemoth would be better served by acquiring Netflix and turning its black background white.)

The desire to reach a family audience doesn’t equal boring shows. In fact, the Disney+ slate is surprisingly quirky, and, despite all the remakes and reliance on existing intellectual property, shows a lot of originality. The Marvel shows, for instance, not only feature popular characters like Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, but will introduce She-Hulk and Ms Marvel to the screen, giving truly clever modern characters their own shows.

There appears to be a radicality to the shows planned—edgier than the movies, or, at the very least, edgier ahead of the movies—and as Marvel weaves an interconnected web, forcing you to keep up with shows and movies in order to follow the plot, it will certainly be easier to have all their offerings under one streaming roof, helpfully gathered into foolproof playlists.

At a time when fewer and fewer people are going to theatres, Disney’s mega-productions are still raking in the billions, because they promise the audience a larger-than-life experience still elusive to those watching at home. Once you get used to watching blockbuster television and summer movies at home—while television sets get larger and internet connections faster—they will feel as special. Disney+ seems keen on making television feel like an event.

Despite their ambitious slate and their bottomless back catalogue, the important thing will be for Disney to deliver a technically seamless experience. Speaking of the services available in India, Amazon and Hotstar both offer markedly finer content than Netflix, but their interfaces are primitive and feeble, very different from Netflix’s slick and flawless user experience. Disney can only plant a flag in the content wars if its back end is in place. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be—but then Amazon isn’t exactly a small company, and look at Prime Video. If Disney can assemble a user interface as meticulously as Marvel assembles its Avengers, it will immediately feel like the premium must-have service (also, if you buy an annual plan, it will be cheaper than Netflix).

There we have it. Predatory pricing, insanely deep pockets, and virtually every major franchise in moviedom: James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar sequels will all be Disney movies, don’t forget. And then there’s the nutty stuff. To me, Disney’s most alluring promise is The World According To Jeff Goldblum, a series where the astronomically cool actor will explore random subjects in his wonderfully weird manner. They are coming for us all. To paraphrase what Goldblum memorably said about nature in a historic blockbuster not (yet) owned by the House of Mouse, “Disney…finds a way."

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author ofThe Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter - @rajasen

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