One of the most controversial decisions made by Disney during the pandemic was “Disney+ Premier Access”, which gave Disney its own way of releasing the latest blockbusters at home, but at a premium price point, to ultimately try to recover some of the costs of making the film.
Disney has released several films over the past year through this experimental release system, including:
- Mulan – September 2020
- Raya And The Last Dragon – March 2021
- Cruella – May 2021
- Black Widow – July 2021
- Jungle Cruise – July 2021
When Disney CEO Bob Chapek revealed that the first film to be released on Disney+ Premier Access would be”Mulan”, the pandemic was still causing problems globally, as many cinemas were closed or had local restrictions in place. Any movie being released directly into theatres wasn’t pulling in enough money to warrant films being released. With Disney delaying the majority of its theatrical releases for 2021, or shifting some titles directly to Disney+, “Mulan” was going to be handled differently and was the only film released only through Premier Access, as the company shifted further movies to being a hybrid release, with the movies also being available in cinemas.
Disney+ Premier Access has been very controversial on many different points. The biggest one, is price. At $29.99/£19.99 for early access to a film for 90 days, many Disney+ subscribers found the pricing to be too expensive and couldn’t justify the price point. While some movie lovers, actually enjoyed the ability to watch a film in the comfort of their own home, being able to pause the film if they need to and watch it repeatably. Many families also find the price point fair, since they would be spending more money in cinemas on multiple tickets. Premier Access offered an alternative for those who didn’t feel safe going to theatres or weren’t able to go. Bob Chapek said he wanted consumers to have a choice, and to be fair to Disney; they released five different films as experiments to see what the reaction was.
In our Facebook Group, we’ve had hundreds of posts over the past year about Premier Access, many families loving having it available and lots of people arguing that the price point was just too high for them, especially single people.
Earlier this year, Disney CEO Bob Chapek revealed that “Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings” and “Free Guy” would have a 45-day theatrical exclusive before being released on other digital platforms like Disney+ or on home video. As Disney believed the pandemic situation was improving. Still, it wasn’t until Disney saw the box office success of both of these films that they finally revealed that the rest of their 2021 theatrical film slate would follow suit with theatrical exclusive windows.
There have been other drawbacks to the use of Disney+ Premier Access, with a major issue being piracy, as with a digital version being available on the same day as a film hits cinemas, it was much easier for pirates to make high-quality copies of films and distribute them on the internet. With “Black Widow” being the most pirated film of the year so far.
Another major stumbling block was when Black Widow actress Scarlett Johansson started legal proceedings against Disney over the release on Disney+ Premier Access. She states this wasn’t in her contract and has led to a public showdown between people, who have been picking sides over who they feel is right. Creating a very awkward and messy future for the hybrid model. Disney avoided a similar issue with Emma Stone, Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson, by greenlighting sequels to their films. But could Disney afford to make deals for every future hybrid release or risk more lawsuits over a loss of potential box office bonuses?
And Disney was also able to annoy the theatre chain companies with the use of Disney+ Premier Access, which even saw a cinema owner taking a baseball bat to a “Mulan” cardboard cutout to show his frustrations at Disney pulling the film away from a theatrical release. Cinema chains continued to promote the advantages of a theatrical exclusive window, as many of the major studios ripped up the old release rulebook to fuel their own streaming services.
With Disney trying out multiple release strategies throughout 2021, such as moving “Luca” directly to Disney+, Premier Access or a 45-day exclusive window, it seemed the success of “Shang-Chi and the Legend Of the Ten Rings” on the Labor Day weekend, pushed Disney to finally making a decision. Had the film done poorly, Disney+ Premier Access was likely to be used to prop up the films releases, as the success of “Black Widow” and “Jungle Cruise” had proven the digital release was making up about a third of the opening weekend box office numbers. But with “Shang-Chi” breaking records, this led to executives announcing it would be releasing the rest of its 2021 theatrical film slate with a 45-day exclusive window, except for “Encanto”, which only has a 30-day exclusive window, because executives want the film available on Disney+ for the Christmas weekend.
This decision has basically put Disney+ Premier Access on hold, as Disney won’t use it on any releases this year. With a hope that next year, the pandemic will be under better control, it’s likely to be forever just be known as an experiment. It helped prop up film releases during a difficult situation, but it wasn’t going to be a long term fix. Originally Bob Chapek said they would only be using Premier Access for “Mulan”, but building the infrastructure to do offer paid content within Disney+ always seemed like part of a larger plan.
While many Disney+ subscribers enjoyed the use of Premier Access and hoped it would become a permanent way of new films being released, moving to a much shorter theatrical release window just makes more sense on many levels. Films generally make the majority of their box office draw in the first weekend, and there is a prestige about films being released in cinemas first. Many people have a misguided idea that any film released straight to a streaming service or to home video, is inferior to a “proper” cinema released film. Recent films like “Soul”, “Clouds”, and “Luca” show how some incredible movies can be released directly onto streaming services.
Every film studio has tried doing something different during the pandemic, but the industry is moving to this new shorter 45-day theatrical window, with Warner Brothers and Paramount already shifting to it, with Universal having a slightly shorter option available to them. They are all then sending their films to their own streaming services shortly afterwards. The days of waiting 6 or so months for a streaming release are over. Consumers have driven a rise in streaming services, and new movies are going to be a major influence on what people remain subscribed to.
The movie industry has changed during the last 18 months, and Disney+ Premier Access was nothing more than an experiment, which in Disney’s defence, was worth exploring. It was either going to work or fail, but at least they tried something. Warner Media set every one of its 2021 films to HBO Max, which also caused them similar problems to Disney. While other studios changed their plans over and over again, including delaying films, hybrid releases with established digital platforms, or just selling them directly to streaming services. Every business has had to adapt over the past 18 months. Some of those adaptations were temporary; some might stick around. And looking at the new shorter theatrical release window, that is the biggest thing to have changed. The studios have wanted it for years, but cinema chains had to bend to demand, as they realised, they needed the studios, much more than the studios needed cinemas to release films. Making Disney+ Premier Access an instrument in shifting the power dynamic.
Disney+ Premier Access was an interesting idea and I personally used it on many occasions, but, it seems, Premier Access is no longer an option. However, the good news is that films will now be available on Disney+ even quicker and included in your subscription. Just as important, we now have a clearer picture of how Disney will release its films, at least for the rest of this year.
What do you think of Disney+ Premier Access not being used anymore?