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Disney Plus reveals new Marvel, Star Wars originals -- and a price hike

Raya and the Last Dragon will stream (for $30 extra) the same day it hits theaters, March 5. But streaming dates for Marvel movies like Black Widow remain a mystery.

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Angela Lang/CNET

Disney Plus will raise its US subscription price by $1 in March, bringing it to $8 a month, Disney said Thursday as it unleashed a flood of news about its streaming services at a four-hour event. Disney laid out plans for as many as 20 new Marvel and Star Wars series, promised to let animation fans stream animated fantasy Raya and the Last Dragon the same day it hits theaters (for $30 extra), and revealed a new bundle that packages ad-free Hulu with Disney Plus and ESPN Plus for $19 a month

But the company was silent about its plan for streaming Marvel's Black Widow and other megabudget movies set to come out next year, like Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals

Typically, Disney movies make their way to Disney Plus about five to eight months after they premiere in theaters. But during the coronavirus pandemic, Disney has been accelerating its films' turnaround to streaming. Movies like Frozen II, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Pixar's Onward dropped on Disney Plus months earlier than planned. Then Disney decided its filmed version of Hamilton, Pixar's Soul and many of its coming live-action movies should skip theaters entirely. Even movies like its live-action Mulan and Raya stream on Disney Plus for an extra fee at the same time they're in some theaters.

But Disney didn't provide any guidance about when it would present Marvel movies on Disney Plus, fogginess that suggests the Hollywood giant is still uncertain about aggressively putting its biggest-budget movies online even as the pandemic continues to keep film fans out of cinema seats. 

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Marvel's Black Widow movie is set to be released in theaters May 7.

Marvel Entertainment; screenshot by Joal Ryan/CNET

Last week, in a move that shocked many and outraged some, AT&T's WarnerMedia said all new movies from its Warner Bros. studio -- including Wonder Woman 1984Dune and The Matrix 4 -- would be available to stream on its own streaming service HBO Max the same day that the flicks hit theaters, at no added cost to subscribers. Disney's streaming release strategy for Marvel -- or, rather, the lack thereof -- shows Disney isn't ready to commit to such a dramatic overhaul of how movies are released. 

Disney's loyalty to theatrical-release norms, which before the pandemic kept movies exclusively in cinemas for 75 days or more, has been well rewarded in the past. Disney has racked up more top box-office blockbusters in the last five years than any other studio. 

Still, Disney Plus won't want for new programming. Disney plans to flood Disney Plus and its other streaming services with shows and movies, promising more than 100 new titles every year on Disney Plus and committing to spend $14 billion to $16 billion annually on streaming content across its services within the next four years. (That's about the same size as Netflix's budget now.) And $8 billion to $9 billion of Disney's overall streaming budget will be exclusively for Disney Plus. 

Disney Plus has been the breakout hit of the so-called streaming wars, a period over the last year when seemingly everyone, including Disney, Apple, HBO, NBCUniversal and Discovery, rolled out a streaming service to take on the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Disney Plus has soared to 86.8 million subscribers and outmatched all the rest of the new competitors. On Thursday, the company said it expects to reach 230 million to 260 million members by late 2024. 

By comparison, Netflix, which has been streaming since 2007, expects to surpass 200 million subscribers by the end of this year. 

Star Wars

Star Wars set loose a torrent of news about new shows and movies Thursday. 

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Ahsoka Tano was brought to life by Rosario Dawson this season on The Mandalorian. The character will get its own spinoff series, with Dawson reprising the role, late next year. 

Lucasfilm/Screenshot by Sean Keane/CNET

On Disney Plus specifically, the service will ramp up two spinoffs from its breakout hit The Mandalorian. Ahsoka will bring Rosario Dawson back to play Ahsoka Tano, a fan-favorite character from the animated The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels shows. Dawson's Ahsoka, a Jedi wielding two white lightsabers with ninja-like stealth, first appeared in The Mandalorian's second season. The show will debut on Disney Plus around Christmas of 2021. The other Mandalorian spinoff is called Rangers of the New Republic. Disney provided fewer details about Rangers, but both spinoffs will be set within the timeline of The Mandalorian.

