The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the release schedule of every Hollywood studio and, as a result, major changes in their planning while trying to adapt should not come as a surprise. Still, it’s disappointing to see that there’s a certain kind of film that seems to have been affected more than others, under the very studio that became famous because of that kind of film, no less. The studio is Disney and the kind of film affected the most is, of course, animated movies, as the company announced that its next such production will not be released in theatres at all.
The upcoming film, Turning Red, was supposed to premiere in movie theatres on March 11 but is now making its debut on Disney Plus on the same date. Disney also confirmed that it will not be a Premier Access release, meaning that it will be free to all subscribers on that day. Out of the seven animated films that Disney had on its release schedule since the pandemic began, only two — Encanto and Ron’s Gone Wrong — got a full theatrical release. One, Onward, had a limited theatre run cut short by the pandemic at the beginning of March 2020, while another one, Raya and the Last Dragon, got a same-day release in theatres and on Disney Plus at the beginning of March 2021.
The other three, Soul, Luca and now Turning Red, did not see a theatrical release at all, not even a limited one: they were all offered to Disney Plus subscribers exclusively, for free, on the day they were supposed to debut in movie theatres.
Turning Red being released on Disney Plus in March for no additional cost sounds like great news for Disney Plus subscribers, sure. There’s always the positive angle of the service’s user base growth, too. Disney is obviously trying to make the best out of a bad situation: exclusive quality content is what drives new subscriptions to streaming services and, since the COVID-19 situation still doesn’t allow for normal movie theatre operation, why not attract customers to Disney Plus that way in the meantime, right? This is one of the reasons why Disney’s streaming service managed to surpass 125 million subscribers in less than 30 months, after all, while it took Netflix almost seven years to get to the same point. Yes, all perfectly understandable.
But there’s also a negative side to Disney’s choice regarding Turning Red, one which might not seem obvious at first or right now but it may prove to be an important one somewhere down the line. By releasing so many full-length animated films in a direct-to-streaming manner (the modern equivalent of the direct-to-home-video approach of old) instead of granting them a proper theatrical release, all in less than two years, Disney is diminishing their value. It’s giving the impression that these are second-rate productions (while they truly aren’t), that it’s OK for them to skip cinemas because maybe they wouldn’t do all that great there anyway (while they totally would) and that they do not deserve the same treatment that e.g. Jungle Cruise or Free Guy — let alone the latest Spider-man — received.
This impression could seriously hurt the animated movie genre as a whole. Other studios might be inclined to do the same with their own animated films and, all of a sudden, budgets would shrink, in which case the quality of these movies truly would suffer. There’s also the distinct possibility of Disney itself hurting its own financials: if Disney Plus subscribers get used to the idea that the company’s animated films are routinely released on the platform, exclusively or day-and-date, why take the family to see such films in theatres in the future? Especially if they are free as part of a subscription they are already paying for?
It would probably be wise for Disney to reconsider its choices on the matter and grant more of its animated movies the theatre releases they deserve — even if it means that they’ll be delayed for a bit. If Natasha Romanoff can wait for 14 months, then Buzz Lightyear can do so too, no?