Disney bets on more Marvel, more Star Wars for streaming expansion

Disney promised to add dozens of television series and films from the Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar franchises to its video streaming service, as it looks to ignite sign-ups and double down on a digital future

The largest traditional media group on Thursday made its big pitch for the next leg of its streaming mission. After a roaring start, investors and analysts have questioned how Disney can sustain growth and attract new customers to Disney Plus beyond its diehard fans.

Disney’s answer: more content. The company said it was working on about 35 series — including 10 from the Marvel franchise and 10 based in the Star Wars universe — as well as 15 movies to be released on Disney Plus in the next few years. 

The service launched last year with a back catalogue of hundreds of films and television shows, but has been criticised for not offering enough new original programming beyond The Mandalorian, the hit Star Wars spin-off.

Subscribers to Disney Plus had jumped to 87m as of December 2 from 73m two months earlier, chief executive Bob Chapek said. 

Disney shares climbed more than 3 per cent in after-hours trade. Disney’s stock price has held up this year even as the pandemic wiped away billions in profit, as investors focused on the promise of streaming. 

Amid an industry-wide battle for the future of entertainment, Disney has quickly cemented itself as a serious competitor to Netflix.

But even as it ramps up production, Disney Plus still lags well behind Netflix in the amount of fresh programming churned out.

Netflix last year added more than 370 television series and movies, equating to a new show every day, according to Variety data. Kareem Daniel, who oversees distribution of Disney’s creative content, said the goal was to add something new to Disney Plus every week.

Bob Iger, executive chairman, on Thursday said Disney was focused on “quality over quantity”.

Digital streaming has been the sole bright spot for the company this year, as lockdowns spurred demand for shows to watch from home. 

But the coronavirus has ravaged the rest of the company, as Disney grappled with empty cinemas, closed or reduced capacity at its theme parks, weaker advertising sales and shuttered TV and film production. The company posted a net loss of $2.8bn in the year to October 3, after making $10.4bn in the previous year. 

With cash constrained, Disney this year scrapped ambitious plans for a global rollout of Hulu, its other entertainment streaming service, according to people familiar with the matter. 

Instead, Disney announced in August it would expand Star, the Asia pay-TV network it bought from Rupert Murdoch, as a more adult-focused streaming service to Europe and the rest of the world.

In Europe and Canada, Star will become a tile within Disney Plus from February, with password protection for the edgier adult programming. Disney is raising the price of Disney Plus in Europe from €7 a month to €9, the company said on Thursday.

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