Over the weekend, I decided to catch up on City So Real, filmmaker Steve James’s latest treatise on the city of Chicago, American inequality, and the humanist heartbreaks of urban living. At first, I faced that usual roadblock between deciding to watch something and actually watching it: Where was I supposed to find this five-part docuseries that first aired on National Geographic? Then I remembered that National Geographic is technically owned by Disney, which also owns Hulu, the streaming service where the Mouse House has increasingly kept its adult-centric offerings. Sure enough, there it was—I found an evening’s entertainment by sorting through corporate synergy.
A multifaceted look at Chicago’s 2019 mayoral campaign, City So Real is the kind of patient, unflinching work that ends up on dozens of year-end lists without ever becoming the next Tiger King, or even O.J.: Made in America, a far closer analog. (The nuances of civic election procedure don’t quite hold the same allure as animal abuse and murder.) It’s certainly not the attention-grabbing equal of Star Wars, Pixar, or Marvel—the trio earned the vast majority of headlines from Disney’s mammoth Investor Day presentation last Thursday. Compared to the announcement of multiple Mandalorian spinoffs and a small network’s worth of Marvel shows on Disney+, larger entities like Nat Geo and Hulu were relegated to de facto footnotes. The news that The Handmaid’s Tale will somehow hit five seasons of harrowing dystopia flew relatively under the radar.
But in its own way, City So Real and its place within a vast streaming network helps illustrate the four-quadrant dominance the Investor Day announcements hope to cement. I’m a professional critic, the sort of culture snob who makes snarky jokes about onslaughts of IP and gets told to “let people enjoy things” several times a week. Yet even I am in a position to (begrudgingly) benefit from Disney’s centralization of entertainment into a handful of omnibus products, which can be further streamlined into a single deluxe package. I support a healthy marketplace for artistic expression, but I don’t think the Voltronization of entertainment companies and distribution platforms is ultimately good for the product. As a consumer, though, my individual tastes are well served by culture’s most important conglomerate, which caters to kids and global markets first, but now also accommodates my needs, as a treat.
The 2020 Investor Day was not the potential paradigm shift of WarnerMedia’s meltdown-inducing announcement the week before. Disney will continue to release major tentpoles in theaters when possible; this makes sense when dealing with massive budgets to recoup and a successful flagship streaming product. Per the numbers touted on Thursday, Disney+ alone is up to 86 million subscribers—already dwarfing Hulu’s near 39 million subscribers after just a year-plus on the market. Both figures eclipse HBO Max’s relatively paltry 12.6 million, a number WarnerMedia and parent company AT&T hope to juice by making everything from Wonder Woman 1984 to Dune immediately available on Max. And those numbers are set to get only bigger: Disney has already surpassed expectations, and upwardly revised its five-year forecast for Disney+ to between 230 and 260 million subscribers by 2024.
In other words, Disney is cementing a comfortable advantage more than it’s trying to get a leg up. Its 137 million subscribers across all streaming platforms, which include Hulu and ESPN as well as Disney+, doesn’t quite match Netflix’s 195 million worldwide, but that number is growing at a faster rate, narrowing the gap by the day. Taken as a whole, Investor Day’s announcements don’t constitute a major shift in strategy. They’re simply a scaling up of one that’s already working.
Take the Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar announcements (which also have some internal crossover, like Captain America playing Buzz Lightyear). Disney’s biggest franchises tell a larger story in parts and are often written by committee, and they have functioned like supersized TV shows for years, followed unsurprisingly by the creation of actual TV shows like The Mandalorian and next month’s WandaVision. Turning the Marvel Cinematic Universe into something more like the “Marvel Content Universe, Including but Not Limited to Cinema” is just the logical extension of that approach; executing it just required jettisoning an uneven partnership with Netflix and building out a platform to call home. And you don’t have to care about the nuances of Star Wars lore to understand the value in tripling down on the medium that gave you the Baby Yoda phenomenon while poaching Patty Jenkins from the WarnerMedia crew for good measure. As Jenkins’s Rogue Squadron indicates, Disney+ may be the company’s newest crown jewel, but its namesake isn’t putting all its eggs in one basket. Blockbusters remain very much a part of the plan.
But elsewhere, Disney is also funneling more resources into Hulu. Piggybacking off the success of Palm Springs and Happiest Season, Disney will kill two birds with one stone by turning the Fox remnant Searchlight into a source of Hulu original films. (It’s unclear if Hulu will swallow Searchlight’s entire slate, but the move emphasizes that Disney’s commitment to the theatrical experience is more about achieving a return on investment than artistic principles.) And FX—newly, partially, and confusingly rebranded as “FX on Hulu”—will up its production to 30 series a year, including a Shogun adaptation and a take on Alien from Fargo’s Noah Hawley. Even as Disney collectively inches toward Netflix’s something-for-everyone, 360-degree coverage, it’s maintaining a clear distinction between its separate parts. Consider Hulu the PG-13 to Disney+’s adamant PG.
The FX-Hulu alliance has frankly been a godsend when beseeching loved ones to check out achievements like Atlanta and Mrs. America, which once fell victim to the “If it isn’t on Netflix, does it really exist?” conundrum. Mostly, though, it’s another example of Disney’s Streaming Wars strategy: collecting as many sub-brands as possible behind a steadily rising paywall. Coming after the announcement of so much excitement to come, Disney+’s one-dollar price increase—to $7.99, still just half the sticker price of HBO Max—didn’t earn many objections.
Investor pressure has been widely speculated to be a motivating force behind WarnerMedia’s dramatic gambit, which has led to ugly public spats with high-profile talent like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve. Disney’s own investor presentation, meanwhile, felt less like frantic appeasement and more like a confident progress report, one rewarded with a modest bump in share price. (AT&T’s stock is up, but still not back to pre-pandemic levels.) Then again, there’s not much need to scramble when your streaming-first strategy is working out as planned.