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Disney Plus hits 60.5 million subscribers, helped by Hamilton bump

Adding Hulu and ESPN Plus, Disney's streaming services have more than 100 million subscribers combined.

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Despite uncertainty about the release plans for many of Disney Plus' original shows, a second season of its breakout hit The Mandalorian will premiere in October as planned. 

Disney

Disney Plus has grown to 60.5 million subscribers as of Monday, Disney said as it announced fiscal third-quarter results. It's lightning-fast growth that even Disney never predicted. Initially, the company projected its streaming service would reach between 60 million and 90 million subscribers about five years after launch. Instead, within eight months, it's already crossed the low end of that range.

The latest figures, announced Tuesday, also suggest that Hamilton on Disney Plus sparked a wave of new members. Disney was adding members at about a million a month in April, May and June, but then it drew in another 3 million members in just the past five weeks. Hamilton, a filmed capture of the hit Broadway musical with most of the original cast, came out July 3. 

On the back of Disney Plus' rapid growth since launching in November, Disney has crossed 100 million subscribers among its three streaming services: Disney Plus, Hulu and ESPN Plus. 

"The global reach of our full portfolio of direct-to-consumer services now exceeds an astounding 100 million paid subscriptions -- a significant milestone and a reaffirmation of our [direct-to-consumer] strategy, which we view as key to the future growth of our company," CEO Bob Chapek said in a release reporting the figures. As of June 27, Hulu had 35.5 million subscribers in the US, Disney said, and ESPN Plus had 8.5 million. 

By comparison, Netflix, the biggest subscription video service in the world, has more than 192 million global subscribers. 

With the coronavirus pandemic keeping cinemas shuttered and forcing families to entertain themselves at home, Disney has been tweaking Disney Plus' role to make it a bigger and earlier outlet for how it releases its films. On the bright side for movie fans starved of their summer blockbusters, the streaming service has been releasing a string of surprise titles, including movies originally intended for the big screen. And the continued delays to the theatrical releases for Disney's big-budget movies raise questions about whether some of those movies will come to Disney Plus instead. 

The latest surprise release will be the live-action version of Mulan, which Disney said Tuesday will be available to subscribers to stream online through Disney Plus for $30 starting Sept. 4. Mulan, which was supposed to premiere in theaters in March but had been delayed multiple times, will be available on Disney Plus in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a number of countries in Western Europe. It will be released at the same time in places that don't have Disney Plus yet but where theaters are actually open. 

The decision marks an unprecedented approach to releasing a big-budget movie that had been destined to be a blockbuster back when theaters worldwide were open. It's also a stunning change to the rigid windows that usually keep new movies only in theaters for 75 days or more, as well as a surprising shift for how Disney Plus has been pitched to audiences since it launched in November. 

Disney Plus is the company's online hub for streaming almost everything Disney produces, but it was developed primarily as an all-you-can-eat buffet like Netflix, where your subscription unlocks everything on the platform to watch. Mulan will bring a store-like element to Disney Plus that its 60 million subscribers haven't yet encountered.

At first during the pandemic, Disney Plus simply started streaming already released movies months earlier than planned. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker began streaming three months early on the May the Fourth fan day. Before that, Disney released animated hit Frozen 2 three months early as well, and Pixar's Onward landed on Disney Plus just weeks after it premiered in theaters. 

But then Disney started ratcheting up the streaming releases with new movies too, such as Hamilton. 

But for its biggest-budget movies, Disney -- like all other major studios -- was delaying theatrical releases. As theaters remain closed with no wide reopening in sight, the company may be forced to make unconventional decisions to move even some so-called tentpole films to Disney Plus instead. 

But like all studios, the pandemic has shut down Disney's filming, and that's starting to force Disney Plus to delay some of its high-profile original series and throwing the release plans for big-screen pictures into uncertainty. 

Last month, Disney Plus scrapped the planned August release for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the first of its live-action Marvel original series that tie in directly with all the blockbuster movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Disney Plus pulled The Falcon and the Winter Soldier from its August slate, but it hasn't provided any guidance about when the show will premiere instead. The second season of Disney Plus' breakout hit The Mandalorian series is set to premiere on the service in October as planned, though.

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