Disney Plus updated fans on its Obi-Wan and Rogue One spinoff series. The Obi-Wan project will bring Ewan McGregor's Jedi face-to-face again with Hayden Christensen's Darth Vader, with events taking place 10 years after the events of Revenge of the Sith. And Andor will be a spy thriller with Diego Luna reprising his Rogue One role of Cassian Andor, set to stream on DIsney Plus in 2022. 

Disney Plus is also developing a Lando series and another show called The Acolyte, a mystery thriller from Leslye Headland, who was behind Russian Doll on Netflix.

In theatrical news, Wonder Woman 1984 director Patty Jenkins will direct a new Star Wars: Rogue Squadron movie. Rogue Squadron will be released in theaters during Christmas 2023 and is set to follow pilots across the Star Wars universe.

Read more: Ahsoka, Obi-Wan, Lando... everything Star Wars announced at the epic Disney Plus event

Marvel

We may not know when Marvel's movies will be arriving on Disney Plus next year, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be alighting on Disney Plus in a rapid-fire series of releases, all in the first half of next year. The first, WandaVision, will land Jan. 15, as was previously announced. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will quickly follow on March 19. And Loki will drop on Disney Plus in May. It's Marvel fans' first return to the MCU in more than a year.

On Thursday, Disney released the first footage from all three of the series for fans to pore over. It also released a trailer for What If?..., an alternate-timeline animated series announced last year. The show stars Jeffery Wright as The Watcher, and a slew of returning MCU stars lend their voices.

For future Marvel original series on Disney Plus, the company provided a raft of new details. Tatiana Maslany will be playing the 6-foot-7 lawyer She-Hulk, and Tim Roth and Mark Ruffalo will be a part of the series. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige said the Moon Knight will feature "incredible Egyptian iconology" and has director Mohamed Diab attached. Ms. Marvel has recently started filming, allowing Disney Plus to release its first early footage. 

And Disney announced yet more Marvel series to come. Secret Invasion will star Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, bringing him back together with Ben Mendelsohn's Talos and focusing on shapeshifting Skrulls on Earth. Ironheart will have Dominique Thorne play the young genius, which Feige confirmed will crossover with the larger MCU films. Armor Wars brings back Don Cheadle as War Machine. From The Guardians of the Galaxy world, Disney Plus will offer a James Gunn-created holiday special in late 2022 ahead of the third ensemble film, and I Am Groot is an animated series of shorts featuring the beloved, baby-incarnation of the character.

Read more: WandaVision, Loki, Secret Invasion, Fantastic Four: All the Marvel news from Disney's event

More on Disney Plus

On Disney Plus itself next year, Disney is switching some of its live-action movies originally intended for the big screen into Disney Plus originals instead, skipping theaters entirely. They include Cruella, which was supposed to hit cinemas in May; Pinocchio, a live-action remake starring Tom Hanks; its Peter Pan reboot; Disenchanted, a sequel to Enchanted that will have Amy Adams reprise her princess role; and Sister Act 3, reviving the comedy franchise about nuns. 

It described more about its series remake of the film Willow, set decades after Ron Howard's 1988 movie. The show, which will be on Disney Plus in 2022, will have Warwick Davis return in the role of namesake sorcerer, with Crazy Rich Asians director Jon Chu helming the pilot. And the company has plans for a Hocus Pocus 2 and a remake of Three Men and a Baby with Zac Efron. Both are slated to be Disney Plus exclusives, with Three Men set to arrive in 2022. 

In animation, Raya and the Last Dragon will be released on March 5 simultaneously in theaters and on Disney Plus, with its so-called Premier Access model. Under Premiere Access, subscribers to Disney Plus must pay an extra $30 fee to unlock the movie to stream, on top of the standard membership fee for the service. Disney said Raya would be available this way "in most Disney Plus markets."

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Raya and the Last Dragon will premiere on Disney Plus to stream the same day as it opens in theaters. 

Disney

Raya is an animated fantasy set in a world called Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together long ago until an evil force spurred the dragons to sacrifice themselves to save humanity. In the events of the movie, 500 years have passed and that same evil has returned. Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, is the lone warrior who must track down the legendary last dragon, a self-deprecating beast named Sisu voiced by Awkwafina. 

