Disney is mining nostalgia to make Disney+ a success

When you own so many things people love, it makes sense.

Will Lipman Photography for Engadget

When Kevin Mayer, Disney's chairman of Direct-to-Consumer and International business, took the stage at D23 last month, the first thing he said was that the company's goal is to "entertain and inspire audiences of all ages." Mayer pointed to Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and Disney's acquisition of 21st Century Fox as the perfect example of the breadth of content that will be on Disney+, the streaming service that's launching on November 12th in the US and Canada. "Never [has so much of] our content been previously available, whether you're nostalgic for your childhood favorites or simply need Baby Groot," Mayer, who was an instrumental figure in the Disney purchases of Pixar, Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm, said about Disney+.

All Mayer had to do to get people off their seat at the D23 Expo's Disney+ Showcase was tell them that the entire Pixar library would be on the streaming service from day one. And if you ever wanted to know the sheer power held by The Walt Disney Company in the entertainment business, then look no further than when the Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic logos were all side by side shining as the backdrop for Mayer's keynote at the event -- where thousands of Disney's most passionate fans gathered to learn more about Disney+.

At launch, Disney says its streaming service will have over 500 feature films and more than 7,000 show episodes, a number that wouldn't have been possible had the company not gone after Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and, most recently, 21st Century Fox.

But Disney isn't stopping there. In addition to the full Disney movie library, which features classic films like Aladdin, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, being on Disney+, the company has already announced it is working on an Obi-Wan Kenobi series starring Ewan McGregor and a reboot of Lizzie McGuire with the original actor, Hilary Duff. Disney is a nostalgia machine, and it's going to use that to its advantage over rival streaming services, such as Netflix, which has dominated the space over the past few years.

"This is where we, as Disney, have a real advantage. We have these incredible brands. We have these incredible franchises," Michael Paull, president of Disney Streaming Services, told Engadget. "Making programming is hard, but our hand is very good on that." And Paull isn't exaggerating: Seven of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time are from Disney-owned studios.

Naturally, Disney is relying on that know-how and the success that has come with it to build a strategy around Disney+. With Star Wars, for instance, the company is using its beloved franchise to create The Mandalorian, a live-action original series for Disney+ that will be anchoring the streaming service at launch. Disney also made a spin-off of the High School Musical TV show from 2006, dubbed High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which will stream exclusively on Disney+ starting November 12th. Oh, and then there's all 30 seasons of The Simpsons, which will be on Disney+ thanks to Disney's 21st Century Fox acquisition in March of this year.

While there's a clear pattern here, one that shows how Disney is betting on the power of nostalgia to lure customers in, that's not the only way the company plans to make Disney+ appealing. It's quite cheap, too: The streaming service is going to cost $6.99 per month, which will give people access to both old and new content from Disney (including movies like Frozen and Captain Marvel) as well as support for 4K, HDR and four simultaneous streams. And that's all for only $6.99 a month, or $12.99 if you get the bundle with ESPN+ and Hulu (with ads). Netflix's basic streaming plan, for comparison, starts at $12.99 and doesn't include 4K content.


What also helps Disney+ is that it will work on a variety of devices from the start, including iOS, Apple TV, Android, Chromecast, Roku, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Sure, that's to be expected of any streaming service nowadays, but the fact that Disney isn't leaving any major platform out (aside from Amazon's Fire TV) will make it harder for people to ignore. The Disney+ app itself, which we demoed at D23, is fast, elegant and makes it easy to find films and series based on the brands fans love most -- whether that be Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars or Disney Studios itself.

Paull said that they key with Disney+, ultimately, is to make it feel like one seamless package regardless of what you're watching or what device you're watching on. "We want to make sure that the product doesn't get in the way of the content," he said. "We want to delight consumers with the product. But, really, in the end the product is the content." Paull added that "quality over quantity" will give Disney+ an edge over other streaming services, be it with shows or movies that take people back in time or with new series like Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Moon Knight and, of course, Jon Favreau's The Mandalorian.

Todd Spangler, who covers digital media and technology for Variety, said there's nobody in the streaming space that has a more powerful entertainment brand than Disney -- and that should scare its competitors. "[Disney has] this amazing breadth of recognizable, super popular, super successful slate of movies and TV shows that a lot of people love, and [it's] going to price it very attractively," he said. "And it's not just the nostalgia factor. [Disney isn't] resting on [its] laurels and bringing up old library content. There's real excitement about not just delivering access to all the old favorites, but creating new stuff that you can't get anywhere else."

Spangler said he believes Disney has three main targets with Disney+: families, communities who are super fans and a general audience looking for new forms of entertainment, such as cord cutters. "[Disney is] throwing a lot of money at this project, and it's your classic studio production model," he said about the Disney+ programming. "Not everything [it] brings out is going to be a smash hit, but like we've seen with Netflix, not everything needs to be. You can come out with this High School Musical series [on Disney+]... not everybody's going to watch it, but enough people are going to be interested in it and want to subscribe to the service."

The challenge for Disney is to ensure content on Disney+ doesn't become stale, even with all the classic series and films it has at its disposal, and that it can expand the service to more places in a timely manner. Right now, Disney+ is set to only launch in the US, Canada and the Netherlands on November 12th, followed by Australia and New Zealand a week after. Still, there's no word on a UK launch date yet, which has the potential to be a big market.

Apple's new streaming service, Apple TV+, will be available in over 100 coutries on November 1st, while Netflix is basically live everywhere but China. Which is to say, Disney is going to have to move fast if it wants to catch up to its competitors. "[There's] a great lineup of stuff set to come out in the first year, but how is this going to evolve and change in year two and beyond?" Spangler said. "The other real challenge is that [Disney is] trying to go international as quickly as [it] can, so that adds more complexity."

It will be interesting to see how Disney deals with the scale and programming challenges that may arise, and also how the company evolves Disney+ after it arrives later this year. The service hasn't even launched and it's already promising to be an entertainment force. After all, if anyone has a chance to make a successful streaming service, well, that's probably the company that owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, The Simpsons and Toy Story.

Images: Will Lipman Photography for Engadget