Pixar’s first theatrical release since pre-pandemic times was a box-office disappointment: “Lightyear” opened to $50.58 million last weekend in the U.S. and Canada, whiffing on (already low) projections by around $20 million. (It brought in an additional $12.43 million over the last week.) But that doesn’t mean Buzz is destined for the bin of forgotten toys: Recent Disney animated movies skyrocketed in popularity after hitting Disney+ and “Lightyear” is on track to soar among those stars.
Over the last week, Google Trends showed slightly more searches for “When will Lightyear be on Disney+” than “Lightyear movie times.” The search popularity for “Lightyear streaming” peaked June 17, the day the movie was released in theaters. By comparison, searches for “Encanto” peaked December 26, two days after it landed on Disney+. In other words, parents (and other nostalgic adults) are ready for the “Toy Story” origin story to hit their home TVs already.
Disney’s varied distribution strategy over the last six months shows how the studio, just like its peers, is still working out how to get the biggest return on investment — even if the plan sometimes confuses consumers. Executives say flexibility is key: “Turning Red” went straight to Disney+ in March, a last-minute pivot away from a theatrical release due to a “delayed box-office recovery.” The Pixar title went on to earn widespread critical acclaim and was a hit on the popular SVOD streaming service. As of April 2, Disney+ had 137.7 million global subscribers; 44.4 million of those are in the U.S. and Canada.
Live-action MCU entry “Eternals” had a $71.3 million domestic opening in November and hit Disney+ two months later, which makes the $27.2 million opening weekend for “Encanto,” also in November, look weak in comparison. But by now we know that theatrical performance doesn’t solely determine a film’s success or failure.
In fact, it was the Disney+ release, 30 days after its theatrical bow, that allowed “Encanto” to quickly rise to the status of cultural touchstone. Original song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart less than two weeks after the film’s streaming debut and quickly rose to No. 1, spent five weeks in the top spot, and five consecutive months on the chart. Another “Encanto” tune, “Dos Oruguitas” earned a Best Original Song Oscar nomination; both songs were performed at the ceremony.
Nielsen ratings offer another window into the popularity of “Encanto.” With a total 20.09 billion minutes streamed between December 27 and May 22, it was among the 10 most popular films across all major services in all 21 of those weeks. It was by far the most popular movie on Disney+ throughout that time. The Disney+ runner-up was “Turning Red,” which was watched for 7.58 billion minutes during its first two months of streaming. It’s worth nothing that “Turning Red” was released almost three months after “Encanto,” which helps explain some — but not all — of the vast chasm of streaming minutes between the two.
“Turning Red” achieved that success with a 72 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. “Lightyear” is currently at 85 percent, which suggests it may be even better-received by the casual Disney+ audience. (“Encanto” is 93 percent with the audience.)
Nielsen data from that period also suggests that Disney’s biggest animated films could have an edge against live-action titles, even Marvel movies. “Moana,” first released in theaters in 2016 and on Disney+ since November 2019, was the third-most popular Disney+ film during the measured 21-week period. It was almost 60 percent more popular than the number five film, “Eternals,” which debuted on Disney+ January 12.
That a completely new animated film, “Encanto,” and an old one, “Moana,” could so dramatically outperform a Marvel entry suggests that audiences’ theatrical vs. streaming preferences are coming into view. For Disney animated films, the preference just might be to wait for streaming; once a title hits Disney+, parents can expect to play the movie for their kids over and over and over (and over) again. The films’ box office might suffer, but parents’ need for always-on access to “Frozen” or “Moana” has a likely upside in limiting Disney+ churn and feeding the ever-important IP beast.
There are lots of ways to realize value from a film and for a company that also trades in theme parks and consumer products, it’s all a long play. “We’d love for theatrical to come back for family movies — we hope it does — but if it doesn’t, we know we’re very secure in being able to use our own platform, Disney+, to help [build a franchise],” CEO Bob Chapek told CNBC in February.
So how long will families have to wait for “Lightyear” to be on Disney+? The studio has not yet announced a date for the streaming debut, but a 45-day window would place “Lightyear” on Disney+ and PVOD in early August; anything earlier would infuriate theater owners. That’s when we’ll find out if Buzz can really fly.
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