Disney Animation also has its first series coming to Disney Plus. Baymax returns to San Fransokyo of Big Hero 6, created by the Oscar-winning director of the feature film. The show focuses on its namesake health care bot and will premiere on Disney Plus in early 2022. 

Disney Plus will also have a series of shorts called Zootopia Plus, which will feature the film's beloved sloth DMV employee, Flash, among other side characters from the movie; it's set for spring 2022. Disney is partnering with African comic-book and entertainment company Kugali to create the animated sci-fi show Iwájú, which roughly translates to The Future. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, the long-form series explores themes of class, innocence and challenging the status quo. Two Disney heroines will get musical series of their own in 2023: A Princess and the Frog reboot series called Tiana in 2023, and a Moana show that follows the young voyager on wayfinding adventures drawn from traditional oral storytelling of the Pacific Islands.

Pixar will contribute a parade of shorts on Disney Plus, but it will also add the animation studio's first long-form series, in 2023, called Win or Lose, which follows a coed middle school softball team in the week leading up to its championship game. Each 20-minute episode is told from the perspective of a different character.

These are only a sliver of the programming announcements Disney made Thursday, reflecting that eye-popping $14 billion to $16 billion annual budget that the company is working up to. Disney's own factsheet on Thursday's programming news lists all the titles that the company discussed. (It's 27 pages long.)

Price increases

Disney Plus has succeeded in attracting new subscribers like gangbusters, and it has that enormous budget looming, so the service is raising prices for the first time since it launched about a year ago. The price of a US subscription is going up $1, bringing to a $8 a month, with the annual plan jumping $10, making it $80 a year; both hikes start March 26. In continental Europe, prices are going up by two euros, to €9 a month, and Disney will be making similar price increases in Disney Plus' other markets. 

"These price increases reflect an increase in the underlying value of the Disney Plus product offering," Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy said Thursday. She added that outside the US, the price increases also reflect that Disney Plus is going to be amped up with content from a new Star general entertainment streaming service that Disney is launching as a section of Disney Plus in February. 

By comparison, Netflix's most popular plan costs $14 a month, after the streaming giant raised its own prices earlier this year. Netflix's cheapest tier is $9, and its premium package -- which unlocks perks like 4K resolution, HDR image quality and the ability to stream on four devices at the same time (benefits that Disney Plus offers standard) -- costs $18 a month. 

Disney also introduced a new tier of its three-part bundle that packages Disney Plus, ESPN Plus and Hulu together. Since launch, Disney has offered all three services for $13 a month, but customers only had the option to watch the ad-supported version of Hulu in the bundle. Now that original bundle is rising in cost by $1, to $14 a month starting March 26, and the company is introducing a higher tier of the bundle that removes the ads from Hulu. Coming in January, the package with ad-free Hulu, Disney Plus and ESPN Plus will cost $6 more than the basic bundle -- equivalent to the cost increase to step up from ad-supported Hulu to ad-free Hulu as stand-alone services. 

Star

Internationally, Disney will launch a new general-entertainment streaming brand called Star. In select places where Disney Plus already exists, it'll be included as part of Disney Plus, and in Latin America, it'll launch as a separate streaming service called Star Plus. 

Overall, the Star brand will have thousands of hours of television and movies from Disney's studios, including Disney Television Studios, FX, 20th Century Studios and 20th Television, plus local programming where available. Star will launch in Europe and several other international markets on Feb. 23 as a new tile on Disney Plus, doubling the catalog available to subscribers. In Europe, the service will be priced at €9 per month or €90 per year, with a similar pricing adjustment in the other markets like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. 

This Disney Plus/Star combo will continue its global rollout in new markets, beginning with Singapore on Feb. 23, followed by Eastern Europe, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea later in 2021. 

But in Latin America, the company will launch Star Plus as a stand-alone streaming service because of an emphasis on the region's live sporting events. Star in Latin America will have local original productions and an array of live sports from ESPN, including "top soccer leagues, grand slam tennis, and more," the company said. Star Plus' stand-alone service will launch in June for about $7.50 per month (or the equivalent in local currencies), or as part of a bundle with Disney Plus for $9 per month (or the local equivalent).

CNET's Mark Serrels, Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Caitlin Petrakovitz contributed to this report. 

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