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Disney Plus hits 54.5M members but new movies will wait for theaters (for now)

Disney isn't sending any more movies straight to streaming on Disney Plus during coronavirus lockdown -- at least, not yet.

Disney released Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to stream on Disney Plus on Monday, three months earlier than planned. 
Walt Disney Studios

Disney Plus' subscriber base grew to 54.5 million members as of Monday, Disney said Tuesday, just shy of the six-month mark since the streaming video service launched. But even with cinemas shut down around the globe because of the coronavirus pandemic, Disney reiterated its plans to theatrically release its new movies rather than bringing more straight to streaming on Disney Plus

CEO Bob Chepak reiterated Mulan's July 24 date to debut in theaters, the first on the slate, as well as the the planned theatrical release dates for other big-budget movies like Marvel's Black Widow on Nov. 6 and Pixar's Soul on Nov. 20. 

But Chepak hinted Disney could change its tune. 

"We very much believe in the value of the theatrical experience overall to launch blockbuster movies," he said. "But we also realize that, either because of changing and evolving consumer dynamics, or because of certain situations like COVID, we may have to make some changes to that overall strategy, just because theaters aren't open or aren't open to the extent that anybody needs to be financially viable."

He spoke during a call to discuss of Disney's financial performance in the first three months of the year, when effects of the coronavirus cost the company an estimated $1.4 billion in profit. 

He said Disney would evaluate each of its new movies on a case-by-case basis.

As coronavirus containment measures have shuttered cinemas and forced families to entertain themselves at home more than ever, Disney has been tweaking Disney Plus' role, making it a bigger and earlier part of its big-screen films' release cycles. Disney has been accelerating how quickly it streams previously released films, with Frozen 2, Pixar's Onward and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker all hitting the service months early. 

So far, however, only one Disney film will skip theaters and go straight to Disney Plus. Artemis Fowl, a sci-fi fantasy based on a popular series of young-adult books, will stream June 12. 

"All our other tentpole movies have been rescheduled theatrically for later in the year, so we very much believe in the power of that launch platform for our big movies," Chepak said Tuesday. 

The pandemic may also delay the planned international rollout this year of Disney-owned Hulu, too. Hulu grew to 32.1 million paid subscribers in the US in the latest period, up 1.7 million since the end of last year. But Chapek said, as least in the short term, Disney has no plans to invest in Hulu's international expansion while the company overall is under the current level of stress. 

But Disney Plus is now scheduled to launch in Japan in June; in Belgium, Luxembourg, Portugal and the Nordic countries in September; and in Latin America toward the end of the year. 

Disney Plus' 54.5 million members is eye-popping growth for a new service. Netflix, by comparison, has more than 182 million global subscribers. But Disney initially predicted it would take five years for Disney Plus to reach between 60 million and 90 million subscribers. Now Disney Plus is within spitting distance of that range just six months after launching.   

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