The Disney Plus Streaming Service Is An Unproven Area
Bigger than any one movie, 2019 will also see Disney finally launch its own streaming service, Disney Plus, which is intended to compete directly with the likes of Netflix. Details are sparse - at this stage, even the price hasn't been officially confirmed - but Bob Iger has told investors they'll get a "first look" at the service in April. It's expected to launch towards the end of the year, and marketing has stressed that it will be focused on five properties: Disney animation and movies, Pixar, Marvel Studios content, Star Wars, and National Geographic (which will become a Disney property after the Fox acquisition). Right now, Disney is investing a small fortune in developing exclusive content for the streaming service, including a series of studio-budget live-action TV shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Disney senior executive VP and chief strategy officer Kevin Mayer has been named head of a new unit, named "Disney direct-to-consumer and international," with responsibility for managing Disney Plus and Hulu. The House of Mouse has already begun the long and arduous process of reacquiring the international distribution rights for its content, and new Disney releases will stop going to Netflix in March this year. While the Netflix catalog varies from country to country, there's no sign Disney intend to follow that strategy; rather, it's likely Disney Plus will only roll out in a country when Disney has reacquired distribution rights for that region. Disney will want to make the most they can out of their content, so it's safe to assume their goal will be a speedy rollout.
This is a major shakeup in the increasingly competitive streaming market, and Disney is betting a lot on its success. They aren't the only company pursuing this strategy in 2019 either; Walmart is partnering with MGM to produce original content for its Vudu platform, and AT&T's WarnerMedia is creating its own streaming service centered on HBO and Turner properties. The reality is that not every one of these platforms will survive, and each will have an impact on the performance of the others. There have been reports that Disney Plus subscriber growth could be a key metric for determining executive bonuses going forward, which gives a sense of just how much of a priority this is for the House of Mouse. Should Disney take this approach, there are concerns it could drive a wedge between the different departments, with streaming and traditional platforms unwilling to collaborate; CEO Bob Iger will be working hard to keep such internal competition to a minimum.
How Will The Fox Deal Affect The Company?
Disney's purchase of Fox is currently awaiting approval from the last handful of international markets (there have been particular concerns over antitrust laws in Brazil). Assuming it's green-lit, though, Disney will then need to conduct one of the most complicated organizational restructures in memory. It will need to seamlessly integrate new networks and film studios into its structure, creating new reporting lines and a corporate strategy that influences every department. It sounds arcane, but this is the kind of thing that can make or break companies, even juggernauts like Disney; every mistake will continue to have an impact for years to come, perhaps even decades.
Industry analysts are watching with fascination. There's some concern that increased cable and satellite TV distribution could actually offset the benefits of the new streaming service; these legacy assets are becoming less relevant over time. It was generally assumed one of Bob Iger's priorities was retaining some key members of Fox's management team on the TV side, as they include seasoned executives with proven track records. If that is the case, then Iger has already succeeded; in October Disney announced that Peter Rice, Dana Walden, John Landgraf, and Gary E. Knell will be staying around post-acquisition. Naturally, Disney has yet to comment on just how these key figures will fit into the new corporate structure.
Disney has told investors to expect roughly $2 billion in synergies by 2021, but will all of these materialize? Disney is particularly excited about the chance to expand the Avatar franchise, with hopes the "World of Pandora" theme parks could compete with the Warner Bros. "Wizarding World" parks. This has led Iger to describe Avatar as the "crown jewels" of the acquisition, but it's something of a gamble; although the first Avatar film grossed almost $3 billion in the box office, it doesn't seem to have had much of a cultural impact, and as such it's unclear how much appetite there is for James Cameron's sequels.
2019 is a big year for Disney, one that will see an unprecedented amount of change. Should everything go as planned, by the end of the year the Mouse House will have transformed itself for a new digital age, with an enhanced content library and a whole host of opportunities from corporate synergies. But every opportunity carries attendant risks, and a single misstep could cause massive problems down the road. Meanwhile, so many of Disney's strongest franchises - including the MCU and Star Wars - are entering a time of transition, and it remains to be seen how things will play out.