Turning Red, Pixar’s latest feature film, skipped theaters to stream exclusively on Disney Plus Friday. But Encanto spent a month in theaters before streaming. For Marvel‘s Eternals, it was two. West Side Story — the Steven Spielberg reimagining of the musical that’s nominated for seven Oscars — hit Disney Plus about three months after it played exclusively in cinemas.
All of Disney’s films since August have premiered in theaters exclusively for some period of time, and now Turning Red seems to be turning back to a straight-to-streaming strategy. What’s going on?
Just as post-pandemic life has seemed frustratingly out of reach, it’s hard to get a grip on when and where Disney releases all its movies now.
Disney Plus was up and running only about four months when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In the two years since, Disney reimagined the service as an outlet to release big new movies while cinemas were shuttered or limping. But lately, for movies like West Side Story, Encanto, Marvel’s Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, their time spent only in theaters has been almost as long as the prepandemic norm.
That return to a theatrical-exclusive strategy helped fuel the box office performance of movies like Shang-Chi, but it has crimped options for fans who got used to more choices in how, where and when they watch new movies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here’s what to know about how Disney and Pixar are releasing Turning Red and why it is the way it is.
Is Turning Red streaming? Is it free?
In any place where Disney Plus is operating, Pixar’s Turning Red is available to stream on the service for all subscribers starting very early Friday morning (midnight PT / 3 a.m. ET). Like everything else on Disney Plus right now, it’s available to stream at no added cost to your standard subscription. Some people refer to this as the date it will be streaming “free,” but everything on Disney Plus requires a paid subscription.
Pixar’s last two movies — Soul in late 2020 and Luca in the middle of 2021 — were released this way, too. But Disney hasn’t released a movie straight to Disney Plus since Jungle Cruise in July, and even then, Jungle Cruise was available to stream only by paying an extra $30 fee through its Premier Access model.
In fact, Disney has been giving its live-action theatrical releases longer and longer stints in theaters. Marvel’s Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings were in theaters for about 68 and 70 days, respectively. West Side Story’s streaming release was more than 80 days after the film was released in theaters — that’s back to the prepandemic norm for theatrical exclusives, which was typically 75 to 90 days.
Is Turning Red in theaters?
Turning Red went straight to streaming anywhere Disney Plus is operating with at least one rare exception in the US: A Disney-owned theater in Los Angeles is showing Turning Red on the big screen for one week starting Friday.
But in all countries where Disney Plus hasn’t launched, the company said it would release Turning Red in theaters. So far this is a limited number of countries, including the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines and a cluster of Eastern European nations. (The film won’t be released in Russia, however, as Disney has paused all theatrical releases in the country because of the invasion of Ukraine.)
Why are Disney’s movie release plans all over the map?
Turning Red is going straight to streaming. Encanto went from theaters to Disney Plus in a month. West Side Story, Shang-Chi and Eternals spent nearly as much time exclusively in theaters as the pre-pandemic norm. What’s going on?
When the pandemic first hit, Disney made a big change to its movie release practices. As cinemas shuttered or slashed capacity, Disney Plus became a way to get new movies out to wider audiences, especially as the stockpile of delayed films swelled.
Some Disney movies — typically midbudget live-action movies and Pixar films like Luca and Soul — skipped theaters entirely and were available to stream on Disney Plus at no extra cost. For the biggest films, Disney Plus introduced its Premier Access model to sell streaming access to new, big-screen movies for an extra fee. Disney Plus members could stream brand-new movies at home for $30 on top of their subscription price. Disney has released five movies with this Premier Access option, notably Marvel‘s Black Widow in July.
Then as vaccinations widened, Disney reintroduced theatrical exclusives — but with a shorter commitment to stay in cinemas exclusively than before. The first movie to hit theaters this way was Free Guy, a video game comedy from Disney’s 20th Century Studios. It was released in cinemas Aug. 13, with a 45-day commitment to be available only in theaters. Shang-Chi followed, hitting theaters (and only theaters) on Sept. 3, also with a 45-day commitment.
But with theatergoers flocking to those films, Disney extended their theatrical-exclusive periods longer than 45 days. Shang-Chi was in cinemas exclusively for about 70 days, nearly getting back to the pre-pandemic norm that kept movies only in theaters for about 75 to 90 days.
Shang-Chi was a box-office smash. Shang-Chi’s box office performance didn’t keep pace with a pre-pandemic Marvel Cinematic Universe release like 2019s Spider-Man: Far From Home. In the first four weeks of Spider-Man’s 2019 release, it hauled in more than $340 million at the domestic box office, while Shang-Chi’s first four weeks just barely crossed $200 million. But Shang-Chi still did better at the box office than several pre-pandemic Marvel movies, such as 2015’s Ant-Man.
Shang-Chi essentially proved that — for a film belonging to the world’s biggest blockbuster movie franchise — fans will turn up at cinemas again if they can’t stream it at home. That’s one of the main reasons Disney moved back to theatrical exclusives for its biggest films.
And Disney makes some seriously big-budget movies. For those movies to be profitable within Hollywood’s current economics, they need to be box office successes. Streaming movies the same day they hit theaters definitely plays to consumers’ and fans’ best interests, giving them the most choice about how and when to watch movies. But same-day streaming takes a bite out of box office performance. Lately, movies like Shang-Chi and Spider-Man: No Way Home have proved that big franchise films can pack theaters again.
Why is Turning Red skipping theaters?
Family films, Pixar’s specialty, have struggled with theater attendance by comparison. Parents, compared with other adult filmgoers, are likely more sensitive to the risks of bringing their young ones into crowded cinemas while the coronavirus continues to circulate. Children under five still don’t have a COVID-19 vaccine available to them in the US, and a kid’s coronavirus infection could mean missing multiple days of school or daycare and derailing other family plans.
Putting Pixar movies directly on Disney Plus is, at its core, a strategy to both lure in more streaming subscribers and keep the ones it has. Kareem Daniel, the Disney executive in charge of distribution calls like this, noted in the Turning Red announcement that both Soul and Luca were “enthusiastically embraced” by Disney Plus subscribers when they went straight to the service.
And by sending three Pixar films straight to Disney Plus, Disney may also be protecting Pixar’s pristine reputation for critical and box office successes, according to some experts: If Disney doesn’t put Pixar movies in theaters, they can’t have disappointing theatrical runs.
And in the case of a family film like Encanto, the theatrical exclusive actually appeared to put a damper on its popularity.
Encanto was released in theaters on Nov. 24, but its box office performance was mediocre. The film’s total US ticket grosses have yet to cross $100 million. By comparison, Disney’s Frozen 2 soared well past that in its first weekend alone, pre-pandemic.
It became available to stream on Disney Plus on Dec. 24, at no added cost to all subscribers — one month after its theatrical release. It was a longer wait than for other Disney animated movies earlier in the pandemic. Pixar’s Soul and Luca went straight to Disney Plus, and Walt Disney Animation Studios’ last movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, was available on Disney Plus the same day it hit theaters — but it required an extra $30 fee to stream for the first few months.
But once the film started streaming, Encanto grew into a phenomenon. The soundtrack climbed Billboard’s music charts to hit No. 1. Videos of its musical numbers are among the most popular songs on YouTube. We Don’t Talk About Bruno, the best-known song from the movie, became a TikTok meme.
Some of Disney’s upcoming smaller movies have already been switched to be Disney Plus originals instead, skipping theaters entirely. This strategy mostly applies to midbudget movies, including Pinocchio, a live-action remake starring Tom Hanks; a Peter Pan reboot; Disenchanted, a sequel to Enchanted that’ll have Amy Adams reprise her princess role; and Sister Act 3, reviving the comedy franchise about nuns.
But unlike those, Pixar’s Turning Red was previously destined for theatrical release. The movie was on Disney’s calendar for a March 11 release in theaters for more than a year.
“Given the delayed box office recovery, particularly for family films, flexibility remains at the core of our distribution decisions,” Kareem Daniel, the chairman of Disney’s media and entertainment distribution arm, said in a statement about Turning Red.
Like the cuddly main character of Pixar’s next romp, the new normal for Disney’s movie releases keep shifting shape.